Lights on Joséphine Baker, her many facets and all the stages she shone on

A painting of Josephine Baker by Jean-Loup Othenin-Girard (viewed March 13, 2024)


On Tuesday November 30, 2021, Franco-American singer and dancer Joséphine Baker entered the Panthéon, a French monument and a mausoleum dedicated to the great Men and Women of the French nation.1 A choice that was rather well received by the French, but somehow surprising if we look at her history. Indeed, Joséphine Baker was born in the United States, and her greatest crusade was for peace in race relations around the world. Therefore, it would be interesting to examine this controversial figure from her beginnings on the New York art scene to her great success in Paris, the capital of France. Besides, due to her many facets, Joséphine Baker also became a considerable asset to the French Resistance during the Second World War – one of the reasons why she entered the Panthéon. What is all the more remarkable, to say the least, is that throughout her life, Baker used her fame to turn the spotlight on the United States to denounce the treatment of Black people in her country in the 1960-70s.

We can agree that it is impressive to know that this woman, Joséphine Baker, was able to shake her country to the point of being denied entry2 … Maybe another reason why France loved her so much ?


Joséphine Baker was born in 1906 in Missouri, USA, under the name Freda Joséphine Mcdonald. Of African American and Native American descent, she decided to go to Broadway, New York, in 1921 to join the first Black musical, Shuffle Along. The show was so successful that it toured throughout the United States for three years, reaching the doors of white theaters.3 Shuffle Along is part of a very important period in African American history and culture, with the founding of the “Harlem Renaissance” art movement in the early 1920s. That movement was partly caused by The Great Migration that started in 1916, when six million Black people migrated from the Southern to the Northern states to escape racial violence and the oppression of Jim Crow laws, but also in search of professional opportunities and a better quality of life.4 Many Black people were recruited in factories following the departure of American soldiers to support the Allies during the First World War. That migratory movement touched several major cities in the northern states, including New York.5 Thereafter, Harlem became home to nearly 175,000 African Americans, making it the most popular African-American neighborhood in the world.6

During one of her performances at the Plantation Club7 , Joséphine Baker caught the interest of Caroline Dudley Reagan, the wife of Donald J. Reagan, the commercial envoy of the American Embassy in Paris. Intent on importing the folklore of the Harlem Renaissance to France, which at the time was experiencing what was known as “Les années Folles”8 , Caroline Reagan offered Baker the opportunity to follow her to Paris, where she would star in her show starting October 1925.9


At that point, Baker’s trip was not only an opportunity for her career, but also an opportunity for her personal life. Indeed, when she left for Paris in 1925, the United States had been segregated since 1896, in other words, Jim Crow laws had been legalized 29 years earlier.10 During the interwar years, it was not uncommon for Americans to decide to move to France for professional opportunities – quite the contrary, in fact. Coming out of a period of war, the value of the French currency was low and the country had to be rebuilt, so to revive the economy, the French state exercised no controls or restrictions.11 Borders were opened to all, to offset the demographic crisis caused by the war. Around 20% of the working population was in effect lost during the First World War.12

On the other side of the Atlantic, American economic growth was so strong that Americans were ready to conquer foreign markets. Five to six thousand American households were making a name in the industrial and commercial sectors13 – a labor and financial force that France could only dream of, and a country in ruins to be rebuilt that Americans could only dream of. Of course, systemic racism made it difficult for Black people in the U.S. to thrive economically, and the vast majority of Americans traveling to France were white, educated, skilled and wealthy.11 This did not stop many Black people from making the trip. As Ms Fila-Bakabadio14 , an expert in African American history, told me, one must “remember that many African Americans migrated to France (temporarily or permanently), e.g. Richard Wright, James Baldwin.15 She is one of them.16

It might seem simple to just leave the United States, make the boat trip and enter France. However, for a Black woman in those days, it was no mean feat. While Joséphine Baker had the opportunity to travel with a wealthy (white) French family who were able to provide her with the entire travel process, for others, the matter was not so simple. First of all, to travel, you needed a passport. It was very rare for a woman to have her own passport. It was the husband who had the passport, with the mention: “Mr… and his wife…”. Some single women were able to obtain a passport in their own name, but that was rare, as they were not expected to travel alone.17

Although Joséphine Baker is considered as the first African American woman to have moved to France from the U.S. due to her popularity, it is well-known that activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett regularly visited Europe in the 1890s. There was also the famous case of Bessie Coleman, who in 1920, after obtaining a passport, enrolled in a French aviation school, making her the first Black woman in the United States to hold a pilot’s license.18

A photo of the SS Bremen by Georg Pahl, July 192919

In 1929, transatlantic travel was by steamship, the best-known steamship being the SS Bremen, linking Ambrose Light in New York Bay to Cherbourg, a French port-city in Normandy. The journey took 4 days and 3 hours.20



A photo of Joséphine Baker performing in France, in 1926, by Stanislaus Julian Walery.21

Once in Paris, Joséphine Baker joined “La Revue Nègre”, a show made up entirely of African American performers, presented at the Music-hall des Champs-Élysées. If, at the time, France opened its borders to all and appeared to be a free country for African Americans, behind the scenes it was not so virtuous for all the French people.22

Admittedly, racism was not systemic in France23 , unlike in the USA, but it was very much present in social life. One notable example was the creation of human zoos24 from 1889 onwards, during the Universal Exhibition25 , in Paris. The country that appeared to be a refuge for many Black Americans was not entirely flawless. What spared Black Americans from further racism was that “they were seen as Americans before they were Black,” explains Françoise Vergès, a researcher specializing in the colonial question.26


A photo of Joséphine Baker  in a French Air Force uniform in 1948, by Studio Harcourt27


Already fighting against racism at home, Joséphine Baker soon became an early voice against Nazism. In 1939, when France declared war on Germany, she began working for the Allies, using her diplomatic contacts to obtain information and help war refugees. To contribute to the war effort, she organized fund-raising concerts and became involved in humanitarian activities with the Croix Rouge.28 She soon joined the French Resistance, using her artistic tours as a cover to pass intelligence on Axis troop movements to the Allies, notably by writing secret messages with invisible ink on her musical scores. Her anti-Nazi public involvement forced her to leave the French stage in 1940, as she refused to perform for the occupying German forces. All her efforts for France’s victory were rewarded when she was awarded the Croix de Lorraine29 in 1943 by Charles de Gaulle for her work in the Resistance. In 1961, she was also awarded the Légion d’Honneur30 and the Croix de Guerre31 in recognition for her wartime service.32

Joséphine Baker went back to New York in 1948, hoping to develop her artistic career in the United States and gain the same recognition that France had been able to offer her. Although she returned to the U.S. to participate in the Ziegfeld Follies33 in 1935, she received devastating criticism. She did not find the acclaim she had hoped for, but instead faced racial discrimination. She and her white husband, Jo Bouillon, were refused service by thirty-six New York hotels.32 She then decided to use her influence to challenge America’s discriminatory practices.

Between 1950 and 1951, Joséphine Baker took a stand against racial segregation in the United States, refusing to perform in theaters where audiences were divided according to race.34 On September 25, 1952, at an event organized by the World Cultural Association Against Racial and Religious Discrimination, Joséphine Baker spoke at a conference rather than sing. She discussed racial practices in South Africa and racial discrimination in the United States. Her speech raised concerns, as it had a profound impact on the audience, on the situation of Black people in the United States. In the context of the Cold War, race was becoming a weapon that could be easily used against the United States.32

As a consequence, the U.S. government sought to discredit her. For instance, Baker found it increasingly difficult to perform in Latin America, as the government managed to put pressure on foreign nations. Her ousting from international stages marked a turning point in her career, but she continued to promote racial justice in her own way, although the government tried to silence her as part of its propaganda campaign to maintain a carefully controlled image of American democracy.32


Despite all these attempts by the US government to defame her during the Cold War, Joséphine Baker remained a person of interest in and outside the US, particularly in France – so much so that in 2021, she was the sixth woman to enter the French Panthéon.

A photo of The Panthéon, displaying a Joséphine Baker banner, Dec. 202135

National recognition at the Panthéon is decided by the President of the Republic in agreement with the family, through a decree signed by the Head of State.36 The date of the ceremony is often chosen in connection with the history or personality being honored.37 The only criterion for admission to the Panthéon is “merit”, as set out in a decree dating back to 1885.38

Since the decision to pantheonize French historical figures is always taken by the President of the Republic, some feel that this makes it a major political issue. In a way, pantheonization acts as a reflection of the values and political agenda of the person making the decision. In the case of Joséphine Baker, the first Black figure to join the Panthéon in 2021, the French President would have sought to present a unifying image in a France marked by tensions,39 according to the French media. The aim of this initiative would have been to promote a mixed and united France, and to strengthen the President’s image, particularly in view of the then upcoming 2022 presidential elections, not to mention a context where issues of immigration, integration and community divisions were – and still are – of concern. Joséphine Baker’s entry would thus have sent a positive message to French Black people, who are often victims of racism and discrimination.39

However, some people feel that pantheonization should not be politicized. One of them is Annick Billon, the President of the French Delegation for Women’s Rights. She pointed out that Joséphine Baker’s battles were universal, and that no political party should appropriate her actions and convictions. In her opinion, politics has no place in such events.40

Emmanuel Macron’s speech at Joséphine Baker’s entry into the Panthéon highlighted her exceptional career and her commitment to France. Macron underlined her dedication during the Second World War, her role in the Resistance and her fight against racism and anti-Semitism. The president of France brought out her ability to unite people around universal values such as equality and fraternity. Macron presented her as an emblematic figure of France, emphasizing her love for the country and her adoption of its values. Macron placed her at the heart of national identity. By admitting her to the Panthéon, he made her an example for French citizens to follow, while reinforcing his own political discourse in favor of universalism and inclusion. So, by honoring Joséphine Baker, Macron somehow appropriated her as a symbol of national unity and the struggle for rights and freedom.41

Surprisingly, reactions to Joséphine Baker’s entry into the Pantheon were rather limited in the United States.

The NPR newspaper published an article presenting her in an American light, one of the few articles I have found to present her in this way.42 It paints a portrait in which Baker’s American identity is emphasized, unlike the usual French portrayal of Joséphine. As for the rest, while it is acknowledged that it is an honor to enter into the Pantheon, the reactions are not much more enthusiastic. The New York Times published several articles on Baker, two of which mention her entry into the Panthéon and the political position it implies, but these articles focus more on the impact her entry would have in France and its political dimension in the then French context,43 as mentioned above. As for the New Yorker, one of its articles focuses on its history in France, its military commitments and its success there, also explaining what looks like “Joséphine’s France,” which says a lot about Baker’s perception through American lenses.

Ms. Fila-Bakabadio points out that it is important to note that most Americans are unfamiliar with French Republican rituals, which could explain their lack of understanding of the significance and memorable scope of the event.16 Moreover, in the United States, there is no equivalent to the French necropolis. The monuments erected generally celebrate influential figures, often from the world of politics, such as the Lincoln Memorial or the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Another monument that could be considered equivalent to the Pantheon is the Washington National Cathedral, which hosts historically significant events such as presidential swearing-in services, tributes to deceased leaders,44 as well as memorable moments such as Martin Luther King’s last Sunday sermon.45 However, none of these places are dedicated to celebrating “the nation’s great men”… or women, which may explain why the reception of Joséphine Baker’s entry into the Pantheon did not have much impact in America.

Furthermore, Ms. Fila-Bakabadio notes that Baker is “rather known in the U.S down to the March on Washington.”16 That event marked a pivotal moment in African American history, during which Joséphine Baker stood as one of the few women who delivered a speech alongside Martin Luther King. But because of the many attempts of the US government to silence Baker, her words had less impact then, with Martin Luther King remaining the leader of the march.22


In conclusion, the pantheonization of Joséphine Baker did not arouse the same enthusiasm in the United States as in France, where the process of celebrating historical figures differs considerably. In the absence of an equivalent for the French Panthéon, it is probably difficult for Americans to fully grasp the significance of this symbolic act. And despite her return to the U.S. in the 1950s, Baker largely faded from the American scene due to her flamboyant career in France and her naturalization. Her image often remained associated with her participation in the March on Washington, relegating her other anti-segregation actions to a secondary position. The U.S. government’s attempts to silence her and remove her from debates on race relations in the U.S. may have also contributed to her marginalization in her home country.

Nevertheless, France recognizes her many commitments to the country and her fight for social justice. Joséphine Baker’s life and legacy, celebrated at her entry into the Panthéon by President Macron, testify to her importance as an emblematic figure in France and in the universal struggle for racial rights and peace.

  1. The link to the Panthéon website : , and the link to an article on Joséphine Baker given by the Panthéon website (viewed February 19, 2024) : []
  2. Mary L. Dudziack, “Joséphine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Sep, 1994), pp. 543-570 (viewed February 19, 2024) []
  3. Fondation pour la mémoir de l’esclavage, “Freda Joséphine McDonald”, Joséphine Baker, (viewed March 11, 2024) []
  4. National Archives, “The Great Migration (1910-1970)”, African American Heritage, (viewed March 11, 2024) []
  5. National archives, “The First Great Migration (1910-1940)“, (viewed March 11, 2024) []
  6. National Museum of African American History and Culture, “A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance”, Our American History, (viewed March 11, 2024) []
  7. “REMEMBER: The Plantation Club on 126th”, Harlem Bespoke, February 12, 2010 (viewed March 11, 2024) H A R L E M + B E S P O K E: ☞ REMEMBER: The Plantation Club on 126th []
  8. At the end of the war, life seemed to be returning to normal and the French were rediscovering their joie de vivre. Jazz, radio and cinema were all on the rise. Fashion and art were also affected by this ” craziness “. []
  9. Wikipédia, “Danseuse à Broadway”, Joséphine Baker, (viewed March 11, 2024)éphine_Baker#:~:text=Joséphine%20Baker%20et%20sa%20troupe,son%20arrivée%2C%20les%20répétitions%20commencent. []
  10. editors, “Plessy v. Fergusson”, History, Oct. 2009 (viewed on March 27, 2024) “Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. The case stemmed from an 1892 incident in which African American train passenger Homer Plessy refused to sit in a car for Black people.” Plessy v. Ferguson: Separate But Equal Doctrine | HISTORY []
  11. Nicole Fouché, “Les Américains en France (XVIIIe-XXIe siècle)”, Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, (viewed March 14, 2024) [] []
  12. Kartable, “L’immigration et la société française au XXe siècle”, (viewed March 14, 2024) []
  13. Nicole Fouché, “Les Américains en France (XVIIIe-XXIe siècle)”, Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, (viewed March 14, 2024) []
  14. You can follow the link to access to Ms Fila-Bakabadio’s website and find more information about herself and her work : Accueil | SARAH FILA-BAKABADIO ( []
  15. A first wave of American artists had already settled – or travelled – to France following the First World War, known as the “Lost Generation”. Domagoj Valjak, “The Lost Generation: the artists that came of age during the First World War”, The Vintage News, feb. 2017 (viewed on March 27, 2024) : “Ernest Hemingway popularized the term “Lost Generation”, which was coined by the legendary American writer Gertrude Stein to describe the generation of artists that came of age during the World War I. The term primarily refers to writers, including Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan, and J. R. R. Tolkien, but it also refers to composers such as George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland and Sergei Prokofiev.” The Lost Generation: the artists that came of age during the First World War ( []
  16. Said during an interview by mail on the 21st of March, 2024 with expert Ms Fila-Bakabadio. [] [] []
  17. Becky Little, “Ces femmes se sont battues pour avoir le droit de voyager dans les années 1920”, National Geographic, (viewed March 14, 2024). It is easy to imagine, then, that in the segregated United States, access to passports for Black people, and even more so for Black women, was very complicated. Faced with this difficulty, the Black journalist Ruth Hale founded the Lucy Stone League in 1921, which claimed that a woman did not have to carry her husband’s name, and therefore later had the right to her own a passport with her maiden name. Even so, this did not change the segregated bureaucracy of passport processing and travel. []
  18. Becky Little, “Ces femmes se sont battues pour avoir le droit de voyager dans les années 1920”, National Geographic, (viewed March 14, 2024) []
  19. Georg Pahl, “Bundesarchiv Bild 102-11081, Schnelldamper “Bremen” “, July 1929, (viewed March 13, 2024) File:Bundesarchiv Bild 102-11081, Schnelldamper “Bremen”.jpg – Wikimedia Commons []
  20. Wikipedia,”Traversée de l’Atlantique”, (viewed March 15, 2024)ée_de_l%27Atlantique []
  21. Stanislaus Julian Walery, “Joséphine Baker”, 1926, (viewed March 13, 2024),_1926,_gelatin_silver_p []
  22. Fondation pour la mémoire de l’esclavage, “Freda Joséphine McDonald”, Joséphine Baker, (viewed March 11, 2024) [] []
  23. But France remained a colonizing country for a long time and applied the Code de l’Indigénat to its colonies. Introduced in 1887, this code made it possible to distinguish between French citizens, i.e. people born in metropolitan France, and French subjects, i.e. people born in the French colonies (Africans, West Indians, Madagascans, Algerians, etc). The Code de l’Indigénat was of course unfavorable to all French subjects, depriving them of most of their rights and freedoms. It was used by the colonial administration to impose forced labor and allowed numerous legal derogations. Indigenous populations could receive prison sentences or have their land confiscated without trial or debate, under the accusations of military chiefs or civilian controllers.# The Code de l’Indigénat was perpetuated until 1946, one year after the end of the Second World War. It remained in place for twelve years after the signing of the Geneva Accords, which stipulated that all forms of forced labor were forbidden in the countries that had signed. With the lifting of this code, people from indigenous countries regained the right to move freely throughout their territory, day and night, the right to reside where they wished and the right to work freely. “Code de l’Indigénat”, (viewed March 15, 2024) []
  24. Considered as spectacles at the time, human zoos showcased the diversity of the French colonies by depicting people surrounded by wild animals in an environment that was supposed to represent their country of origin. This type of show establishes a hierarchy between the people behind bars and those who pay to come and see them for entertainment. These exhibitions were also a way of passing on a message about colonization and the “benefits” of “the civilizing mission or pure and simple exploitation”.Charline Zeitoun, “A l’époque des zoos humains”, CNRS Journal, (viewed on March 15, 2024) []
  25. Here’s a link to the French Ministry of Culture explaining what a world’s fair is and what its purpose is. (french) (english) []
  26. Pierre Desorgues, “Le Paris de l’entre-deux-guerres de Joséphine Baker, entre tolérance et racisme colonial“, TV5 Monde Afrique, (viewed on March 15, 2024) []
  27. Studio Harcourt, Paris, “Joséphine Baker en uniforme de l’Armée de l’Air française en 1948.”, 1948 (viewed March 13, 2024) []
  28. A non-profit association, auxiliary to the public authorities in the humanitarian field and a major player in the social economy + Ministère de la Culture, “Joséphine Baker, un destin français”, novembre 2021 (viewed on March 16, 2024) []
  29. During the Second World War, it was adopted as the emblem of Free France and the Forces françaises de l’intérieur. After the war, it became a symbol of Gaullism. (viewed on March 17, 2024) []
  30. The Legion of Honor is the first national order to honor French citizens. It is the highest distinction. It rewards outstanding merit acquired on behalf of the Nation, either in a civilian capacity or under arms. (viewed on March 17, 2024) []
  31. The Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 is a French military decoration awarded to individuals (civilian and military), units, towns or institutions cited for acts of war during the Second World War. (viewed on March 17, 2024) []
  32. Mary L. Dudziak, “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and Cold War”, The Journal of American History, Sep. 1994, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 543-570 [] [] [] []
  33. The Ziegfeld Follies were a series of theatrical productions on Broadway in New York from 1907 to 1931. (viewed on March 17, 2024) []
  34. After a triumph in Miami Beach, where she insisted on having an integrated audience, she imposed similar conditions for all her future performances across the country. In recognition of her commitment, she was honored in 1951 by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) with the creation of a “Baker Day” on May 20, 1951. Mary L. Dudziak, “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and Cold War”, The Journal of American History, Sep. 1994, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 543-570 []
  35. ManoSolo13241324, “Le Panthéon, affichant une banderole Joséphine Baker.“, Dec. 2021 (viewed March 13, 2024) []
  36. Gérald Roux, “C’est quoi la panthéonisation ?”, FranceTVInfo, Fev. 2024, (viewed March 23, 2024). It can happen that certain proposals are refused, as it was the case for Albert Camus in 2009, following his son’s refusal, fearing political recuperation. Entrance to the Pantheon can also be canceled, as it happened with the revolutionary Mirabeau, admitted in 1791, who was excluded three years later. The same applies to Jean-Paul Marat, who was expelled in 1795 after just a few months. []
  37. Gérald Roux, “C’est quoi la panthéonisation ?”, FranceTVInfo, Fev. 2024, (viewed March 23, 2024) []
  38. Ophélie Artaud, “Tout savoir sur la panthéonisation et le Panthéon, alors que Missak Manouchian s’apprête à y faire son entrée”, Europe 1, fév. 2024 (viewed March 23, 2024) []
  39. Agathe Lambret, “La panthéonisation, une arme politique pour Macron”, FranceTVInfo, fév. 2024 (viewed March 23, 2024) [] []
  40. “Panthéonisation de Joséphine Baker : « La place des femmes dans l’Histoire a été invisibilisée»”, Public Sénat, nov. 2021 (viewed March 23, 2024) []
  41. Emmanuel Macron, “Déclaration de M. Emmanuel Macron, président de la République, en hommage à Joséphine Baker à l’occasion de son entrée au Panthéon”, Vie Publique, nov. 2021 (viewed March 23, 2024) Prononcé le 30 novembre 2021 – emmanuel macron 30112021 hommage josephine baker entree au pantheon | []
  42. Eleanor Beardsley, “Josephine Baker is the first Black woman to be inducted into France’s Pantheon”, NPR World, Nov. 2021 (viewed March 25, 2024) Josephine Baker is inducted into the French Pantheon : NPR []
  43. “Josephine Baker to be honored with a Panthéon burial” Josephine Baker to Be Honored With a Panthéon Burial – The New York Times ( – “Josephine Baker inducted into French Panthéon”, (viewed March 25, 2024) Josephine Baker Inducted Into French Panthéon – The New York Times ( []
  44. “Cathédrale Nationale de Washington”, Washington DC (viewed March 25, 2024) []
  45. Antara Bate, “Washington National Cathedral”, History Hit, July 2021 (viewed on March 25, 2024) Washington National Cathedral – History and Facts | History Hit []

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Axelle Carré (8 avril 2024). Lights on Joséphine Baker, her many facets and all the stages she shone on. (Hi)Stories. Consulté le 20 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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