How Joséphine Baker received the rarest of French distinctions


Laurent Kupferman has been obsessed with Josephine Baker for nearly a decade, reading all he could about a woman whose life was so unlikely, so American and yet so French.

She was a black artist who escaped American racism in the 1920s by moving to Paris, the one place where she felt free to make history by pushing the boundaries of art and advocacy. The singer and dancer even helped France fight the Nazis.

This year, Kupferman began to think his country – and the rest of the world – needed Baker as much as he did.

“Racism is very high. Anti-Semitism is very high. The hatred is very high, ”said Kupferman, essayist and public relations professional for an autism advocacy group in Paris. “And she was fighting it. And she did it with her art.

Kupferman in April relaunched an effort to win Baker, who died in 1975, the rarest of French honors – consecration at the Pantheon in Paris. On Tuesday, Baker will become the 81st person to be buried or enshrined in the 18th century monument dedicated to honoring the French ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity.

Unlike some media, she will not be reburied in the Pantheon but rather commemorated by a cenotaph containing soil from various places where she lived. Baker will be just the sixth woman, the first woman of color and the first US-born person to join Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Voltaire.

Joséphine Baker aboard the French liner Liberté on her arrival in New York Harbor on October 3, 1950.

(Associated press)

Kupferman wasn’t the first person to offer this honor for Baker, but his business quickly succeeded where others had failed. As he advocated for Baker’s healing power, he would learn that he had a surprising and powerful support, who had the authority to honor Baker and had grown up listening with his grandmother to the singer’s records from chirping jazz.

The effort also landed at a time when France, like the United States, is grappling with issues of racial identity and how it has recognized the contributions of influential people of color. The Black Lives Matter movement and the 2016 death of a black man in custody in a Paris suburb have sparked protests here, along with growing questions about whether the officially color-blind philosophy of universalism obscures the reality of racism and religious discrimination.

“France’s recognition of darkness always seems to try to get the message across that it is not the United States,” said Annette Joseph-Gabriel, author of “Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire “.

“The reality is complex,” she says. “It is at the same time the reality of racial discrimination, the legacy of French colonialism but also the promise of French universalism.”

“I have two loves”

The idea of ​​the Pantheon germinated in 2013 when Kupferman came across a chronicle of Le Monde, the French newspaper, pleading for the consecration of Baker.

The 55-year-old had grown up with Baker as many French people do, humming the song “J’ai Deux Amours”, her famous tribute to her “two loves” – Paris and Manhattan.

But as he read biographies and researched old movie clips, he began to think about its potential to rekindle “the light” of idealism that spawned France and the United States, the two great republics. born in the 18th century.

“I have to say I’m in love with her,” he said. “It’s not real, but I admire it.”

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He learned that Baker, born in 1906, grew up fatherless in St. Louis and became a professional dancer as a teenager, eventually moving to New York City, where she sang and danced in Harlem theaters and at the famous Manhattan Plantation Club.

Baker jumped at the chance to sail to Europe to take part in a Parisian cabaret show, a move she later described as her best chance to escape the dangers of being black in America. She “ran away from home”, Baker told an audience in St. Louis in 1952. “I ran away from [here], and then I fled the United States of America, because of this terror of discrimination, this horrible beast that paralyzes soul and body.

When Baker arrived at the Paris train station in 1925, a white man helped her get off the train and smiled at her. According to Kuperferman, she said: “It was the first time that I felt like I was being treated like a person and not like a color.”

She became a French celebrity who danced in daring cabarets, inspiring Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and other artists who made Paris a symbol of culture and freedom after WWI. freedom.

Josephine Baker poses in a glamorous dress holding a transparent hat box.

Josephine Baker in an undated photo.

(AFP / Getty Images)

“She was Madonna before Madonna,” said Brian Scott Bagley, an American dancer who moved to Paris 14 years ago to choreograph a show on Baker and has since become a great collector of Baker-related items. He added: “The Beyonces and Rihannas and everybody” all owe him a debt.

Baker married a white Jew as fascism spread across Europe in the late 1930s and, after their separation, helped smuggle him and his family out of the country to escape the Holocaust. . She becomes a French citizen, joins the Resistance, charms the Nazis and steals their secrets to win medals and the admiration of the French.

Like many personalities of his time, Baker left a legacy that was both nuanced and complex. She performed the “banana dance” and the “wild dance”, wearing feathers on her body, and descended the Champs-Élysées with a companion cheetah to promote her shows, which depicted her as a sex product, primitive. and jungle exotic – reinforcing many ugly stereotypes of the time.

She also broke sexual taboos by having relationships with women, and she attacked the political order by performing in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

She adopted a dozen children from all over the world – a “rainbow tribe” – live in a utopian village that she built around her castle. Then, when her money ran out and she was forced to sell the castle at auction, she lived in a villa in Monaco at the invitation of Princess Grace, the former movie star who had become a friend. Baker spent her last years in Monaco and was buried there.

Although she fled America, it was never far from her thoughts, and she often returned to her homeland to fight American segregation laws, and she called off appearances at places reserved for women. Whites. She spoke alongside Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington, one of only two women to address the crowd that day.

“I entered the palaces of kings and queens and the houses of presidents,” she said. “And a lot more. But I couldn’t walk into a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee, and it drove me crazy.”

“Like in a dream”

A year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world was full of gloom, Kupferman contacted one of Baker’s sons and said he wanted to revive a online petition he had started in 2019 to bring Baker to the Pantheon. At that time, there were a handful of others on his team, including a prominent French academic and, later, a singer-songwriter named Laurent Voulzy.

They convinced a radio station, France Musique, to interview them on the proposal. A few days after the interview aired, the station aired a day of Baker’s music.

Media attention grew up and the signatures amounted to nearly 40,000.

Within a month, a surprise arrived: an adviser to President Emmanuel Macron invited the group to a meeting at the Elysee Palace. As they finished, Brigitte Macron, the first lady of France, burst into the room to ask how things were going.

The men stood up to greet her.

She apologized that her husband was in Brussels, while explaining that he grew up listening to Baker’s music with his grandmother.

“He knows your mother’s songs better than I do,” she told Brian Bouillon-Baker, a 65-year-old actor who is Baker’s seventh son and is the spokesperson for the family.

While visiting the palace, the first lady confided that a decision had already been taken by Macron, the ultimate authority in the matter: Baker would join the Pantheon.

“We were like in a dream,” remembers Bouillon-Baker.

Kupferman was excited but worried about getting ahead of himself.

“It was 98%, but not 100%,” he said.

Brigitte Macron added, however, that they must keep it a secret until they have the opportunity to meet President Macron and he can make the announcement himself.

The meeting with the president took place in July, and Kupferman and the others explained their case with details about Baker’s life and how she embodied the ideals of French universalism, a country she described. in 1952 as enjoying “true freedom, democracy, equality and brotherhood.” . ”

Towards the end of the hour-long meeting, Macron winked assertively at Bouillion-Baker and told him, the son recalls, “Your mother will be in the Pantheon for all the services she has. returned to France, but not only to France. ”

In recognition of Baker’s global influence, her cenotaph at the Pantheon will contain land from Paris, Monaco, Saint-Louis and the Dordogne region in southwestern France, where she lived much of her life. His consecration, announced by Macron in August, will not be the first time that it will be honored by a president either. In 1963, as she joined thousands of people for the March on Washington, she told the crowd that she had just received an invitation to meet President Kennedy at the White House.

“I am very honored,” she said. “But I have to tell you that a woman of color – or, as you say here in America, a black woman – doesn’t go. It’s a woman. It’s Josephine Baker.


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