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Joséphine Baker buried in the French Pantheon


PARIS – Missouri-born Josephine Baker, beloved of France, whose life spanned French music hall fame and American civil rights activism, became the first black woman to rest in the Pantheon, the sacred tomb of the nation’s heroes.

On a gray afternoon, 46 years after her death in Paris, Republican Guard soldiers carried a flag-draped coffin down the red carpet-covered stairs of the Pantheon, where Ms Baker joined 75 men and five women, including the writer Émile Zola, the scientist Marie Curie, and the hero of the resistance Jean Moulin.

The colonnaded facade of the Pantheon, with its engraved dedication to the “great men” of France, was lit with a remarkable collage of images ranging from Mrs. Baker’s Savage Nights performing at the Folies Bergères in 1926 to her appearance in front of the Lincoln Memorial next to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, as he spoke the words, “I have a dream.”

Mrs. Baker’s reburial under the dome that rises above Paris marked the culmination of an extraordinary journey that began in the misery and racial segregation of Saint-Louis; brought her to fame as the provocative dance star of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ of 1920s Paris; and took her into a passionate political engagement for the cause of the liberation of Europe from the threat of fascism and American racial equality.

At a time of tensions in France over race and gender issues, and friction with the United States, President Emmanuel Macron has chosen to honor Ms. Baker as a woman with “all forms of courage and audacity ”and“ an American who found refuge in Paris and captured what it is to be French.

Five months away from a controversial presidential election, he described Ms Baker as a symbol of unity – what he called “the beauty of collective destiny”. He presented her as a successful immigrant and among the multitudes that one life can contain.

“France is Josephine,” said Macron, standing in front of the coffin. From right to left on the political spectrum, at least for a day, everyone seemed to agree.

The fiery cadences of “I Have Two Loves” or “I Have Two Loves”, perhaps Mrs. Baker’s most famous song, filled the frescoed mausoleum during the ceremony. Her admission that Ms. Baker’s heart immediately turned to “Paris and my country” – “Paris and my country” – seemed to capture her unusual odyssey.

At the time the song was recorded in 1930, Ms. Baker was still a United States citizen. She became French in 1937, 12 years after arriving in France. She is the first person of American origin to be buried in the Pantheon, a distinction that was marked by the lighting on Monday of the Empire State Building in the red, white and blue of the French flag.

“She had a dual affection for both countries,” Ms. Baker’s daughter Marianne Bouillon-Baker said at an American reception on the eve of the entombment.

After the racial violence she witnessed as a black child and the repeated humiliations of segregation and discrimination, Ms. Baker, née Freda Joséphine McDonald, said she found in France a freedom and dignity of which she was ” eternally grateful ”.

Other black American artists, including James Baldwin and Richard Wright, have had similar experiences, so France is particularly sensitive to American criticism that its avowed colorblind social model masks widespread discrimination.

Mr Macron said Ms Baker’s life summed up “a universal struggle”. Her objective was not “to define herself as Black before defining herself as American or French”. Her guiding idea was not “the irreducibility of the black cause”, but to be “a free and worthy citizen, completely”, he added.

His words seemed to reflect his government’s rejection of what he often describes as a conflicting American identity policy that threatens to undermine French universalism. Mr Macron’s characterization of Ms Baker’s beliefs was in line with his government’s staunch defense of universalism. Yet her presence on the Mall with Dr. King and her repeated expressions of outrage at the treatment of blacks in the United States make it clear that the specific black struggle for equality was very important to her.

Mrs Baker became the object of a savage Parisian fascination when, at only 20 years old, she appeared in 1926 at the theater of the Folies Bergères wearing little more than a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas during a show called “La revue nègre”.

The cabaret played the colonial obsessions of white men with black women and their bodies in a France then fascinated by black and African arts. Clowning and exaggerating, twirling and waving her arms, Ms Baker managed to use and subvert stereotypes, ridiculing them with what Mr Macron called his use of ‘burlesque’.

His fame spread far and wide; writers from Jean Cocteau to Ernest Hemingway fell under his influence. But when the artistic madness of the 1920s gave way to the fascist military madness of the 1930s, Ms. Baker demonstrated that she did not take her success or the gifts of her adopted country for granted. She joined the resistance.

It is in her Free France uniform, adorned with her various French military and civilian distinctions, that she appears with Dr. King at the March on Washington. “I entered the palaces of kings and queens and the houses of presidents,” she said. “But I couldn’t walk into a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee, and it drove me crazy.”

She urged the crowd to fight. “You can’t go wrong,” she said. “The world is behind you. “

Gabriel Attal, the government spokesperson, told Europe 1 radio that Ms. Baker was a “magnificent symbol that embodies the love for France which can also come from people who were not born here”.

His statement seemed to point the finger at immigration, which remains an explosive subject in France – the main theme of the election, with purchasing power in times of economic difficulty. If Ms. Baker embraced France, many immigrants, especially from North Africa, found it much more difficult because of the prejudices they encountered.

His reburial came the same day Eric Zemmour, a far-right polemicist and TV star with fiercely anti-immigrant views, declared his candidacy for the presidency. Polls suggest he has significant support.

Of Ms Baker, Mr Macron said: “She was not defending a certain skin color. She had a certain idea of ​​humanity and fought for everyone’s freedom. Its cause was universalism, the unity of humanity, the equality of all before the identity of each person.

nytimes Gt

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