David and Art - "An American in Paris"

Sep 20, 2021

A jazz age dancer and singer will soon be in the company of famous French philosophers and novelists.

One of the most famous sites in Paris is a Roman style temple called the Pantheon.  When construction on it began in the mid-1700s it was intended to be a church. But, by the time it was finished, the French Revolution was going, so it was repurposed as a final resting place for French luminaries from the worlds of politics, science, and the arts.

The philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau are there; novelists like Victor Hugo and Emile Zola; key politicians like Leon Gambetta and Jean Jaures; scientists like Marie Curie.  On  

November 30 they will be joined by an American.  An African American.  An African American woman.  Her name is Josephine Baker. 

Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis and grew up wanting to be a dancer.  By the early 1920s, she was in New York working in chorus lines.  Finally she got a job with the traveling production of Shuffle Along, one of the most significant Broadway musicals of its day.  Still, she didn’t have a big breakthrough until she left the country to perform in France.  She arrived in Paris on September 22, 1925.

By the 1930s she was known primarily as a jazz singer and became a French citizen in 1937. Her star status helped her become a special agent during WWII working against  Nazi occupation.  Her house was used as a base by the French resistance and, as she performed around Europe, she carried secret messages written in invisible ink on sheet music. 

After the war, she returned to the United States for a triumphant tour but when dozens of hotels wouldn’t let her and her entourage stay in them, she forcefully spoke out against segregation, was consequently labeled a communist, and her work permit was cancelled.  By 1963 she was an outspoken figure in the civil rights movement and one of only two women to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.  She died in Paris in 1975.

The idea to honor her in the Pantheon has been around for a while, but it gained momentum last May when a petition drive began. By June it had 30,000 signatures. Only the French president can decide to induct someone into the Panthéon.  But last month President Emmanuel Macron announced that he supported it, so, in November, it will happen. 

Essayist and critic Laurent Kupferman said that in “a world turned in on itself, where tribalism and racism are exacerbated, her ideals resonate in people’s hearts.”

Americans should know this, and should be proud.