Forty-six years after her death in 1975, Joséphine Baker returns to full light this Tuesday, November 30, entering the Pantheon to join the great French figures thanks to her “incredible” life as a music hall artist, resistance fighter and anti-racist activist. Woman, black, performing artist and born abroad, Joséphine Baker marked the whole world during her lifetime.
“I am back in Paris”. This famous song will sound at 5.30 p.m. in front of the grandiose neoclassical building of the Pantheon. There, Josephine Baker will enter, during a solemn ceremony. Forty-six years after her death in 1975, she joined the great French figures there thanks to her “incredible” life as a music hall artist, resistance fighter and anti-racist activist.
Woman, black, stage artist and born abroad, Joséphine Baker will be only the sixth woman – out of 80 famous characters – to enter the Pantheon after Simone Veil in 2018. “It will be memorable” with “joy and” excitement, “hopes Brian Bouillon-Baker, one of the 12 children adopted by Josephine Baker, 11 of whom are still alive.
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Dancer, singer, mixed race born in the United States in poverty and segregation, star of the “Revue Nègre” in Paris in the interwar period, resistant to Nazism, militant against racism: here are four things to know about Josephine Baker.
A disadvantaged childhood
Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906 in Saint Louis (Missouri, center) to a black Native American and a father of Spanish origin, growing up in poverty and segregation. Placed as a servant, she stopped school to get married at 13, then joined a troupe of street dancers and in 1921 married Willie Baker, whose name she would keep despite their separation. Having left to try her luck in New York, she had difficulty integrating two troupes on Broadway and then joined Paris with Sidney Bechet.
Colonial icon and fantasy
Joséphine Baker joined Paris at 19 to try her luck. On October 2, 1925, she became the star of the “Revue Nègre” at the Champs-Elysées theater and reluctantly agreed to appear topless. His “wild dance”, a strange Charleston performed in a savannah setting, leaves the audience speechless. In 1927, at the Folies Bergères, Josephine Baker pushes the game even further with the colonial fantasies of the time: she performs wearing a simple belt of bananas and accompanied by a panther. The first song she performed in 1930 at the Casino de Paris, “I have two loves, my country and Paris”, consecrates her as a diva.
“If I want to become a star, I must be scandalous,” she explains. “It is France which made me what I am, I will keep it an eternal gratitude”, also affirms the one who said she was delighted to have “become the darling of the Parisians”.
Medalist of the Resistance
Having become French in 1937 by marriage, the “Black Venus” refused in 1940 to sing in front of the Germans in occupied Paris after having secretly offered her services to French counter-espionage. Throughout the war, she provided intelligence to Free France and performed in front of the Allied troops, which earned her in 1946 the Medal of the Resistance and then in 1957, the Legion of Honor as a civilian as well as the Croix de Guerre. with fins.
Joséphine Baker takes part in the fight against racism in France as in her native America. With her last husband, the conductor Jo Bouillon, married in 1947, she adopts twelve children of different cultures and origins, coming from all over the world, her “rainbow tribe” in order in particular to prove that ” there is only one human race “.
In 1963, during the march for civil rights led in Washington by Martin Luther King, the “happiest day of his life”, according to her, the artist spoke in the uniform of the French army, with his decorations.
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A pantheonized woman
“I have two loves, Paris and my country”, his most famous song, will be played by the Air Force Band when the coffin arrives at the Pantheon. The remains of Joséphine Baker will not be in the coffin, since her family has decided to let her rest in the marine cemetery of Monaco, alongside her last husband and one of her children, not far from Princess Grace who had supported her in the last years of her life. It is therefore a cenotaph (tomb not containing the body) which will be installed in vault 13 of the crypt, where the writer Maurice Genevoix is already located, who entered the Pantheon last year.
Symbolically, this cenotaph was filled with handles of the four lands which “were dear to Joséphine Baker”: her hometown of Saint-Louis, Paris where she knew glory, the castle of Milandes (Dordogne) where she installed her tribe “arc -en-ciel “, and Monaco where she ended her life. Five months before the presidential election, the Elysee ensures that we should not see a political message in this pantheonization. “There is really a very broad consensus” and “not a voice was raised” to challenge it, notes an adviser. However, the ceremony should give Emmanuel Macron the opportunity to celebrate the values he intends to put forward in the campaign. “Joséphine Baker is the exemplary story” of a personality who “shows will and determination to build her own emancipation”, sums up one of her advisers.