December 01, 2021 2:56 pm
Since November 30, France has honored Joséphine Baker by placing a funeral monument dedicated to her in the Panthéon in Paris, where 81 illustrious men and five women of the French republic are remembered. But visiting the castle of the Milandes, in the heart of the Dordogne, one discovers a Joséphine Baker with multiple lives. This small Renaissance jewel still seems to be inhabited: for thirty years it was the home of the dancer and singer of the folies bergères, of the very courageous resistant to Nazism and of the anti-racist mother before the letter. On the top floor there are many sunbeds: here in fact Joséphine Baker raised her 12 adopted children from all over the world, from Japan to Finland, from Colombia to Algeria. With his “tribe”, Baker wanted to demonstrate the possible coexistence between people regardless of skin color or origin, witness to a universal brotherhood.
The first diva
Descendant of slaves, born in 1906 in Missouri, she lived a difficult childhood in the violent years of racial hatred and segregation, when the Ku Klux Klan sowed terror especially in the southern states. Arriving in Paris in 1926 to perform in the Revue nègre, she instead discovers the multicultural capital of the twenties where the avant-garde is adored for African art and expressions, the negritude by Aimé Césaire is taking off, Picasso and Braque are obsessed with African arts. A true “black turmoil” in the capital, the historian Pascal Blanchard defines it in his book Black France.
Joséphine Baker dances like no one before her, mixes the hi-hat, the rhythms of the crazy years and the cake walk, the way of dancing of the slaves in America who mocked the masters in good Sunday clothes. She dances with bare breasts, wears the famous banana belt and manages to overturn all the symbols and prejudices of the time with her irony and talent.
This banana skirt of hers embodies the essence of Baker: the skirt is clearly an exotic and colonial symbol, but it has succeeded – as Lilian Thuram writes in Black body, white gaze, preface of the exhibition catalog The black model – to reverse our gaze, for the first time in France, and to transform it into “an act of emancipation”. Other more contemporary divas – such as Grace Jones or Beyoncé – have in fact worn it as a tribute to Baker.
Many have forgotten how well known the diva was in her time: she was the most photographed woman in the world, the highest paid artist in France. Its cut to the boyish it was copied by all the Parisians – even if the androgynous look still caused a sensation. She was the muse of high fashion French, especially Christian Dior, each House he wanted “mademoiselle Baker” as a model.
It was also to copy it that the fashion of tanning began in Europe, explain in the _D__ictionnaire du corps_ the philosopher Bernard Andrieu and the anthropologist Gilles Boëtsch: French women have begun to “cover the skin with walnut oil”, a dye natural extracted from walnut bark precisely to “resemble Joséphine Baker”.
Today this phenomenon is read with a critical eye towards black face. Anna Topaloff in an article in the special issue of the Nouvel Observateur dedicated to the artist, however, recalls how much this fashion was managed by Baker, who “was able to capitalize on his status as an icon”. In the 1930s she founded her own cosmetics brand with Baker Oil, advertised as the very first self-tanner in the world. “Until then, a tanned complexion was considered a sign of belonging to the working classes, those who struggled in direct sunlight, in the fields or on construction sites. But the immense popularity of Joséphine Baker made the diaphanous skin of the bourgeoisie antiquated ”.
In 2013, after reading the editorial by the philosopher Régis Debray proposing his entry to the Panthéon, the essayist Laurent Kupferman launched a petition, Osez Joséphine (Osare Joséphine, in reference to a well-known song by singer Alain Bashung), which collected 25 thousand signatures. Kupferman explains: “Joséphine Baker is what we all need right now. It is proof that, in the French republic, everything is possible, that there are equal opportunities and that, in addition to rights, we also have duties. In the current context of identity tensions, its ‘pantheonization’ will do us good “.
This reference to French triumphant universalism makes some intellectuals uncomfortable, such as columnist Rokaya Diallo, who writes: “I fear it has become the pretext for a speech aimed at making France beautiful and easily silencing legitimate criticism.”
For President Emmanuel Macron it is undoubtedly a strong symbolic and political gesture, which ensures him an anti-racist image while at the same time flirting with the ideas of the right-wing identity in the context of the electoral campaign.
In fact, honoring the memory of Joséphine Baker puts many in agreement in France: there is a real consensus around the artist, unassailable also because he lived outside the box – of the time as well as today.
His appointment to the Panthéon also revived historical research on his figure as a militant in the resistance. In a video investigation, Le Monde details her role during the Second World War, which earned her the legion of honor as well as the cross for military valor.
The diva sang for the troops to raise their morale and with her concerts she also collected stratospheric sums – the equivalent of more than 2.5 million euros today – which were then paid directly to the resistance.
Now it has been discovered that he also had a key role in the secret services: he served as a cover for the French counterintelligence agent Jacques Abtey who was passing himself off as his manager all over the world. Meanwhile, she met Italian and Japanese delegates before the two countries officially entered the war. What could be better than the full light of a star to hide?
After the war, Baker returned to the United States in support of the anti-racist struggle. She will be the only woman to speak during the Washington march in 1963, remembered for the famous speech by Martin Luther King “I have a dream”. Dressed as a lieutenant of the forces of Free France.
On the day of the diva’s entry to the Panthéon, the openly racist far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour announced his candidacy for president.
For Blanchard it is no coincidence: “Throughout her own life, Joséphine Baker demonstrates that France is not just a colonial and oppressive country, but a more complex country than her caricature says, where ‘nerophilia’ and ‘nerophobia’ coexist. , fascination and hatred of each other. Baker is the perfect symbol of this paradox ”.
Baker will thus be remembered as the perfect symbol of beauty and energy unleashed by multiple identities: with his most famous song he stated that he did not want to choose a place, nor a defined nation, but rather to have “two loves: my country and Paris “.