“Ive been to royal palaces and presidents at home. But I cant walk into a cafe in America to order a cup of coffee. That makes me furious. And when Im furious, I open my mouth, you know that. Then the whole world will hear it.”
These words spoke singer and dancer Josephine Baker (1906-1975) at the March on Washington in 1963, the civil rights demonstration where Martin Luther King would give his famous speech I have a dream. Because the French-American Baker was more than just an entertainer. For that reason, she was joined at the Panthéon in Paris at the beginning of the evening, as the first woman of color.
And that went like this:
Josephine Baker leaves for Paris from the United States as a dancer and singer at the age of 19. Its the wild 20s, with (for those who can afford it) parties with drinks and music until early in the morning.
The act that Baker becomes famous with at that time fits into that image: shrouded in little more than a banana skirt, she performs in the theater, sometimes accompanied by a leopard. During tours, she also comes to the Netherlands repeatedly.
But Baker is more than the banana skirt. In World War II, she is part of the French resistance. Because she is relatively easy to move around the country as a singer, she spies and transmits encrypted messages via sheet music. After the war, she will be distinguished for that.
An introduction from Baker in video:
She is also denouncing racism. When she first returns to the US in the 50s, she refuses to act in halls with separate audiences. She is also suing a club owner because he refuses to serve her.
After the murder of Martin Luther King, his widow asks if Josephine Baker wants to become the new leader of the civil rights movement. She refuses that, for fear of being too little with her family. Baker has twelve adopted children from all over the world, her “rainbow family,” as she says.
Full of adornance
Because of her track record, President Macron decided in August to include Josephine Baker in the Panthéon, the place where France honors its heroes. Pap Ndiaye, director of the Museum of Immigration History in Paris, is happy with that, he tells news agency AP. “In the present day, when you only see racism and xenophobia increase in both France and elsewhere in the world, the good news is that a Black woman like Josephine Baker is honored in this way.”
Illusionist and great admirer Hans Klok also thinks its a special day, and ever since he saw Bakers images in the Polygon Journal as a 6-year-old, he has been impressed. “Her performances are full of adornment, I am of that myself. In addition, she never gave up if it was against her career, because those periods were also there. But her greatest merit — with her resistance work, her fight for civil rights and with her big family — is that she always spread the message that we can all live together.”
Some black people in France point out that Baker is also a controversial figure: by dancing in a banana skirt, she responded exactly to the stereotypical white image of black people. Dad Ndiaye agrees. “She was criticized for that, too,” he says. “But remember that she was only 19 when she came to France and had barely attended school. She needed time to become politically aware, of herself and of the world.”
At the request of her relatives, Bakers body remains buried in Monaco. In the Panthéon, a casket containing earth from the US, France and Monaco is placed. In addition, a cenotaph, a tomb monument for someone whose remains are missing in that place.