Josephine Baker First American, Black Woman, and Performer Inducted to French PantheonBreaking News
tags: African American history, French history, Josephine Baker, entertainment, French Pantheon, French Resistance
Josephine Baker, the American-born entertainer and civil rights activist who first achieved fame in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, was given France's highest honor on Tuesday when she was inducted into the French Pantheon, the nation's mausoleum of heroes.
Baker is the first performing artist, first Black woman and first American to be honored with a Pantheon induction — a move whose time, her supporters say, has come.
French President Emmanuel Macron presided over Tuesday evening's official ceremony, broadcast live on French television and which included Baker's family members, politicians, Monaco's Prince Albert II and crowds of spectators. "She broke down barriers," Macron said. "She became part of the hearts and minds of French people ... Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because while you were born American, deep down there was no one more French than you."
Some 80 other luminaries, including Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Marie Curie, are among those buried in the Paris monument. Baker is buried in Monaco, where her body will remain. Her Pantheon presence is commemorated in a plaque on a cenotaph.
The idea of laying Baker to rest in the Pantheon was first proposed in 2013, and gained traction in more recent years as France reckons with racism, its colonial past and questions about the success of its model of social integration.
Baker is widely admired in France, but the decision to induct her into the Pantheon has met with some controversy: Critics say that while Baker may have represented France's "universalist" approach — which technically does not identify citizens by race or ethnicity — honoring her does not erase often entrenched racism against French people of African or Arab origin.
France awarded Baker with various high honors over the years — a French Resistance medal, the Croix de Guerre, and in 1961, upon recognition by President de Gaulle, the Legion of Honor.
Two years later, in 1963, Baker addressed the crowd at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She wore her French Resistance uniform with the string of medals across her breast.
"When I was a child and they burned me out of my home," she said, "I was frightened and I ran away. Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France. Many of you have been there, and many have not. But I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that country I never feared. It was like a fairyland place... when I was young in Paris, strange things happened to me... I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn't have to go to a colored toilet either, and I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it, and I wasn't afraid anymore that someone would shout at me and say, '******, go to the end of the line.'"
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