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Josephine Baker and the paradox of Blackness in France

Josephine Baker is seen as the epitome of French universalism. Into America explores how this narrative obscures the reality of Black life in France.

About this episode:

In the 1920s, Josephine Baker escaped the violent racism of in the United States to seek refuge in Paris, like so many other Black American creatives have done over time. Baker found that France welcomed her, and the freedom she found there helped her become an international sensation in dancing, singing, and acting.

Baker eventually became not only a French citizen but a decorated hero in the French Resistance during World War II. She also continued to speak out against racism in her home country, and was the only woman on the official speakers list at the 1963 March on Washington.

All of this helped Baker become the first Black woman, first American, and first entertainer inducted into the Panthéon in Paris, one of the greatest honors bestowed in France. On this episode of Into America, host Trymaine Lee talks about the significance of this honor with Ricki Stevenson, a Black American whose own move to Paris in the 1990s was inspired by Baker, and who has been fighting for more recognition for Baker here in the States.

During the induction ceremony last month, French President Emmanuel Macron called Baker “ever fair, ever fraternal, ever fraternal, and ever French,” and held her up as a shining example of French universalism: “Being Black didn’t take precedence over being American or French. She was not fighting in the name of a Black cause, no she was fighting to be a free citizen, one who lived in dignity and completely free.”

But France’s relationship with race is much more complicated than that. Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist, author, and activist, tells Into America that Macron’s words dilute Baker’s own contributions to civil rights, and also obscure the racism that Black French people like her experience on a daily basis.

Thoughts? Feedback? Story ideas? Write to us at intoamerica@nbcuni.com.

Find the full transcript here.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After this episode published, we did hear back from a representative of the French Embassy in Washington, DC. He wanted to be clear that at no point did French President Macron say that there was no racism in France. Rather, that under the principal of French universalism, the best way for society to achieve equality is to not prioritize an individual’s race, origin, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity-based characteristics. He said that all people should have the rights and duties of French citizenship, and that this is what Josephine Baker was fighting for.

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