Remembering Josephine Baker

“France is Josephine” 1906-1975

This is one of the photos I took of the facade of the Panthéon, snapped while I was queuing to pay my respects to Josephine Baker. Exceptionally, during that first weekend of December, entrance was free to everyone, thus offering citizens the opportunity to say farewell to a woman who had come to France as a teenager escaping racism and segregation, and made this country, where she found acceptance and success, her home.

Whilst I was in Paris a few weeks ago, on a cold winter Saturday afternoon,  I took myself off to the Panthéon. There I queued in the Place de Panthéon along with hundreds of others waiting to enter the Tomb of Heroes. Fortunately for us all, the rain and biting wind stayed away for those few hours we were in line. Everyone was in good spirits. A few days earlier on Tuesday 30th November 2021, Josephine Baker had become the first Black woman to be inducted into France’s Tomb of Heroes. President Macron hailed the American-born dancer, singer, night-club artist and courageous French resistance fighter as a ‘symbol of unity in a time of division’. 

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her childhood was spent in poverty. Her mother, who was abandoned by Baker’s father, Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, soon after their daughter’s birth, worked as a washerwoman. To help her mother keep the family fed Josephine from the age of eight went out to clean and babysit. Most of the houses where she was employed were owned by rich white folk who didn’t treat her well. She was also profoundly marked by the race riots, the lynchings she witnessed when she was eleven. The East St. Louis ‘Race War.’ At least 39 black citizens were brutally killed, many of them lynched. This and the desperate times and discrimination she encountered during her childhood years, played an important role in her work later with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Josephine quit school at 12, lived on the streets, scavenged for food, eventually running away from St Louis when she was thirteen. At thirteen she married and separated weeks later. Finally, at sixteen, after stints of waitressing, she found herself touring the United States with the Jones Family band and the Dixie Steppers. She had been teaching herself to dance and to turn her hand to a few comedy routines.

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