Josephine Baker becomes first black woman interred in France’s tomb of heroes
By Roger Cohen
Josephine Baker, born in Missouri and beloved of France, whose life spanned French music-hall stardom and American civil rights activism, on Tuesday became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Panthéon, the nation’s hallowed tomb of heroes.
On a gray afternoon, 46 years after her death in Paris, soldiers from the Republican Guard bore a flag-draped coffin up the red-carpeted stairs of the Panthéon, where Baker joined 75 men and five women, including the author Émile Zola, the scientist Marie Curie, and the resistance hero Jean Moulin.
The coffin carried soil from the United States, France and Monaco — places that shaped Baker’s life. Her body, at the request of the family, will stay in Monaco.
The colonnaded facade of the Panthéon, with its engraved dedication to the “great men” of France, was lit with a remarkable collage of images ranging from Baker’s wild nights performing at the Folies Bergères in 1926 to her appearance in front of the Lincoln Memorial beside Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 28, 1963, as he spoke the words, “I have a dream.”
The ceremony beneath the cupola that rises above Paris marked the culmination of an extraordinary journey that began in the misery and racial segregation of St. Louis; led her to fame as the provocative dance star of “les années folles,” or crazy years, of 1920s Paris; and took her on to passionate political engagement in the cause of Europe’s freedom from the threat of fascism and American racial equality.
At a time of tension in France over issues of race and gender, and of friction with the United States, President Emmanuel Macron chose to honor Baker as a woman with “every form of courage and audacity,” and “an American who found refuge in Paris and captured what it is to be French.”
Five months from a divisive presidential election, he portrayed Baker as a symbol of unity — what he called “the beauty of collective destiny.” He held her up as an example of immigrant success, and of the multitudes a single life may contain.
“France is Josephine,” Macron declared, standing before the coffin. From the right to the left of the political spectrum, at least for a day, everyone seemed to agree.
The longing cadences of “J’ai Deux Amours,” or “I Have Two Loves,” perhaps Baker’s most famous song, filled the frescoed mausoleum during the ceremony. Its avowal that Baker’s heart went out at once to “Paris et mon pays” — “Paris and my country” — seemed to capture her unusual odyssey.
At the time the song was recorded in 1930, Baker was still an American citizen. She became French in 1937, 12 years after her arrival in France. She is the first person of American origin to be entombed in the Panthéon, a distinction that was marked by the lighting Monday of the Empire State Building in the red, white and blue of the French flag.
“She had a double affection for the two countries,” Baker’s daughter, Marianne Bouillon-Baker, said at an American reception on the eve of the entombment.
After the racial violence she witnessed as a Black American child and the repeated humiliations of segregation and discrimination, Baker, who was born Freda Josephine McDonald, said she found a freedom and dignity in France for which she was “eternally grateful.”
Other Black American artists, including James Baldwin and Richard Wright, had similar experiences, with the result that France is particularly sensitive to American criticism that its avowedly colorblind social model masks widespread discrimination.
Macron said that Baker’s life had encapsulated “a universal struggle.” Her goal was not “to define herself as Black before defining herself American or French.” Her guiding idea was not the “irreducibility of the Black cause,” but to be “a free and dignified citizen, completely,” he added.
His words appeared to reflect his government’s rejection of what it often portrays as divisive American identity politics that threatens to undermine French universalism. Macron’s characterization of Baker’s beliefs was consistent with his government’s fierce defense of universalism. Still, her presence on the Mall with King and her repeated expressions of outrage at the treatment of Blacks in the United States make clear that the specific Black fight for equality was very important to her.
Baker became an object of wild Parisian fascination when, just 20, she appeared in 1926 at the Folies Bergères theater dressed in little more than a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas at a show called “The Negro Review.”
The cabaret played off white male colonial obsessions with Black women and their bodies in a France then fascinated by Black and African arts. Clowning and exaggerating, gyrating and waving her arms, Baker contrived to use and subvert the stereotypes, ridiculing them through what Macron called her use of the “burlesque.”
Her fame extended far and wide; writers from Jean Cocteau to Ernest Hemingway fell under her thrall. But when artistic folly of the 1920s yielded to the Fascist military folly of the 1930s, Baker demonstrated that she did not take her success, or the gifts of her adoptive country, for granted. She joined the resistance.
It was in her Free French uniform, hung with her various French military and civilian honors, that she appeared with King at the March on Washington. “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” she said. “But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
She exhorted the crowd to fight on. “You can’t go wrong,” she said. “The world is behind you.”
Gabriel Attal, the government spokesman, told Europe 1 radio that Baker was a “magnificent symbol who incarnates the love for France that can also come from people who are not born here.”
His statement seemed pointed at immigration, which remains an explosive subject in France — the main theme of the election, along with purchasing power at a time of economic difficulty. If Baker embraced France, many immigrants, particularly from North Africa, have found that much harder because of the prejudice they have encountered.
The Pantheon ceremony came on the same day as Éric Zemmour, a hard-right polemicist and TV star with fierce anti-immigrant views, declared his candidacy for the presidency. Polls suggest he has significant support.
Of Baker, Macron said: “She did not defend a certain skin color. She had a certain idea of humankind and fought for the freedom of everyone. Her cause was universalism, the unity of humanity, the equality of everyone ahead of the identity of each single person.”