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French President Emmanuel Macron has said «C’est oui!» (“It’s a yes!) to Josephine Baker being honored at the Panthéon in Paris reports Le Parisien. Baker was known in America as a St Louis-born entertainer and civil rights activist. In France, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work as a French Resistance fighter in World War II.

Josephine Baker will be honored at the Panthéon in Paris on November 30. Photo: Studio Harcourt

Le Parisien reported Macon’s decision, saying that she will be “the first Black woman to make her entry among the ‘great men’ in the history of France.”

Baker adopted a family she called her “Rainbow Tribe” — 13 children from different countries and cultures — who lived together at Chateau des Milandes in France. Jean-Claude Baker, one of her adopted sons, opened Chez Josephine on W42nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen in 1986 as a tribute to his mother, filling it with her memorabilia — paintings, sculptures, posters, and more. Jean-Claude died in January 2015, but the restaurant remains a celebration of Baker.

Baker with 10 of her children on board President John F Kennedy during a trip to Amsterdam in 1964. Photo: Hugo van Gelderen

It was another of her “Rainbow Tribe” who drove the campaign to recognize Baker’s service in France with a Panthéon burial. Brian Bouillon-Baker worked with novelist Pascal Bruckner, singer Laurent Voulzy, entrepreneur Jennifer Guesdon and essayist Laurent Kupferman to secure his mother a special place in French history.

The campaign to honor Baker started with a petition on Change.org. The French President’s decision is seen as a symbolic move as racial tensions rise in Paris and France.

Although Baker’s children support her being granted Panthéon honours, they have declined to move her mortal remains from the family’s burial site in Monaco.

“Our mother is resting next to our father and one of their sons, also close to [Princess] Grace of Monaco, whom she loved dearly and who helped her when she was ruined at the end of her life. So it is out of the question to move her,” Brian Bouillon-Baker told France 24.

It is not mandatory for an honoree’s remains to be transferred to the Panthéon and instead the Baker family has suggested that a simple cenotaph be erected in her memory. A ceremony will take place on November 30.

Baker will join French heroes such as Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Marie Curie at the necropolis. Baker died in 1975 and was buried in her Free French uniform with her wartime decorations and medals.

Chez Josephine is a popular Hell’s Kitchen restaurant and tribute to Josephine Baker. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Those who have dined at Chez Josephine are familiar with the glamorous stage image of Josephine Baker.  In addition to her French war work, she was a civil rights leader in the United States. In 1963, she was the only woman to address the crowd of 250,000 people at The March on Washington. She shared the platform from which Martin Luther King gave his most famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

On that day, she spoke passionately against discrimination and shared her painful memories of segregation in the USA. She chose to “scream back” at her oppressors: “When you scream, friends, I know you will be heard.”

Josephine Baker, March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Photographer Unknown

Baker was also seen as a change agent for LGBTQ+ rights. Before Hell’s Kitchen was New York’s favorite gayborhood; before Pride and marches and gay marriage; Josephine Baker was flying the flag for diversity.

Married at least four times (the first when she was just 13), the actress, dancer, and activist also had multiple relationships with women — among them artist Frida Kahlo. She was beloved by the drag world, including Coccinelle, the first transsexual to be recognized as a woman in France.

And while her sexuality is still a topic of debate, Jean-Claude, her son and biographer, once insisted: “She was what today you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. Forget that I am her son, I am also a historian. You have to put her back into the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, chorus girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading men if he liked girls. But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accommodate black people. So they would all stay together, and the girls would develop lady lover friendships.”

Josephine Baker photographed in 1940 during the Second World War as France was occupied. Photo: Studio Harcourt

Born June 3 1906 in St Louis, by the age of 13 Baker was living on the streets, scavenging for food, and making a living by dancing on street corners and at the Old Chauffeur’s Club. It was here she met her first husband. The marriage lasted less than a year.

At 15, she headed to New York, and performed at the Plantation Club and on Broadway in shows including Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies, before sailing for Paris, where she found fame for her erotic dancing (her skirt made from a string of artificial bananas is the stuff of legend). Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

France became her home, to escape from discrimination in the United States. “I became famous first in France in the twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris,” she told The Guardian in an interview at the age of 70. “America was evil then.”

During World War II, now a French citizen, she worked for the Resistance, gathering information at parties and carrying sensitive information with her as she traveled around Europe. Baker’s Panthéon honor is the first to be awarded to a Black woman.

Josephine Baker with her son, Jean-Claude, in Paris in 1971. Photographer Unknown.

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2 Comments

  1. Merci for this brilliant writing about a brilliant American. We honor beloved Miss Baker every time we lift a glass to her memory at Chez Josephine.

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