PARIS – Josephine Baker, an American-born black dancer and civil rights activist who became one of France’s greatest music-hall stars in the early 20th century, will be buried in the Panthéon, France’s legendary tomb of heroes, a close adviser to Dat President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday.
The honor will make Mrs. Baker – who became a French citizen in 1937 and died in Paris in 1975 – the first black woman and one of the few foreign-born figures to be buried there. The Panthéon houses the remains of some of France’s most revered, including Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The decision to hand over Mrs Baker’s remains, who are buried in Monaco, comes after a petition calling for the move, started by the writer Laurent Kupferman, caught the attention of Mr Macron. The petition has collected nearly 40,000 signatures in the past two years.
Mr. Kupferman suggested that Mr. Macron approved the reburial “because Josephine Baker probably embodies the republic of possibilities.”
“How could a woman who came from a discriminated and very poor background achieve her destiny and become a global star?” said Mr. Kupferman. “That was possible in France at a time when it wasn’t in the United States.”
Funeral at the Panthéon can only be approved by a president, and Ms. Baker’s reburial is highly symbolic, as France has been confused by heated culture wars over its model of social integration, and as gender and race issues move the country around new political front lines.
The news was first reported by the newspaper Le Parisien. The funeral will take place on November 30.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 in St. Louis, Mrs. Baker began her career as a dancer in New York in the early 1920s before moving to France, where she quickly became a sensation.
She said she was motivated to move abroad because of the discrimination she had endured in the United States. “I just couldn’t stand America, and I was one of the first Americans of color to move to Paris,” she told The Guardian newspaper in 1974.
Along with other black American artists — including writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin — Ms. Baker said she found in France a freedom she felt denied in the United States.
In Paris, Mrs. Baker quickly rose to fame and became a fixture in shows at Les Folies Bergères, a famous music hall, which dominated the cabarets of France with her sense of humor, her frenzied dance and her iconic songs, such as “J’ai Deux Amours’ or ‘I have two loves’.
But part of her artistic career was also built around stereotypical and erotic dances, such as the so-called banana dance. The dances were riddled with racist tropes once associated with black women and their bodies in a colonial France and then fascinated with black and African art, prompting some activists at the time to denounce her for fomenting that. caricatures.
But Pap Ndiaye, a historian specializing in black studies, told France Culture radio in 2019 that Ms. Baker had specifically used the stereotypes in her actions, mocking them as much as she exaggerated them.
“It’s this French colonial imaginary world that she will capture and play with, obviously with a lot of nodding and a lot of distance, because Josephine Baker won’t be fooled,” said Mr. Ndiaye.
Mrs. Baker later became a passionate champion of civil rights in the United States. She wrote about racial equality, refused to perform in segregated stages, and joined Rev. dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on stage to speak at the March in Washington.
In recent years, French authorities have heeded increasing calls for more women to be buried in the Panthéon, where the vast majority of the men buried are men. In 2014, Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, who fought in the French Resistance against the Nazis, were honored, and Simone Veil, a health minister who championed the legalization of abortion in France, was buried there in 2018.
Ms Baker’s funeral at the Panthéon, as it is the first to be awarded to a black woman, could be politically beneficial for Mr Macron as debates over racial discrimination in France rage less than a year before the 2022 presidential election. But Sunday’s announcement could also fuel hostility over France’s integration model, which Macron’s government has recently fueled.
Proponents of moving Mrs. Baker’s remains to the Panthéon have said that France’s so-called universalist model—supposedly secular, colorblind, and equal opportunity—allowed her to perform in France while she couldn’t in the United States. . But this model has also been heavily criticized recently, with some critics, especially among young minorities, accusing it of masking widespread racism and containing unfulfilled ideals.
The reburial also gives France the chance to celebrate Mrs. Baker’s life beyond the arts. During World War II, she served as an ambulance driver and intelligence officer, earning medals of honor. And in the 1950s, Mrs. Baker adopted a dozen orphans of different nationalities, races and religions, with whom she lived in a castle in southwestern France.