Josephine Baker

Maurice Greiffenhagen, Dawn, 1926


Considerations on the artistic and political trajectory of the singer and actress

In an unusual move, Joséphine Baker (1906-1975) has been triumphantly led to the Pantheon of Paris, where women do not enter, nor blacks, much less revue actresses. In the Jazz Age, the 1920s also called the read années folles, Joséphine sashayed around the Charleston, with nothing but a banana loincloth around her hips. Full of verve and malice, she was somewhat caricatured, mocking institutions and criticizing bourgeois conventions.

So how did it end up in Pantheon? Where are people like these not welcome? And women then, only a half-dozen to date?

Among the few women, two are universally known. The first, the scientist Marie Curie, discoverer of the radium element that originated the X-ray of infinite medicinal advantages, Polish naturalized French, won not only one but two Nobel Prizes in Science, one in Physics and one in Chemistry. As for Simone Veil, a survivor of Auschwitz, she was the Minister of Health who decriminalized abortion in France and would later become the first president of the newly created Parliament of the European Union. It is in this illustrious company that Joséphine now rests.

Among his achievements, which are numerous, are the twelve adopted children, of many colors, many nationalities and many religions. He raised them in the castle of Milandes (Dordogne), which he bought after becoming one of the biggest stars in the world. He called them the “Rainbow Tribe”: he said they would serve as an example for fraternity among human beings, in a demonstration that, despite being all different, they naturally lived in peace. Now he has run a petition in France claiming his entry into Pantheon, headed by one of the twelve and subscribed by about 40 thousand people.

Joséphine was American. She was born in St-Louis, Missouri, in the southern state, an area where the ignominy of black treatment was unparalleled. At the time of the “Jim Crow Laws”, segregation was total and blacks could be lynched at the slightest pretext, or even without any pretext. Fleeing racism, at the age of 19, she moved to Paris, where she began her life as a professional artist. There are a few films left, both silent and spoken, in which she sways and dances, including the famous banana loincloth. She also recorded albums, and it is possible to hear her voice in French songbook classics such as “La vie en rose”, “Sous les toits de Paris”, “Clopin-clopant”. She was the undisputed star of the most renowned cabaret in the world, still in operation today, the Folies Bergere.

As in France blackness was more tolerated, that was the reason for Joséphine to develop her career there, as did the great jazz player Sidney Bechet; or Paul Robeson, actor and singer, whose legacy is a masterful interpretation of “hello manriver” in his beautiful bass voice; or Nina Simone, top-notch jazz singer. Joséphine fell in love with her host country and eventually became a French citizen. It's unforgettable most famous rendition of her, the one by which she would come to be identified: “J'ai deux amours: mon pays et Paris”. It is her declaration of love to the city that had adopted her, allowing her to develop her talents in peace, without persecuting her for the color of her skin.

For the extraordinary services rendered to the country during the Second World War, he received the highest decorations that France bestows: the Croix de Guerre, the Legion of Honor, the Resistance Medal. And he won a military rank with the right to wear the uniform – as we see in so many photos. She persisted in her anti-racist militancy, traveling to speak at the March on Washington presided over by Martin Luther King, the high point of the campaign for the civil rights of blacks in the United States. She would visit Hanoi under American bombing, to show solidarity with the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

An American fiction film for TV has already been dedicated to him, entitled The Josephine Baker story (1991), in which his life is romanticized. Now, on account of your entry into the Pantheon, TV 5 Monde is showing a two-hour documentary, with precious archival footage and the beautiful suggestive title of Joséphine Baker – La fleur au fusil. Good opportunity to revisit a great artist, a great woman.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of reading and rereading (Senac/Gold over blue).


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