Josephine Baker became the first American Black woman entertainer to be honored with a burial at the Pantheon in France. While it is looked at as a special moment to some, it sparked controversy among native citizens of France, especially those in anti-racist groups, that France still has a ways to go when it comes to systematic racism.
According to wtopnews, “While Baker is widely appreciated in France, the decision has highlighted the divide between the country’s official doctrine of colorblind universalism and some increasingly vocal opponents, who argue that it has masked generations of systemic racism.” No one wants any current racism to go unnoticed and unidentified.
Baker’s honor has been a long-time coming and was the result of a political debate. It seems as though it results from a petition written by Laurent Kupferman. And in July, French president Emmanuel Marcon announced that Baker would have her honor. “The times are probably more conducive to having Josephine Baker’s fights resonate: the fight against racism, antisemitism, her part in the French Resistance. The Pantheon is where you enter not because you’re famous but because of what you bring to the civic mind of the nation,” Kupferman said to the Associated Press.
Even a Black French guide, Kévi Donat, gives tours of Black Paris and mentioned that Baker is the most controversial person he includes in his tours.
Part of this is due to the fact that she was first recognized in France for dancing in a banana belt, which Donat said, “played into stereotypes around Black and African people.” Donat went on to explain that Baker and other prominent Black American artists and writers, who came to France to escape racism in America, are “used to say ‘in the U.S. there was racism, (but) all these Black Americans were welcomed in France,’ meaning we’re ahead, that we don’t have that problem here.”
Baker was, of course, more than an entertainer. She spied for the French Resistance and marched in Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. She is also known for raising her “rainbow tribe” of children that she adopted from various countries around the world.
Baker moved to France to escape racial persecution after the two World Wars and joined what is known today as LICRA, which is an anti-racist league. The current LICRA president, Mario Stasi, said, “She loved universalism passionately and this France that does not care about skin color. When she arrived from the United States, she understood she came from a ‘communautaurist’ country where she was reminded of her origin and ethnicity, and in France, she felt total acceptance.”
France is not at all innocent in its history with discrimination and police brutality. “Lawyers, activists and academics have chronicled discrimination in police violence, in housing and in employment in France, notably against people with African or Arab origins. Universalists say this isn’t a structural part of French society, however, identifying racism as a moral matter and not inscribed within the state,” wtopnews reported.
Political scientist Françoise Vergès believes that this type of gesture, honoring Baker, “obscures France’s own history of racism and colonialism.” Vergès said, “In 2021, even if it’s morally condemned, racism still exists and still has power over people’s lives.” Vergès also said, “It’s always easier to celebrate people who aren’t from your country. It avoids questioning your own situation at home.”
Famous Black American writer James Baldwin said something similar in an interview in 1983. “In France, I am a Black American, posing no conceivable threat to French identity: in effect, I do not exist in France. I might have a very different tale to tell were I from Senegal — and a very bitter song to sing were I from Algeria,” Baldwin said.
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