US-born dancer, singer, actress and civil rights activist Josephine Baker will on Tuesday become the first black woman to enter the mausoleum of one of France’s iconic historical figures, nearly half a century after her death.
Baker will be the sixth woman to honor “great men” – and, of late, great women – of the French Republic at the secular temple, which sits on a hill in Paris’s Left Bank.
She will also be the first entertainer to be immortalized alongside the likes of Victor Hugo, mile Zola and Marie Curie.
The “Pantheonization” of the world’s first black female superstar ends years of publicity by Baker’s family and fans to honor her with a rare posthumous honor.
President Emmanuel Macron accepted the request in August to recognize the fact that Baker’s “entire life was devoted to the twin quest for freedom and justice”, his office said last week.
Baker is buried in Monaco, where his body will remain.
During Tuesday’s ceremony a coffin in which she lived was a handful of earth from four places – the American city of St. Louis where she was born; Paris, his “second love”; Château de Millendes where she lived in south-west France; and Monaco – will be placed in the tomb reserved for him in the crypt of the Pantheon.
The coffin will be carried into the building by members of the French Air Force, in memory of his role in the French Resistance during World War II.
Macron would give speeches and some of Baker’s relatives would read short texts by the leading artist.
Baker’s name would soon be added to the name of the Goethe Metro station next to the Bobino Theater in southern Paris, where she last appeared on stage in 1975, a few days before her death.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 into extreme poverty in Missouri, Baker dropped out of school at the age of 13.
After two failed marriages—she took the name Baker from her second husband—she managed to position herself in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921.
Like many black American artists of the time, she moved to France to escape racial segregation back home.
The woman nicknamed “Black Venus” took Paris by storm with her exuberant dance performances that captured the energy of the Jazz Age.
The world’s first black superstar enters the Pantheon of France
One of the defining moments of her career came when she danced in the Follies Bergre Cabaret Hall to Charleston wearing a skirt made only of a string of pearls and rubber bananas, in a sensational dispatch of colonial fantasies about black women.
‘France made me’
The performance marked the beginning of a long love affair between France and the free-spirited style icon who took French nationality in 1937.
At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the resistance against Nazi Germany, becoming a second lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps of the French Air Force.
She also becomes a spy for General Charles de Gaulle, the wartime exiled leader of France, to obtain information about Italian leader Benito Mussolini and send reports to London hidden in his music sheets in invisible ink.
“France made me who I am,” she later said. “The people of Paris have given me everything… I am ready to give my life to them.”
She also waged a fight against discrimination, adopting 12 children of various ethnic backgrounds and forming a “rainbow tribe” in her chateau in the Dordogne region.
He died on April 12, 1975, at the age of 68, from a brain haemorrhage, days after celebrating his half-century on the stage of a final smash-hit cabaret show in Paris.
She is the second woman Macron has entered the Pantheon, after former minister Simone Weil, who survived the Holocaust to fight for abortion rights and European unity.
In a gesture of universal affection, in which Baker is still held in France, the decision to honor him received no public criticism, with far-right commentators denouncing generally anti-racist gestures.
(France 24 with AFP)