Dalila Ali Rajah
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Bi Icon Josephine Baker to Receive One of France's Highest Honors

Josephine Baker

On Tuesday, Josephine Baker — entertainer, activist for Black civil rights, nemesis of Nazis, and out and proud bisexual — becomes the first Black woman honored with a place in the Panthéon, where France enshrines its greatest heroes.

President Emmanuel Macron announced Baker’s entry into the Panthéon in August in response to a petition, and the ceremony takes place at dusk today in Paris. The monument, located on the Left Bank of the Seine, is officially a mausoleum, but Baker’s remains will stay in Monaco at the request of her family, while a cenotaph (an empty tomb) with soil from the U.S., France, and Monaco, the three most important countries in her life, will be installed at the Panthéon.

“She embodies, before anything, women’s freedom,” Laurent Kupferman, the writer and activist who spearheaded the petition for Baker’s honor, told the Associated Press. But she was a tireless fighter for the freedom of all.

“The times are probably more conducive to having Josephine Baker’s fights resonate: the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, her part in the French Resistance,” Kupferman said. “The Panthéon is where you enter not because you’re famous but because of what you bring to the civic mind of the nation.”

In the Panthéon, she will join the likes of scientist Marie Curie, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writers Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, and many more. She will be just the sixth woman honored at the shrine and the first American-born person, in addition to being the first woman of color.

Baker was born to a single mother in St. Louis in 1906. Impoverished, she went to work as a domestic servant while still a child, and she often suffered sexual abuse by the white men who employed her. She had a couple of early marriages but found her calling as a dancer in vaudeville, in nightclubs, and on Broadway, and she enjoyed love affairs with other female performers. Later, her lovers included the French author Colette and the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Baker went to Paris to perform in the mid-1920s and quickly became a major star with her sensual dances, sultry singing, and barely-there costumes. There was an element of racial stereotyping in the audience response, as white people had a preconceived notion of Black women as wildly sexual. But she did encounter less racism in Europe than she did in the U.S., and she has been credited with subverting stereotypes.

In the late 1930s, she married Jean Lion, a white Jewish Frenchman, and although the marriage did not last long, she helped him and his relatives flee the Nazis. By then a French citizen, she was a valued member of the anti-Nazi underground during World War II, smuggling documents and assisting in espionage.

After the war, she married Jo Bouillon, another white man — a musician who was gay. While each had relationships with other people, they lived grandly at a château in southern France and adopted 12 children from around the world — children Baker called her “rainbow tribe.” Postwar, she also became more involved in antiracism work, and in 1963 she spoke at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.

“She was so vociferous in her denunciations of American racism at various international forums that the FBI compiled a dossier on her activities and the CIA kept tabs on her,” Lester Q. Strong wrote in The Gay and Lesbian Review in 2006.

Baker continued performing throughout her life, but she tended to spend more than she earned, and her château went into foreclosure in 1968. She often depended on the generosity of friends, such as Prince Rainier and Princess Grace (the former film star Grace Kelly) of Monaco. Baker gave her last performance in April 1975 in Paris, then suffered a cerebral hemorrhage the next day and died two days later. She was buried in Monaco at Princess Grace’s request.

There have been several campaigns to have her honored in the Panthéon, but Kupferman’s was the one that succeeded, thanks partly to friends in high places — French First Lady Brigitte Macron met with Kupferman and told him her husband was a longtime fan of Baker’s. Kupferman, for his part, admits to being rather obsessed with the entertainer. “I must say I’m in love with her,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not real, but I admire her.”

The honor comes amid controversy over France’s racial politics. The nation officially does not recognize race, but critics say it also doesn’t recognize the racism that is nonetheless present. “In 2021, even if it’s morally condemned, racism still exists and still has power over people’s lives,” political scientist Françoise Vergès told the AP.

Racism and xenophobia are increasingly surfacing in France as the nation prepares for a presidential election next year; a far-right TV commentator, Éric Zemmour, is likely to be one of the candidates. But this makes it the right time to commemorate Baker, according to an editorial in The Guardian.

“Zemmour’s odious promotion of racial exclusivism has influenced the mainstream French right and is shaping the election campaign to a disturbing degree,” the editorial notes. Admitting Baker to the Panthéon, it continues, “gestures towards a more generous, inclusive country” and is “an appropriate way to honor a courageous and inspiring French citizen.”

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