The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Josephine Baker enters the Panthéon. Don’t let it distract from this larger story.

Josephine Baker poses at the Bois de Boulogne waterfall, near Paris, in June 1949. (AFP/Getty Images)

Josephine Baker, one of the most fascinating figures of French 20th-century history, is finally being interred at the Panthéon, after an announcement by President Emmanuel Macron in August. She is the first woman of color and first artist to be interred at the mausoleum, which houses the remains of the most distinguished French citizens. There is no doubt she deserves the honor — but France should not use this moment to congratulate itself on its treatment of people of color.

Baker is a national hero in many ways. The granddaughter of enslaved people, born in 1906 in St. Louis, she later fled to France to escape segregation, succeeding in a career she could never have had in the United States, where, even as an international star, she was not allowed to stay in luxury hotels.

She gained instant fame in Paris in 1925 and revolutionized the performing arts. One of the first international Black stars in history, she became a beauty icon and among the most photographed women of her time. Her skin tone and short hair contrasted with the White bourgeois beauty standards of the era, allowing her to launch her own cosmetic lines: “Bakerfix” to imitate her hairstyle and “Bakeroil” to give people brown skin.

After becoming a French citizen in 1937, she demonstrated exceptional courage during World War II, when she took part in the French Resistance against Nazi Germany, using her status and femininity to travel and gather information. She is the recipient of several military honors.

And as the only woman to speak at the March of Washington in 1963 alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she proudly stood on the podium with the uniform of the Free French forces. After King’s assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King, reached out to request her to lead the civil rights movement. She declined, but the request says a lot about the level of respect she gained over the years.

As a result of this history, Baker’s story is often used in France to push forward the myth of a republic that is supposedly more welcoming to Black people than the United States is. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, France has built this narrative by welcoming many African American artists, including Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and others who could not stand oppression in the United States anymore.

It was convenient to welcome those who did not have a historic argument to settle with France. Yet, during this time, France was a violent colonial power. As Baker was dancing on Parisian stages, France was still exhibiting colonized populations in “human zoos.”

Baker made France look good. Though her heroism is incontestable, she always expressed gratitude to France and never criticized its colonialism. It is therefore telling that Macron did not take up a proposal to pantheonize lawyer Gisèle Halimi, who was involved in anticolonial activism in support of the Algerian people during their war against France.

Moreover, Baker’s performances were also part of the blueprint that shaped the image of the Black woman in French imagination. One of her most well-known involved dancing in a banana skirt — a clip that always leaves me with mixed feelings. The show was designed to depict a stereotypical vision of Africa that indirectly celebrated the colonial goal and racist notions of white superiority. When she was told to undress and don the skirt, Baker cried and vehemently requested to get on a boat to go back home. She ultimately made the performance her own, adopting clownish poses and injecting parody in a piece that was conceived for hypersexualization.

Her nickname, “Ebony Venus,” echoes painfully another “Venus”: the “Hottentot Venus” Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman whose body fascinated early 19th-century Europe. Baartman was exhibited and tormented with abuse until her early death in France, and even after that, her remains were disrespectfully dissected and displayed.

On screens, Baker never fully made it. She was doomed to play the same role of the naive woman of color in love with a White hero who never loved her back.

Today, the image of Baker is so loved that even Marine Le Pen, a leader of the far right, celebrates her. And Macron has honored her because she is a symbol of France’s universalist stance.

Yet, at a time when immigration is at the heart of so many political tensions, and as French people of color still face discrimination, it will take more than Baker’s elevation to show the republic has changed.