Josephine Baker: First American to Enter France’s Panthéon

The Black expatriate singer, dancer, resistance hero, and civil rights warrior exits stage left into history.

By , an independent journalist based in New York.
Singer Josephine Baker performs.
Singer Josephine Baker performs.
Singer Josephine Baker performs during her show for the Franco-American gala at the Palace of Versailles in Versailles, France, on Nov. 27, 1973. AFP via Getty Images

As dusk falls in the French capital on Nov. 30, traffic will stand still on the Left Bank of Paris as flickering images of a bygone era dance along the facade of one of the city’s most venerable monuments. It will mark the ceremony honoring Josephine Baker as the first Black woman and first American to enter the Panthéon, a shrine to some of France’s most honored dead.

The images projected onto this neoclassical building will provide a stark contrast with the motto above the entrance: “To great men, a grateful nation.” Baker, the only entertainer to enter the Panthéon, arrived in Paris as a teenager in 1925 after growing up in segregated St. Louis and dancing in chorus lines on Broadway. She took the stages of Paris by storm, chiefly by dancing in notoriously scanty costumes and with clever publicity stunts like walking down the Champs-Élysées with Chiquita, her diamond-collared pet cheetah. Baker never stopped reinventing herself. As an adult, she served as a clandestine agent of the French Resistance, advocated for civil rights in her homeland, and adopted a self-styled “rainbow tribe” that included a dozen children. She never regretted renouncing her U.S. citizenship and later compared France to a “fairyland.”

Baker would likely be surprised by the Panthéon honor but not by the hoopla surrounding it. She was, after all, a show woman. Cultural institutions, public broadcasters, and even a floating swimming pool along the Seine that is named for Baker will be hosting public art exhibitions and jazz concerts. Plans are underway to add her name to the Gaîté (Paris Metro) station, near a public square named in her honor and the Bobino theater, where Baker gave her final performance days before her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975.

As dusk falls in the French capital on Nov. 30, traffic will stand still on the Left Bank of Paris as flickering images of a bygone era dance along the facade of one of the city’s most venerable monuments. It will mark the ceremony honoring Josephine Baker as the first Black woman and first American to enter the Panthéon, a shrine to some of France’s most honored dead.

The images projected onto this neoclassical building will provide a stark contrast with the motto above the entrance: “To great men, a grateful nation.” Baker, the only entertainer to enter the Panthéon, arrived in Paris as a teenager in 1925 after growing up in segregated St. Louis and dancing in chorus lines on Broadway. She took the stages of Paris by storm, chiefly by dancing in notoriously scanty costumes and with clever publicity stunts like walking down the Champs-Élysées with Chiquita, her diamond-collared pet cheetah. Baker never stopped reinventing herself. As an adult, she served as a clandestine agent of the French Resistance, advocated for civil rights in her homeland, and adopted a self-styled “rainbow tribe” that included a dozen children. She never regretted renouncing her U.S. citizenship and later compared France to a “fairyland.”

Baker would likely be surprised by the Panthéon honor but not by the hoopla surrounding it. She was, after all, a show woman. Cultural institutions, public broadcasters, and even a floating swimming pool along the Seine that is named for Baker will be hosting public art exhibitions and jazz concerts. Plans are underway to add her name to the Gaîté (Paris Metro) station, near a public square named in her honor and the Bobino theater, where Baker gave her final performance days before her death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975.

France seems eager to contrast the personal liberation and success Baker found in France a century ago with the grim reality of the southern segregation she grew up in. Relations between the two countries have been blowing hot and cold for years, especially after the United States, Britain, and Australia signed the so-called AUKUS submarine deal that cost France tens of billions of dollars and national pride. 

Baker’s singular life has long served as a Rorschach test of attitudes on race and gender. In the 1920s, her racy dance numbers in La Revue Nègre drew enthusiastic spectators but also condemnation from both the right and the left. Morality leagues criticized the explicit performances while anti-racist advocates lamented the colonial stereotypes. “People said I was a demon. Maybe I was a bit,” she said in a 1968 interview on a French-Canadian talk show. “It was because they didn’t understand me well. Let’s say that. I prefer that to hate. I don’t like that word: ‘hate.’ It’s too bad to have hatred for something or for someone, don’t you think?”

Yet today, voices from across the French political spectrum have praised her entry into the Panthéon. Even Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing National Rally party, commended the decision in a recent tweet.

Only 80 people have preceded Baker into the Panthéon since 1790. Very few were foreign born, and only a handful have been women. Marie Curie, who received Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry, was the first to enter on her own merits. She was followed by two Resistance fighters from World War II and Simone Veil, a French lawmaker and Holocaust survivor. A similar number of Black men have been so honored, including Alexandre Dumas, the novelist who unleashed The Three Musketeers.

Contrary to some earlier reporting, Baker’s remains will not be reinterred in the Panthéon. At the request of her family, she will remain interred with her husband in Monaco, where Prince Albert II rendered homage at her gravesite a day before her symbolic entry into the Panthéon. So it will be a cenotaph, a monument to someone who is buried elsewhere, carried ceremoniously into the monument by members of the French Air and Space Force. The cenotaph will contain the soil of four lands that were important to the star: her hometown of St. Louis, Paris, Monaco, and the Château des Milandes, her home in the south of France.

French President Emmanuel Macron alone determines who will enjoy the honor. The proposal, which garnered nearly 38,000 signatures in her favor, has been under consideration for nearly two years. 

“Josephine Baker enters the Panthéon because she is a woman who was born Black and American in a closed society, who became the embodiment of the values of the Enlightenment of the French Republic,” a presidential advisor said.

For the French political class and a large portion of the public, the revolutionary cry of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” is still alive. Macron’s advisors are eager to contrast Baker’s liberation in Paris with her time in America. But the French political establishment may be more concerned about what it views as the importation of destabilizing U.S. academic disciplines involving race, gender, and post-colonial studies.

Officially, the French state is colorblind. The government is prohibited from collecting statistics about race, ethnicity, or religion. When school administrators ban the cross or the hijab in public schools, they invoke France’s famous laïcité, the state’s rigorous secularism that calls for the state’s strict neutrality on religious matters.

Now, some French writers and academics have begun challenging the universalism and secularism that form the bedrock of the country’s public education system as well as the citizen’s relationship with the state. Days before Baker’s entry into the Panthéon, journalist Rokhaya Diallo, the daughter of Muslim Senegalese and Gambian immigrants to France, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that Baker’s inspiring story shouldn’t be used to camouflage France’s racist colonial past.

It’s a lot to hang on the shoulders of a music hall singer whose heyday was a century ago. But Baker may be one of the few 20th-century celebrities who can shoulder the load.

She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis in 1906, the oldest child of a Black single mother. As an 11-year-old girl, she witnessed Black residents fleeing the East St. Louis race riot from the Illinois city of the same name across the Mississippi River. Married twice by the time she was 15, the only visible mark her childhood left on her future career was the surname of her second husband.

Baker left him to join the chorus line of Shuffle Along, the first all-Black hit Broadway show, which premiered in 1921. Then she jumped at the chance to join a musical review in Paris. “From her arrival in France in 1925, she played with stereotypes,” French historian Pap Ndiaye said in a 2019 interview about Baker on France Culture radio.

Ndiaye, who heads France’s National Museum of the History of Immigration, has firsthand knowledge of the country’s colonial past as the son of a Senegalese father and a French mother. He said Baker immediately caught onto the idea that stereotypes were somewhat different in France. While performing her famously provocative dance with the banana skirt, he said she was portraying “la belle Antillaise,” the beautiful Caribbean woman with the spritely personality. 

“Rather than playing the Black American, it was the imagery of colonial France that she would seize upon,” he said. “And that she evidently played with many winks of the eye and a lot of distance because Josephine Baker was no dupe.”

Her songbook from this era emphasized her tenets of liberty and equality. A recording of Baker singing her signature tune, “Two Loves” (“J’ai Deux Amours”), will ring out as the procession arrives at the Panthéon. It’s a popular song about her love of Manhattan and Paris. The ceremony won’t include her more dramatic song, “If I Were White” (“Si J’étais Blanche”), with lyrics that conclude with the rhetorical question “do I have to be white to please you better?” 

After teaching herself how to sing and speak French, Baker renounced her U.S. citizenship at her wedding to a French businessman on Nov. 30, 1937. To complete the transformation, she restyled the spelling of her first name as Joséphine. The day of her entry into the Panthéon was chosen to mark the anniversary of her becoming a French citizen.

When hostilities broke out in Europe in 1939, Baker felt a duty to support her adopted country. Ahead of this week’s ceremony, France’s Ministry of Armed Forces published a dossier with images and documents of her contributions to the fight against fascism. She took advantage of her celebrity status to gather information for Free French counter-espionage efforts while touring for performances in Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. In 1944, Baker joined the Free French Air Forces.

 In the 1950s and early 1960s, she created a diverse family by adopting a dozen children from around the world and began raising them in Château des Milandes in the Dordogne region of southwest France. Baker eventually lost the chateau, and her fourth marriage ended in divorce, with some of the children going to live with their adoptive father. Baker finished raising the younger children in a home provided by her friend Princess Grace of Monaco.

It was one of Baker’s final grand gestures that particularly inspired Macron’s choice. In 1963, she spoke at the historic March on Washington, telling a quarter of a million Americans that she had “walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee.” There she was, standing beside Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, wearing her Free French uniform adorned with five military medals, including the Resistance Medal, the French War Cross, and the Legion of Honor

“It shows the importance that it had in her life and in her choices,” the French presidential advisor said.

J. Alex Tarquinio is an independent journalist based in New York and the past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Twitter: @alextarquinio

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