Joséphine Baker (finally) inducted into the Pantheon
Joséphine Baker will enter the Pantheon on November 30, a burial place dedicated to the great men and women of French history. She will only be the fifth woman and the first black woman to be honored alongside 72 men. Baker’s family requested that her body remain in the Monaco Marine Cemetery, where she was buried in her military uniform and with the medals she received for her role in the Resistance.
It would be impossible to capture such a rich life in just a few sentences.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker went on to become one of the first internationally renowned artists of the 1930s. For many, Baker was the epitome of jazz. At the age of 13, she joined The Jones Family Band, a street performance group. At 15, she participated in the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville Show. She then moved to New York and starred in the musical Mix along. Then came the 1920s and with them the Harlem Renaissance, which saw an explosion of creative energy within the African-American artistic community. Musicals and nightclubs like the Cotton Club showcased black talent that was unparalleled in white America.
Baker internationalized this movement by helping to export it across the Atlantic.
In Paris, she became the highest paid showgirl of the time, leading a troupe of 25 artists, the famous “Revue nègre”, which performed at the Folies Bergères and the Théâtre des Champs Élysées. On September 20, 1926, Baker recorded his first 78 rpm with Odéon. It was then that the French-speaking public discovered the greatest jazz standards.
Even today, African-American artists pay homage to Baker. For example, Beyoncé wore a banana skirt during her 2006 performance at the Fashion Rocks and Rihanna wore a see-through dress reminiscent of Baker at the 2014 Fashion Awards.
Baker is also the exaltation of “diversity”.
Not the theoretical diversity with which we fill the speeches, but a concrete, living diversity, which traces its path of life. This diversity meant that Baker had an atypical human experience during the 20th century, a time marked by racism and prejudice. In 1953, after a decade of thought and planning, Baker began to start a family adopting children from all continents of the world: Southeast Asia, North and West Africa, and Latin America. She raised them on an educational farm in southwestern France. She felt it was the family of the future and proudly called it her “rainbow tribe”.
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No one had ever seen a black woman adopt a white child before. No one had seen a black woman raising 12 children in a castle to become “soldiers of love” either. The world reported that Baker was “the mother of a family of all colors” and described her as “an anti-racial activist”. The children were “brought up as brothers”, although each “kept the language, dress, customs and religions of his country”.
Baker saw his family as a small UN, rich in linguistic, religious, racial and national diversity. She told reporters: “I will make every effort to ensure that each shows the utmost respect for the opinions and beliefs of the other. I will prove that human beings can respect each other if given the opportunity.
Honoring Baker is one way of celebrating the “Resistance”. A fierce and constant resistance, anytime and anywhere. Baker was ahead of his time in embracing what we now call intersectionality – a recognition that there is a wide range of struggles based on race, gender, etc. During World War II, she joined the French Resistance.
She gathered information on troop movements from several embassies and sent it to England, while using her star status as a reason to justify her travels. Baker sheltered resistance fighters in the Dordogne, in his Château des Milandes. A few weeks before the Normandy landings, she joined the Air Force and became a second lieutenant.
The civil rights activist also participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She was a friend of Martin Luther King and was invited to give a speech whose simple and direct words still resonate today: “I have entered the palaces of kings and queens and the houses of presidents. And much more. But I couldn’t walk into a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee, and it drove me crazy. And when I get mad, you know I open my big mouth. And then be careful, because when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear her all over the world.