Josephine Baker: Justice Denied and Delayed. Now History Awaits
The Panthéon in Paris is the mausoleum where France has memorialized its great figures in science, literature, politics and the arts. You will not be surprised to learn that Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, is interred here. Marie Curie, the recipient of two Nobel Prizes in science, is one of only five women to have been so honored.
In its long history, no Blacks and no Americans had ever been enshrined in this neo-classical building on Mount Sainte-Geneviève. On November 30, 2021, that changed, and history itself underwent a shift when, in a ceremony presided over by French President Macron, American-born artist, Resistance fighter and civil rights activist Josephine Baker was officially entered into the Panthéon.
Josephine Baker was so far ahead of her time that her biography reads like fiction, so the best thing to do is just tell it straight. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, began dancing when she was young, was married and divorced twice in her teens and went to Paris to join la Revue nègre at nineteen. She became a sensation at the Folies Bergère for her erotic banana dance, started a singing career in the thirties and made the song “J’ai deux amours” (I Have Two Loves) forever her own. She began acting in films with La Sirène des tropiques in 1927, starred in Zouzou in 1934 and Princesse Tam-Tam in 1935.
Baker came back to the States in 1936 but her appearance on Broadway was panned, so she returned to France, married and took citizenship in 1937. When WWII broke out she joined the Free French Forces, sheltered Resistance fighters and refugees, culled information from Nazi officers at diplomatic events and smuggled classified documents to General de Gaulle in London. After the Liberation she returned to Paris and sold her jewelry to care for the poor and those devastated by the Nazi occupation. For her service to France, de Gaulle accorded her the Croix de Guerre with the Rosette de la Résistance and made her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the country’s highest award.
A normal human would have rested on her laurels, be we’re in a different realm here. After the war Baker returned to performing, and in the 1950s began adopting children of multiple nationalities and ethnicities. The group she dubbed “the Rainbow Tribe” eventually grew to twelve, and she raised them at her estate, the Château des Milandes in southwest France.
Baker returned to the States in the early fifties, was a rousing success on tour, took very public positions against racism and was the NAACP’s Woman of the Year in 1951. She criticized powerful columnist Walter Winchell for turning a blind eye to segregation, he responded by accusing her of being a Communist sympathizer and the government kicked her out of the country. In the early sixties she was able to come back to the US where she supported civil rights causes, and in 1963 she joined Dr. King in the March on Washington as an official speaker.
Baker had, however, grown deeply in debt and lost her property at Milandes. She was soon championed and supported by another American artist and ex-patriate, Princess Grace of Monaco. She continued to give charity performances, and in 1975 Josephine Baker celebrated fifty years as an entertainer with a sold out show before a celebrity-studded audience at the Bobino in Paris. She died after a performance that April, and was buried in Monaco with full military honors and 20,000 mourners in attendance.
And that’s just a bare outline of a remarkable life. But let’s be clear, there are no saints in this story. For one thing, Baker dreamed of making les Milandes a ‘Village du monde’, a ‘Capital of Universal Fraternity’ and multiracial harmony. She also sought, however, to monetize the Rainbow Tribe as a tourist attraction. Often on tour, she neglected the children and her husband Jo Bouillon left in exasperation. The Tribe was scattered to the winds when she went bankrupt due to mismanagement and lavish spending.
Baker was also criticized for bending to the degrading racial stereotypes common in the early twentieth century. Her contemporary in 1920's Paris, the Martiniquan intellectual Jane Nardal, judged that Baker’s ‘danse sauvage’ performances “encourage whites to continue on their path of ignorance and insult,” and that she, Baker, was a “prime example of this submission to white fantasy.” In her response, Josephine Baker asserted that adopting a stance of “cultural authenticity” could risk the influence that fame had brought her, and she felt she had to “embrace this artifice until the nightmare of violence and poverty that I have lived is no longer a possibility in our world.”
Although conditions for Blacks in 1920’s France were better than they were in the US, we can cross the French off the list of saints as well. France was a participant in the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 that saw the European powers carve up Africa, and the French carried out their dehumanizing ‘Civilizing Mission’ in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Antilles well into the 1950s. France, like the other imperial powers, regularly hosted ‘Colonial Expositions’ to show off the wealth of their empire. At the 1931 Exposition in Paris groups of indigenous peoples were exhibited in human zoos designed to celebrate the conquest and domination of inferior ‘savages’ by ‘superior’ Europeans.
The current French administration is not on that list either. Although the gesture to bring Josephine Baker into the Panthéon is laudable, it is not without self-interest. President Macron is up for re-election in April 2022, and is trying to appeal to the anti-immigrant right while making overtures toward minority populations. Historically, immigrants from the colonies and their descendants have been and remain marginalized, and state ideology of the ‘universal citizen’ allows disparities based on significant aspects of identity and history to be passed over.
There are some discordant notes in this account that will not be resolved simply by wishing them away. Why don’t we take a walk up Mount Sainte-Geneviève to see if we can clear the air? We’ll start up the hill on rue Mouffetard and stroll through the lively markets on this street. Soon we’ll make a left on rue Blainville, continue on rue de l’Estrapade then go right on the rue d’Ulm. From here we’ll enter the Place du Panthéon, go left around the front and enter the building. It’s imposing, isn’t it, with its columns and vaults, but then it was meant to be when King Louis XV ordered Soufflot to design it in 1755 to honor Geneviève.
Now let’s step back outside to see if we can get some perspective beyond the ambiguities in this story and situate the Panthéon in the iconography of Paris. Down the hill to our right are Notre Dame and the Seine, and if we turn left our gaze will sweep through an arc that includes the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. If we continue to turn and then face southwest we’ll be looking toward the United States of America where, almost a century ago, a young Black woman had the audacity to travel 4,400 miles from Missouri into the unknown to seek a freer life.
And now that immigrant from St. Louis will take her place in the symbolic geography of Paris. Even if the power of Josephine Baker’s example succeeds in reconciling the contradictions of this story, and I believe it does, she might become just another historical figure in the Panthéon. We might doubt, though, that she would have been content with being a memory. As always, she would have insisted on being of the present, and her presence in la Ville lumière — the City of Light — just may bring its own light into the shadows still cast by race, religion and poverty, and may well illuminate futures as yet unknown from St. Louis to Paris and beyond.
“France made me what I am. I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything.” Josephine to Jacques Abtey, head of French counter-military intelligence.
References and Resources: The Official Ceremony — Video of the complete Panthéon ceremony on November 30, 2021
In English >The Criterion Collection of her films
>Terri Simone Francis on Lit Hub, an excerpt from her book on JB’s films and images of Black Women
>Kristen D. Burton of the National WWII Museum on JB’s Resistance activity; the source of the quote that ends this article
>Women in the Panthéon, from the BBC
>The critique by Jane Nardal, with JB’s response
>The Rainbow Tribe, from Der Spiegel
En français >Ses films chez The Criterion Collection
>Le communiqué de la présidence de la République française au sujet de Joséphine Baker au Panthéon
>Qui sont les femmes au Panthéon? de Violaine Cherrier
>Page pédagogique de Radio France internationale sur JB, avec exercices d’écoute et questions
>Le Journal des femmes, sur la bisexualité de JB
>FranceInfo sur Paulette Nardal, la soeur de Jane, la première femme noire inscrite à la Sorbonne, l’une des architectes de la Négritude
>Les Kanak et le zoo humain, de Marie Bazin
The YouTube file is massive as you can imagine, the following are relatively short and self-contained
>clip from Princesse Tam-Tam, courtesy of Film Struck
>J’ai deux amours, from 1968, she’s in beautiful voice
>see also, Matthew Guterl at the Chicago Humanities Festival reading from his book on JB
All images are Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons