In August, it was announced that the American-born French dancer and singer, Joséphine Baker, would be recognised for her contribution to both the entertainment industry and the French Resistance. She will be inducted in November to the Panthéon, a French mausoleum that commemorates over eighty individuals’ contributions to French society – the first black woman to be honoured as a national hero in this way, following the likes of Marie Curie and Victor Hugo.
Joséphine’s journey to prominence was by no means straightforward, and she overcame many setbacks – not least racial discrimination. Her early life in St Louis, Missouri, was characterised by poverty and abuse, and she experienced homelessness as a teenager. After a brief career on Broadway in the 1920s, she moved to Paris, starring in an all-black revue at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which was the debut of her ‘danse sauvage’ (a ‘wild dance’ in comparison to the more conventional Charleston) and her subsequent identity as the ‘Bronze Venus’. In addition to dancing, she starred in numerous films, for example, Zouzou (1934), where she made her screen debut as a singer, and Fausse Alerte (1940).
At the same time as pursuing her artistic career (although her acting was curtailed by the onset of World War Two), Joséphine was a great asset to France by virtue of her contribution to the French Resistance, often using her celebrity status to her advantage. For example, she would often be able to conceal secret messages from officials who were preoccupied with asking her for an autograph, and she would attend embassy parties to gain information about German troop movements, which she recorded on musical scores. She also donated much of her income from concerts to the French Army. Her involvement in the Second World War was remarkable: not only did she serve as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force, but she was also a member of the Free French forces, working with troops in Africa and the Middle East as well as aiding the Red Cross. She was awarded a Croix de Guerre, a Resistance Medal, a Commemorative Medal for voluntary service during the war, and a Knight of the Legion of Honour medal for her military service. After the war, Joséphine turned her attention to her estate in southwestern France, Le Château des Milandes (also used as a hotspot for the Resistance). From 1950, she began to grow her family, adopting twelve babies of different nationalities, whom she called her ‘rainbow tribe.' Her son, Brian Bouillon Baker, who is now 64 years old, commented: “Our family was not just a utopia. Our mother wanted us to be different and united. And on that, she absolutely succeeded, because to this day, we are just as connected to each other.” Although Joséphine identified as a French citizen and felt very much at home in France, she did not neglect her American identity. She performed in the US various times, for example during a tour in 1951. Unfortunately, she often faced and encountered racial discrimination during her visits; during this tour, she was refused entry to hotels and restaurants, and she made a charge of racism against the owner of the Stork Club in New York City for refusing to serve her. Her charge was not treated justly at all, as she lost her US citizenship rights for a decade and was added to the FBI watchlist instead of the owner being prosecuted. In order to make a stand against the racism she experienced, she refused to perform in venues with racially segregated audiences, even in the South. She was a passionate activist in the civil rights movement of the 60s and participated in demonstrations, including the March on Washington in 1963 alongside Martin Luther King Jr. She was the only black woman to give a speech there, dressed in her French military uniform with her medals on display. Campaigns for Joséphine to be inducted into the Pantheon have been ongoing for a long time, with the writer Régis Debray proposing the idea in a Le Monde op-ed piece in 2013. In addition, a petition to honour her at the Panthéon, which was created by the essayist Laurent Kupferman and launched on May 8, gathered almost 38,000 signatures. Emmanuel Macron, after meeting with a group of advocates including Kupferman and Joséphine’s son, Bouillon Baker, announced on July 21 that she would be finally inducted into the mausoleum. Her incredible military service, acts for the Resistance, and contribution to the entertainment industry are being rightly honoured, and as Kupferman states, “She should be inducted because of the acts of courage she performed for the country.” By Tasneem