Josephine Baker to receive rare honor at France’s Pantheon

By Melanie Eversley

Black News & Views

Late cabaret dancer, activist and humanitarian Josephine Baker will become the first Black person to be honored at Paris’s Pantheon, a 231-year-old former-church-turned-monument to French legends, heroes and heroines.

President Emmanuel Macron announced the honor involving Baker on Aug. 22. The ceremony that takes place Tuesday will place Baker figuratively alongside philosopher Voltaire, cancer pioneer Marie Curie and novelist Emile Zola, who are buried at the Pantheon. While Baker’s body will remain interred in Monaco, a coffin carrying soil from the United States, France and Monaco — countries important to her life — will be buried at the Pantheon Tuesday. Baker’s family requested that her body not be removed.

Late performer and activist Josephine Baker, who died in France in 1975, will be honored at Paris’s Pantheon on Nov. 30th. While her family has requested that her body remain at a Monaco cemetery, soil from places she lived in the United States and Europe will be interred at the Pantheon, the French government has announced. Photo: French Embassy U.S.

The French Embassy in Washington, an extension of the French government, has been singing the praises of Baker, one of the world’s first Black global superstars.

“The neo-classical Pantheon serves as the final resting place of over 70 figures in French history,” the French Embassy said via social media.

 “From authors like Victor Hugo to politicians like Simone Veil to inventors like Louis Braille — these individuals demonstrated an inexhaustible dedication to the values of the French Republic,” the embassy continued. “This month, Josephine Baker will join them in a gesture that gives gravity to France’s admiration and thanks for the life that she led.”

Baker grew up in St. Louis and danced on Broadway before migrating to Paris to escape American racism — as did a parade of Black creatives, including writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. She made fun of racist stereotypes through her dance, spoke out against racism in the United States, even speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, and — long before actor Angelina Jolie made it her mission to adopt children from troubled countries — Baker adopted 13 children from impoverished situations around the globe.

The French have hailed Baker as a heroine for serving as a spy for the French resistance, a coalition of organizations that fought off the Nazis.  

 According to the Embassy Twitter account, “she fought for the second home that gave her a space to chase her dreams.”

The Embassy also posted “Her profile made her a target, but her disdain for all forms of hatred made her a fighter. On Nov. 30th, France honors the performer who bcam a liberator.”

The movement to vault Baker to Pantheon status was pushed by Baker’s family and writer Laurent Kupferman, who circulated a petition on the Change.org website that caught the attention of President Emmanuel Macron. The French leader grew up listening to Baker’s music with his grandmother, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Some national political observers pointed out, though, that while France might be displaying a tone of inclusion with Baker’s induction at the Pantheon, the country’s reputation in some circles as a racial utopia is misguided. Tuesday’s ceremony comes as Macron looks to a 2022 reelection race, and as France – like many countries around the world – contends with racial wounds exposed in the aftermath of the May 2020 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Black American transplants living in today’s Paris occasionally post on social media about racial microaggressions they face there.

Political scientist Francoise Verges told the Associated Press: “In 2021, even if it’s morally condemned, racism still exists and still has power over people’s lives.” 

That reality, however, has not dampened the spirits of Black people around the globe celebrating the news regarding Baker. In the United States, celebrations have been planned in Miami Beach, New York City and more. 

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