American-born artist Joséphine Baker became the toast of Paris, then worked as a French spy during World War II, then worked the rest of her life on political causes. Now she is the first Black woman named to France’s Panthéon, an honor given to only 81 people ever.
In his speech at the ceremony, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that France was racially enlightened compared to the US, but Annette Joseph-Gabriel argues this week that French racism took a different form:
In the story that is today told about her life, Baker fled racism and segregation in the United States and found refuge in France, where liberty and equality enabled her rise from rags to riches. In reality, her predominantly White European audience’s colonial desire to consume all things exotic and “primitive” was simply another manifestation of the racism that Baker had supposedly left behind. Contrary to Macron’s speech casting France and the United States as opposites on matters of race, Baker’s experience shows that France was neither more nor less racist than the United States — just differently so. As another Black French thinker, the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, argued, American racism was simply a continuation of European imperialism.
Those who want to learn more would do well to watch Joséphine Baker: The First Black Superstar:
While her dancing made her a legend, it was her political awakening that took her to the Panthéon. Another fine documentary from last year, Joséphine Baker: Story of an Awakening, examined her remarkable life and contribution to French life:
How did a poor little black girl from Missouri become the Queen of Paris, before joining the French Resistance and finally creating her dream family “The Rainbow Tribe”, adopting twelve children from four corners of the world? This is the fabulous story of the first black superstar, Josephine Baker. Rare and unprecedented archives will resolve the puzzle of Josephine’s fascinating fifty-year-long “headline-grabbing career”. Josephine Baker made three trips “back home” (1936, 1948, 1951), each time she experienced everyday racism, despite her worldwide fame. Each tragic experience triggered her life-changing decisions. Gradually the battle for Civil Rights became her own, up until 1963, when she was the only woman who spoke on stage besides Martin Luther King during the famous March in Washington. From then on, she uses her fame to serve her political utopia until the end of her life. This is the journey of a superstar’s awakening from the “banana dancer” to a humanist fighter. But can fame change the world?