Legendary singer, dancer and activist Josephine Baker entered the Panthéon - the resting place of France’s “national heroes” - on Nov. 30, with French president Emmanuel Macron recalling her life on stage, her wartime activities, her fight for civil rights, and her "love" of her adopted nation.
“And while, at the end of your career, adapting the words of your greatest success, you proclaimed ‘My country is Paris’, each of us tonight is whispering this refrain, like a hymn to love: ‘My France is Josephine’," the president added.
Baker, who died in 1975 and is buried in Monaco, is only the sixth woman to enter the Panthéon and the first woman of African descent. She joins other luminaries such as Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, and Émile Zola as a recipient of this honour.
For the ceremony, a symbolic coffin draped in the French flag was borne by military pallbearers up the red-carpeted road to the Panthéon, as the Eiffel Tower (lit up in a special way for the occasion) shone in the background. Organisers said the coffin contained soil from the different places where Baker had lived, but that her actual remains will stay in Monaco, in accordance with her family’s wishes.
Images from Baker’s life were projected onto the façade of the building, giving spectators the story of her journey from St. Louis, Missouri - where she was born in 1906 - to becoming one of the biggest stars of her day in Europe. Her famous song about Paris, “J’ai Deux Amours”, to which Macron referred, served as a note throughout the evening.
She had arrived in Paris in 1925, fleeing U.S. segregation, and gone on to become a leading performer, renowned for her dance in a “banana skirt” as well as for her acting, singing and other ventures.
“Josephine Baker forged her own legend, imposed her freedom … by her insouciance, her awareness, her cheerful courage,” Macron said. “The American, who took refuge in Paris, became the incarnation of the French spirit, and the symbol of an era.”
He also lauded her wartime activities, detailing all that Baker had done for France during World War II.
Macron also described how Baker protected Jewish people at her château in the Dordogne area of southern France, and how her home was used to transmit radio messages.
He outlined her civil rights activities as well, recalling that - dressed in her French Resistance uniform - Baker flew from France to address the 250,000 participants in the 1963 march on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
At the march, Baker told her audience about not being able to order a cup of coffee in the United States because of her race, despite her success in Europe, and she detailed how American authorities had tried to smear her as a Communist when she spoke out against inequality.
Macron said Baker didn’t focus on skin colour, but that she “militated” for the freedom of everyone.
“Her cause was universalism … the equality of all, before the identity of each,” he declared, adding that in Washington, she was “more French than ever”.
Critics accused the government of “political opportunism”, among other things, and an opinion piece in The Washington Post by a French journalist said: “France should not use this moment to congratulate itself on its treatment of people of color”.
While acknowledging this history, other commentators felt that the “pantheonization” of Baker still sent a powerful message, and some stressed that this kind of representation is important for society.
“We. Are. Here,” declared a Paris-based African American businesswoman with a smile, as she stood outside the Panthéon last Tuesday. - SWAN
Photos (top to bottom): An image of Josephine Baker inside the Panthéon; President Emmanuel Macron speaking at the ceremony; a billboard in Paris with pictures of Josephine Baker; the Panthéon, with images of Josephine Baker. Photos by AM/SWAN.