Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

Laurent Kupferman has been obsessed with Josephine Baker for almost a decade and read everything he could about a woman whose life story was so unlikely, so American and yet so French.

She was a black entertainer who escaped American racism in the 1920s by moving to Paris, the one place where she felt free to write history by pushing the boundaries of art and advocacy. The singer and dancer even helped France fight the Nazis.

This year, Kupferman began to believe that his country – and the rest of the world – needed Baker as much as he did.

“Racism is very high. Anti-Semitism is very high. Hatred is very high,” said Kupferman, an essayist and PR professional for an autism advocate group in Paris. “And she fought against that. And she did it with her art. ”

In April, Kupferman revived an attempt to win Baker, who died in 1975, the rarest of French honors – embedding in the Pantheon in Paris. On Tuesday, Baker will be the 81st person to be buried or buried in the 18th-century monument dedicated to honoring French ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Contrary to some media reports, she will not be reburied in the Pantheon, but rather the memorial with a cenotaph containing land from various places where she lived. Baker simply becomes the sixth woman, the first colored woman and the first American-born person to join e.g. Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Voltaire.

Josephine Baker leans against the railing on a sea liner

Josephine Baker aboard the French ocean line Liberte when she arrived in New York Harbor on October 3, 1950.

(Associated Press)

Kupferman was not the first person to propose this honor to Baker, but his efforts succeeded quickly where others had failed. When he argued for Baker’s healing power, he would learn that he had a surprising and powerful backer, one who had the authority to honor Baker and had grown up listening with his grandmother to the meandering jazz singer’s records.

The effort also landed at a time when France, like the United States, has struggled with issues of racial identity and how it has recognized the contributions of influential colored people. The Black Lives Matter movement and the death of a black man in police custody in a suburb of Paris in 2016 sparked protests here, along with growing questions about whether France’s official color-blind philosophy of universalism masks the reality of racism and religious discrimination.

“France’s recognition of blackness always seems to try to send the message that it is not the United States,” said Annette Joseph-Gabriel, author of “Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire.”

“The reality is complex,” she said. “It is at once the reality of racial discrimination, the legacy of French colonialism, but also the promise of French universalism.”

‘I have two loves’

The Pantheon idea was sown in 2013 when Kupferman stumbled across a column in Le Monde, the French newspaper, arguing for Baker’s grounding.

The 55-year-old had grown up with Baker, as many French people do, and hummed the song “J’ai Deux Amours”, her famous tribute to her “two loves” – Paris and Manhattan.

But as he read biographies and looked up old movie clips, he began to think about her potential to revive the “light” of idealism that gave birth to France and the United States, the two great republics born in the 18th century.

“I have to say I’m in love with her,” he said. “That’s not true, but I admire her.”

Column 1

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

He learned that Baker, born in 1906, grew up fatherless in St. Louis. Louis and became a professional dancer in her teens, eventually coming to New York, where she sang and danced in the Harlem Theaters and Manhattan’s famous Plantation Club.

Baker was given the chance to sail to Europe to attend a cabaret show in Paris, a trait she later described as her best chance of escaping the dangers of being black in America. She “ran away from home,” Baker told an audience in St. Louis. Louis in 1952. “I ran away from [here], and then I ran away from the United States of America because of the terror of discrimination, the horrible beast that paralyzes one’s soul and body. “

When Baker arrived at Paris train station in 1925, a white man helped her off the train and smiled at her. According to Kuperferman, she said, “It was the first time I felt like I was being treated as a person and not as a color.”

She became a French celebrity who danced in risky cabaret and inspired Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and other artists who made Paris a symbol of culture and freedom after World War I. She wore sparse costumes and later sang with an openness that embodied the French ethos of freedom.

Josephine Baker poses in a glamorous dress with a see-through hat box.

Josephine Baker in an undated photo.

(AFP / Getty Images)

“She was Madonna before Madonna,” said Brian Scott Bagley, an American dancer who moved to Paris 14 years ago to choreograph a show about Baker and has since become a leading collector of Baker-related artifacts. He added: “The Beyoncés and Rihanna and everyone else” owe everyone a debt to her.

Baker married a white Jewish man when fascism spread across Europe in the late 1930s, and after their separation, he helped smuggle him and his family out of the country to escape the Holocaust. She became a French citizen, joined the resistance movement, charmed Nazis and stole their secrets on the way to winning medals and admiring the French people.

Like many others of her time, Baker left a legacy that is both nuanced and complex. She performed the “banana dance” and the “wild dance”, wearing feathers on her body, and walked down the Champs-Élysées with a pet cheetah to promote her shows, which portrayed her as a sexual, primitive and exotic product of the jungle – amplifier many of the ugly stereotypes of the era.

She also broke sexual taboos by having affairs with women, and she took a stab at the political order by performing in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

She adopted a dozen children from around the world – a “rainbow tribe” – to live in a utopian village she built around her castle. So, when her money ran out and she was forced to auction off the castle, she lived in a villa in Monaco at the invitation of Princess Grace, the former movie star who had become a friend. Baker spent his last years in Monaco and was buried there.

Although she fled America, it was never far from her thoughts, and she often returned to her homeland to fight American segregation laws, and she canceled appearances in venues that were only for whites. She spoke with Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. by March on Washington, one of only two women speaking to the audience that day.

“I have entered the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” she said. “And much more. But I could not go into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and it made me angry.”

‘As in a dream’

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world was full of gloom, Kupferman contacted one of Baker’s sons and said he wanted to relaunch an online signature collection he had started in 2019 to get Baker into the Pantheon. At the time, there were a handful of others on his team, including a prominent French academic and later a singer-songwriter named Laurent Voulzy.

They persuaded a radio station, France Musique, to interview them about the proposal. A few days after broadcasting the interview, the station played one day with Baker’s music.

Media attention grew and signatures rose to nearly 40,000.

Within a month, a surprise came: An adviser to President Emmanuel Macron invited the group to a meeting at the Elysée Palace. As they were about to finish, Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, stuck her head into the room to ask how it was going.

The men stood up to pay tribute to her.

She apologized that her husband was in Brussels while explaining that he grew up listening to Baker’s music with his grandmother.

“He knows your mother’s songs better than I do,” she told Brian Bouillon-Baker, a 65-year-old actor who is Baker’s seventh son and works as a family spokesman.

When they visited the palace, the First Lady confided that a decision had already been made by Macron, the ultimate authority on such matters: Baker would join the Pantheon.

“We were like in a dream,” Bouillon-Baker recalled.

Kupferman was tense but worried about getting ahead of himself.

“It was 98%, but not 100%,” he said.

Brigitte Macron, however, added that they should keep it a secret until they had the opportunity to meet with President Macron and he himself could make it public.

The meeting with the president came in July, and Kupferman and the others described their case in detail about Baker’s life and how it embodied the ideals of French universalism, a country she described in 1952 as being in “true freedom, democracy, equality and brotherhood.” . . ”

Near the end of the hour-long meeting, Macron Bouillion-Baker gave an affirmative wink, telling him that his son remembered, “Your mother will be in the Pantheon for all the services she has rendered to France, but not only to France.”

In recognition of Baker’s global influence, her cenotaph at the Pantheon will include land from Paris, Monaco, St. Louis and the Dordogne region of southwestern France, where she lived much of her life. Her funeral, announced by Macron in August, will also not be the first time she is honored by a president. In 1963, as she joined Thousands for March in Washington, she told the audience that she had just been invited to meet President Kennedy in the White House.

“I’m very honored,” she said. “But I have to tell you, a colored woman – or, as you say here in America, a black woman – does not go there. It is a woman. It is Josephine Baker.”

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