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Some of the most esteemed figures in the history of France, including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Simone Veil, are interred in the Panthéon in Paris. And now a new spirit will join them: an entertainer, activist, and agent of the French resistance.
Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis in 1906, began performing in her teens, and moved to Paris.
“I just couldn’t stand America, and I was one of the first colored Americans to move to Paris,” she told The Guardian in 1974.
This group included Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who were not starry-eyed about Paris and France’s self-proclaimed ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity so much as clear-eyed about life for Black people in the United States.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France,” Baldwin told The Paris Review in 1984. “But I knew what was going to happen to me in New York.”
Baker became a sensation in Paris. She was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture — the 1927 French film Siren of the Tropics. She dazzled at the Folies Bergère, where she danced in a skirt made of artificial bananas.
“When she swung onstage in that fiercely swinging banana skirt,” Morgan Jerkins wrote in Vogue in 2016, “Baker brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination … she clowned and seduced and subverted stereotypes.”
Beyoncé herself saluted Baker’s 100th birthday by performing on TV in a banana skirt.
During World War II, some French stars performed for occupying German troops. Baker hid refugees and weapons for the French Resistance in her chateau in Dordogne. She gathered intelligence and carried secret messages written on sheet music in invisible ink. She received France’s Legion of Honor after the war and became an advocate for civil rights in the United States, refusing to perform for segregated audiences. She spoke just before Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington, wearing the uniform of the Free French Forces.
Baker died in 1975. She will be the first Black woman in what’s called France’s hall of heroes. And it might be good to recall this week that Baker was also an immigrant who worked bravely and tirelessly to rescue and protect refugees from fear and oppression when their lives depended on her courage.