Josephine Baker, a Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy, and civil rights activist, is the first Black woman to be inducted into France’s Pantheon, the ultimate resting place of France’s most respected celebrities.
A casket containing soils from the United States, France, and Monaco all areas where Baker left her imprint will be interred within the domed Pantheon monument overlooking Paris’ Left Bank on Tuesday. Her corpse will be kept in Monaco at her family’s wish. In response to a petition, French President Emmanuel Macron agreed on her induction into the Pantheon. The action is intended to send a message against prejudice and promote U.S.-French ties, in addition to recognizing a remarkable character in French history.
Laurent Kupferman, the petition’s author, told The Associated Press, “She epitomizes, above everything, women’s independence.”
Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906. She came to France to pursue a work opportunity at the age of 19, having previously divorced twice, had relationships with men and women, and begun a performance career.
“She arrives in France in 1925 as an independent woman, taking control of her own destiny in a nation where she doesn’t even understand the language,” Kupferman explained. She was an instant hit on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees, where she appeared topless and wore a famous banana belt. Her play, which embodied discriminatory preconceptions about African women during colonial times, drew both outrage and praise.
“She was that sort of fantasy: not the Black body of an American lady, but the African body of an African woman,” Ophélie Lachaux, a spokesman for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees, told the Associated Press. “That’s why they asked Josephine to do a ‘tribal,”savage,’ ‘African’-inspired dance.”