Singer-entertainer Josephine Baker poses in Paris in the 1920s.—AFP
Singer-entertainer Josephine Baker poses in Paris in the 1920s.—AFP

PARIS: Josephine Baker, the famed French-American dancer, singer and actress who fought in the French resistance during WWII and later battled racism, will become the first Black woman to enter France’s Pantheon mausoleum.

The remains of American-born Baker will be laid to rest in the hallowed Parisian monument on November 30, an aide to President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday, confirming a report in the Le Parisien newspaper.

“Pantheonisation is built over a long period of time,” the aide said.

Baker will become just the sixth woman to join the around 80 great national figures of French history in the Pantheon after Simone Veil, a former French minister who survived the Holocaust and fought for abortion rights, entered in 2018.

Jennifer Guesdon, part of a group campaigning for Baker’s induction that includes one of the dancer’s sons, said they met Macron on July 21.

Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman to join the around 80 great figures of French history at the monument

“When the president said yes, (it was a) great joy,” she said. “It’s a yes!” Macron said after the July meeting, Le Parisien reported.

The Baker family have been requesting her induction since 2013, with a petition gathering about 38,000 signatures.

“She was an artist, the first Black international star, a muse of the cubists, a resistance fighter during WWII in the French army, active alongside Martin Luther King in the civil rights fight,” the petition says.

The campaign has “made people discover the undertakings of Josephine Baker, who was only known to some as an international star, a great artist”, Guesdon said.

But “she belongs in the Pantheon because she was a resistance fighter,” she added.

From Missouri to Paris

Baker, who was born in Missouri in 1906 and buried in Monaco in 1975, came from a poor background and was married twice by the age of 15. She then ran away from home to join a vaudeville troupe.

She quickly caught the eye of a producer, who sent her to Paris where at the age of 19 she became the star of the hugely popular “La Revue Negre”, which helped popularise jazz and African-American culture in France.

She became the highest-paid performer in the Paris music hall scene during the roaring twenties.

On November 30, 1937, she married Jean Lion, allowing her to get French nationality. She would go on to divorce him and remarry twice more, adopting 12 children along the way.

In 1939, she joined the French resistance movement, passing on information written on her musical scores.

She later went on a mission to Morocco and toured the resistance movement, being appointed a lieutenant in the French air force’s female auxiliary corps.

She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a Resistance medal, and was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur.

“I only had one thing in mind... to help France,” she told Ina archives.

Another member of the campaign group, Pascal Bruckner, said Baker “is a symbol of a France that is not racist, contrary to what some media groups say”.

“Josephine Baker is a true anti-racist, a true anti-fascist,” Bruckner said.

Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot tweeted that Baker was “a valiant and generous woman”, adding that “we owe her this honour”.

The Pantheon is a memorial complex for the legendary national figures in France’s history from the worlds of politics, culture and science.

Only the president can decide on moving personalities to the former church, whose grand columns and domed roof were inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2021

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