She had an unconditional love for Morocco. Joséphine Baker, the American-born artist and civil rights activist, received France’s highest honor on Tuesday when she was inducted into the French Pantheon, the mausoleum of the nation’s heroes.
Josephine Baker is the first performing artist, the first black woman and the first American to be honored with an induction into the Pantheon.
French President Emmanuel Macron presided over the official ceremony on Tuesday evening, broadcast live on French television and which included members of the Baker family, politicians, Prince Albert II of Monaco and crowds of spectators.
“She broke down barriers. She has become a part of the heart and the mind of the French … Joséphine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because when you were born American, there was nobody more French than you ”, said Emmanuel Macron.
The rise of Josephine Baker from a child street artist in the impoverished streets of St. Louis to one of the most successful black artists of her time is a fascinating story.
She lived a life that defied all odds, building her career during the Harlem Renaissance before flying to Paris. It was there that she began to thrive as a civil rights activist, performer, and even French WWII spy without the constraints of the systemic racism she grew up with.
From artist to resistance fighter
During her lifetime, Baker adopted children from all over the world, fought for racial equality and justice, and lived by her own standards.
Josephine Baker was born June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, as Freda Josephine McDonald, to Carrie McDonald, an adopted child from a once enslaved couple. The identity of his father is widely disputed by some, but his estate mentions drummer Eddie Carson as his father. Baker’s mother later remarried and had three more children.
Baker began performing with a black vaudeville group called the Dixie Steppers. This led her to join the touring company for the “Shuffle Along” musical and lighten her skin to fit a racist beauty standard. Baker was the comic relief of dance numbers as a chorus girl.
At 19 and believing that she had accomplished all she could in the United States as a dancer, Baker went to Paris to dance for the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in “La Revue Nègre”. The show featured all-black performers. Baker performed the “Danse sauvage”, a pas de deux with his partner Joe Alex, and became a popular artist in France. Her uninhibited dance style and fervor was unlike anything white audiences had ever seen.
Baker was one of the first black stars to appear as the protagonist in a movie. “Siren of the Tropics”, a French silent film, presents her in the role of a native of the Antilles and a dancer who follows a businessman back to France.
Later, the artist took part in concerts, taking advantage “Of these social events to gather intelligence for counter-espionage”, however refusing to sing in front of the Germans in occupied Paris in 1940
In addition, it allowed the head of the Counterintelligence Service and other agents to leave France to join Spain, Portugal, then Morocco in January 1941 to establish a liaison and communication center in the resistance.
Marrakech, its little corner of paradise
It is from there that begins her passion for the Kingdom, and in particular for the city of Marrakech, as she expressed it in her memories.
“I lived there such beautiful days. I was going anywhere in Africa. I was coming back there. My great friends in Marrakech gave me a party that lasted all night, like a tale from the Thousand and One Nights. Moroccans in burnoos stood next to each other on the patio under the flowering lianas. Flowers red as blood. Arab music played between the marble columns, as soft as the lights ”, she said.
“The meeting place for curious people, photographers, snake charmers, storytellers, it swarms in the dust, it sings in the sun, it trades, it screams, it howls, it smells of frying, cinnamon and mint, spices, the cuisine of wizards and healers, herbs, drying bird heads, rotting monkey paws“, She described.
Arrived in Marrakech, Joséphine Baker resided at the hotel de la Mamounia, with the objective of taking up residence in the ocher city. ” I wanted to have my house to live like the Arabs. I found one in the Medina, near the Koutoubia, above the city terraces. It was at the end of a narrow dead end, lost, tight between walls ”.
When Joséphine Baker left Paris for Marrakech, it was also for the hospitalized and the warm welcome of the inhabitants of the city, she adored this city which was an integral part of her life.
Morocco is also the story of friendship that linked it to Ahmed Belbachir Haskouri, powerful member of the royal court of Morocco during the period of the protectorate. Joséphine often stopped to visit him in Tetouan, when she traveled between the port of Tangier and her home in Marrakech.
When she visited Tetouan, she liked having a tent pitched by the sea, where she drank tea, entertained with musicians, and asked the cooks to prepare grilled lamb. Josephine loved the Turkish bath, and Ahmed had one at home.
Ahmed also helped Josephine in her political life, through a network through which she obtained Moroccan Spanish passports for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution who came to the Spanish zone. Passports were issued stating that Eastern European Jews were Moroccan Jews, allowing many to escape to Latin America.
Josephine lived a hectic life before her passing ln April 12, 1975, at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital at the age of 68. She had a Catholic funeral and full military honors, a first for a woman born in the United States.