American-born French entertainer, French Resistance agent and civil rights activist Josephine Baker will make history and receive one of the highest honors France can offer, 46 years after her death.
The New York Times’ Constant Méheut has reported that Baker will become the first Black woman to be entombed in the Panthéon in Paris — also known as the country’s “tomb of heroes.” The burial is said to be a “symbolic” and highly important move for France, which, like the United States, is torn with ongoing racial tensions.
According to Méheut, “the honor will make Baker — who became a French citizen in 1937 and died in Paris in 1975 — the first Black woman and one of the few foreign-born figures to be interred there.”
Currently, the Panthéon is the final resting place for some of France’s most beloved figures, including novelist Victor Hugo, physicist Marie Curie and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
“The decision to transfer Baker’s remains, which are buried in Monaco, comes after a petition calling for the move, started by the writer Laurent Kupferman, caught the attention of President Emmanuel Macron,” Méheut said. “The petition has garnered nearly 40,000 signatures over the past two years.”
In his appeal to move Baker’s body to the historic site, Kupferman said it needed to be done because “Josephine Baker embodies the Republic of possibilities.”
“How could a woman who came from a discriminated and very poor background achieve her destiny and become a world star?” he said. “That was possible in France at a time when it was not in the United States.”
“Entombment at the Panthéon can be approved only by a president, and Baker’s reinterment is highly symbolic, coming as France has been convulsed by heated culture wars over its model of social integration, and as gender and race issues have fractured the country around new political front lines,” Méheut reported.
Baker’s funeral at the Panthéon is currently scheduled for Nov. 30, 2021.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis in 1906, Baker began her legendary career working as a dancer in New York City in the 1920s. Despite her popularity as a performer in the city, Baker continually felt the pressure of racism and discrimination and ultimately decided to move to France to escape it and for a fresh start.
In an interview with The Guardian in 1974, just shortly before her death, Baker said, “I just couldn’t stand America, and I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris.”
In France, surrounded by other Black American artists who had also fled the U.S. — including writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin — Baker said she found a “freedom” she never experienced within her home country.
“Baker quickly rose to fame and became a fixture in shows at Les Folies Bergères, a famous music hall, dominating France’s cabarets with her sense of humor, her frantic dancing and her iconic songs, like ‘J’ai Deux Amours,’ or ‘I Have Two Loves,’” Méheut reported.
Working in Paris, she also became a civil rights activist both in and out of her work. In her performance, including the famous “banana dance,” Baker played with racist stereotypes and imagery, reclaiming them while deriding them as offensive.
“It is this French colonial imaginary world which she will capture and which she will play with, obviously with many nods and much distance, because Josephine Baker is not fooled,” Pap Ndiaye, a historian with a focus on Black studies, told France Culture radio in 2019.
Later in her career, Baker returned to the U.S. frequently, becoming a passionate civil rights advocate.
“She wrote about racial equality, refused to perform in segregated venues and, in 1963, joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak onstage during the March on Washington,” Méheut reported.
In addition to allowing the French another opportunity to celebrate Baker’s beliefs and art, Méheut reported that the reinterment would allow people around the world to be reintroduced to other notable aspects of her life as well.
“During World War II, she served as an ambulance driver and an intelligence agent, earning her medals of honor,” he said. “In the 1950s, Baker adopted a dozen orphans of various nationalities, races and religions, with whom she lived in a chateau in southwestern France.”