Josephine Baker's Induction to the Pantheon Shouldn't Obscure how Other Black Women Served Liberté, Égalité, FraternitéRoundup
tags: Black History, French history, Josephine Baker
Rachel Anne Gillett is the author of At Home in Our Sounds : Race, Music, and Cultural Politics in Interwar Paris. She teaches cultural history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
On Nov. 29, Josephine Baker, Black American, French citizen, recipient of the Croix-de-Guerre and performer of unparalleled genius, achieved another honor. She was inducted into France’s Panthéon, a monument to French national heroes, becoming the first Black woman to achieve this recognition.
She joins just two other Black honorees, Alexandre Dumas (author of "The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”) and Félix Éboué (scholar, politician and resistance fighter.)
The granddaughter of enslaved people and Indigenous Americans, Baker grew up in St. Louis, where she witnessed murderous racist violence. She evolved from working as a live-in maid for White clients to becoming a celebrated performer in Black theater.
Her triumphant Paris debut was documented in society magazine columns and is commemorated in children’s books. She envisioned a “Rainbow Nation” in which diversity of religion, skin color and culture would be cherished. That’s why President Emmanuel Macron’s choice to induct her into the Panthéon has been hailed as “modern” and a celebration of inclusivity and anti-racism.
But as Rokhaya Diallo writes, this glowing story is incomplete. In fact, Baker’s induction also epitomizes French self-congratulation and the careful propagation of convenient truths. Baker often said that in France, she felt “human” in comparison to America, where she suffered racism and experienced segregation.
Such narratives have promoted the popular myth that France is and was colorblind compared to the United States. Yet that is not necessarily the case. France also has a history of violent colonialism and enslavement. Indeed, Baker’s celebrity obscured the contributions of contemporaries who fought tirelessly against racism, and her fame came from performances that frustrated anti-colonial activists.
Baker arrived in Paris when the French empire was at its apex. It included colonies in Africa, Southeast Asia, the French Caribbean and the Pacific. Differing legal statuses applied to various groups, distinguishing between “citizens” and “subjects.” Subjects suffered from an array of arbitrary and often violent punishments and taxes, while French citizens of color enjoyed formal equality but nevertheless experienced discrimination.