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Josephine Baker and the paradox of Blackness in France

The full episode transcript for Le Petit Problème Noir.


Into America

Le Petit Problème Noir

Trymaine Lee: Last month, Josephine Baker received one of the highest honors the nation of France can bestow on an individual. (APPLAUSE) President Emmanuel Macron inducted Baker into the Pantheon, the French National Mausoleum and resting place for heroes of the republic. Baker is the first Black woman, the first American, and the first entertainer to receive the honor. Here is Macron's speech, as it's being translated on the news channel France 24.

Translator: Josephine Baker led countless fights with a sense of freedom, levity, cheerfulness.

Lee: Josephine Baker was many things, a triple-threat entertainer who sang, danced, and acted on stage and screen, a spy who undertook daring missions throughout World War II Europe, and a Civil Rights activist in the U.S. And in the 1920s, she became one of the most famous Black Americans who left the racism and violence of the United States for a new life in Paris.

Another, author Richard Wright wrote in 1951, quote, "There is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America." For decades, the French had welcomed these Black artists and intellectuals, Americans like James Baldwin and Nina Simone.

The country has held up this embrace as proof of French universalism. The idea that equal citizenship in the nation trumps everything else like race, ethnicity, and gender. And as President Macron said in a speech at the Pantheon, few people exemplify this ideal more to the French than Josephine Baker.

Emmanuel Macron: Josephine Baker (FOREIGN LANGUAGE).

Translator: Josephine Baker did not defend a particular color of skin. She carried an idea of mankind, and she fought for the freedoms of each and every person. Her cause was that of universalism, the unity of the human race.

Lee: But France is not an alternate, colorblind universe where race doesn't exist. There's discrimination, police brutality, and the country's colonial past to reckon with.

Rokhaya Diallo: To me, it's a direct message to the current anti-racist movements, and it's trying to push that narrative offense having nothing to do with race.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Josephine Baker became the epitome of French universalism after leaving the United States to find refuge and success in Paris. But that shiny, dominant story obscures the often difficult reality of being Black in France.

Ricki Stevenson: So I kinda think of Josephine Baker in that realm of, you know, "I'm coming to dance," but she was conscious as well.

Lee: Ricki Stevenson's obsession with Josephine Baker started young. When she was just three years old, her mother took her on a trip from their home in San Diego, California to see Baker perform in Los Angeles.

Stevenson: I just remember being on a train and going into this huge building, and it was a theater. And there were hundreds of people there, and there was this woman on the stage who was performing. I was, like, "This is not TV, this is not television." And I loved her. I loved her as much as a three-year-old could.

Lee: A few years later, the family moved to the Bay Area, and they went to see Josephine Baker again, this time in San Francisco. And Ricki had an epiphany.

Stevenson: I'm going to Paris.

Lee: That early, you know that, like, "I have to be there."

Stevenson: I have to be there. (MUSIC)

Lee: Ricki grew up, became a journalist and eventually got a job as a travel reporter based in Oakland, but she never forgot Josephine Baker and the promise she had made to herself all those years earlier.

Stevenson: I had come to Paris first as a reporter, loved it. Why? Because first interest, "Well, who are you?" And that, "Oh, you're Black." And no one clutched their purse as I walked past them. I was "Madame," so in 1997, I came with my then 11-year-old daughter. We were going to spend a year. Ah, it's now been almost 24 years.

Lee: After settling in France, Ricki founded Black Paris Tours, which takes visitors around the City of Lights to different spots frequented by famous Black American expatriates. This job has made Ricki something of an expert on these stories.

Stevenson: There are so many stories, so many of them that--

Lee: Ricki says France has long been more welcoming to Black Americans than the United States itself.

Stevenson: The world's largest velodrome is dedicated to Marshall "Major" Taylor, who came in the 1890s. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois created a 435-piece exhibition on the Life of Negroes in America. Twelve million people saw this exhibit showing us schools that were created by Blacks, inventions that were created by Blacks, books, everything we had accomplished in 1900.

Lee: But when World War I brought Black American soldiers to France, Ricki says that's when the country's real obsession began.

Stevenson: The French fell in love so hard with Black American music that they were paying the Black men immediately after war. And they were, like, "They're leaving, they're going home." They started advertising in Black newspapers, "Negro musicians, come back to Paris. We'll pay you $300 a week."

Lee: In the States, Jim Crow was the law of the land in the South, and Black people across the country faced racial violence and terror. So it's not hard to see why so many Black artists, creatives, and intellectuals decided to leave America for France.

Stevenson: Jack Johnson, America's first Black heavyweight champion, they accused him of having crossed state lines for the purpose of prostitution. It was just crazy. So instead of going to jail, Jack Johnson came to France. The Black Swallow of Death, Eugene Jacques Bullard, would become actually the first Black fighter pilot.

But guess what? After the war, Bullard said, "Not going back to the United States." And he remained here. Oh, Ollie Harrington came to cover the war and then stayed. Archibald Motley, an artist who came in the 1920s. Ali Locke, one of the greatest philosophers of the Harlem renaissance. Langston Hughes, yes. Bessie Coleman, the first person in the world to get an international pilot's license.

Lee: Paris had its own brand of racism and bigotry, but it was nothing like the United States. Josephine Baker was just 11 years old when her neighborhood was attacked, and she saw up close what she would later describe as "the terror of discrimination."

Stevenson: She witnessed the 1917 East St. Louis riots, and I remember reading that she thought she was going to die.

Lee: In July 1917, white mobs rampaged through the Illinois town, which sits across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. One newspaper headline from the time tells of "One hundred Negroes shot, burned, and stabbed to death." Another reads, "Manhunting mobs burn 60 homes, and slay fleeing Blacks by bullet and rope."

Stevenson: They were actually Europeans crossing the bridge from St. Louis into East St. Louis where Black Americans were living in boxcars. And the Europeans were angry that Black Americans were being hired for jobs in the industries in St. Louis.

And so they attacked this community, East St. Louis boxcar town. Here's 11-year-old Josephine Baker. Her mother told Josephine, "Take your brother and sister and run out into the woods." There was a hole in the boxcar, and she said, "Run out into the woods, 'cause they're gonna come and kill us." And she talked about many years later having seen a man who was a friend of her father being shot in the face, being killed.

Lee: The violence of that day and other racism she endured while working as a maid in St. Louis stuck with Baker, so when she was just 13 years old, Baker headed East to pursue her dreams in theater.

Stevenson: She eventually got a job as a chorus girl working for two men, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel. They had performed in France during World War I and were adored. They were part of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters. And when they went back to the United States, they put together two plays. One was called Chocolate Dandies. The other was called Shuffle Along. (MUSIC)

Lee: Shuffle Along was one of the first all-Black Broadway productions, and it was a huge hit. Baker had a role in a touring production based in Baltimore.

Stevenson: And so Josephine Baker, this little girl who made her way from St. Louis to Baltimore, and she got into the B-company of Shuffle Along.

Lee: Josephine Baker eventually made it to Broadway, and her star power started to rise. Ricki says young Josephine found a way to stand out. If you see some of those early pictures of her, she was really, like, goofy and, like, I mean, obviously she's gorgeous and beautiful, but she had this goofy thing, this funny thing about her.

Stevenson: She could make herself do all of these little poses and roll her eyes. At one point, Josephine Baker was called, "The highest paid chorus girl in New York City."

Lee: Wow.

Stevenson: Because she made herself the funny girl.

Lee: Despite her eventual success on Broadway, Josephine Baker still had to deal with being Black in America.

Stevenson: Imagine, you're the highest-paid chorus girl in New York. You're dancing and performing Cotton Club and all of these fabulous places. But come intermission, you have to go outside. If they were in these clubs, no matter what, who you were, if you were Black, you had to go outside. You couldn't hang out.

Lee: That's crazy.

Stevenson: Even at the Cotton Club, the Black entertainers couldn't hang out with the audience, not with the white audience.

Lee: In 1925, Baker traveled to Paris with a new production, La Revue Negre. It featured some of the hottest acts from Harlem like jazz visionary Sidney Bechet. But at just 19 years old, it was Josephine Baker who stole the show.

Stevenson: When she came on stage, the audience lost their minds. There used to be two ticket kiosks outside Théâtre des Champs-Élysées where they first performed. It was October 2nd, 1925, and the clamor for tickets was such that people turned the kiosks over and dragged the ticket sellers out. It was a masterful success.

Lee: All of a sudden, Baker was making more money than she ever had in the U.S., and she was treated with a new level of respect.

Stevenson: Now I'm not just the little chorus girl makin' a lotta money, makin' $75 a week. Now I am being pursued, being catered to, being treated as a person and as an adored person.

Lee: And so Josephine Baker made France her home. Her shows were wildly successful. She even acted on the silver screen, and in 1937, she married a Frenchman and became a citizen of France. In World War II, Baker's new country was under attack, and she wanted to help. So she joined the resistance.

Stevenson: She could go places where the Germans might not suspect. You know, what is she doing, she's just an entertainer. And she could get secrets.

Lee: Wow.

Stevenson: Josephine Baker would take the secrets, write them, she said she wrote notes in invisible ink in her music. You know, her musicians had their music sheets, so she would take them and write notes.

Lee: Besides her fame, Baker had another trick up her sleeve. A few years earlier, she had bought herself a plane and learned to fly so she could get herself to her own concert dates.

Stevenson: Why is that of significance? When she went into the French resistance, she would then use that skill as a pilot to deliver supplies in some places.

Lee: That's great.

Stevenson: So she was a very effective spy.

Lee: After her service in World War II, she was awarded the French Resistance medal and the Croix de Guerre for heroism in combat. And General Charles de Gaulle made her a chevalier or knight in the French Legion of Honor. After becoming a war hero, Josephine Baker turned her attention to the Civil Rights movement in the United States. She adopted 12 children from around the world to show that a family wasn't dictated by race. She called it her "rainbow tribe." And when she toured the U.S., her rainbow tribe in tow, she used her star power to force change.

Stevenson: Josephine Baker came to San Francisco in 1951 to perform at a theater, and Josephine Baker said, "Okay, I'll perform, but--" now this is San Francisco, "I'll only perform if you promise me" that Black Americans, Negroes, Coloreds we were called then, "that Colored people can come to any theater where I perform. And they're not gonna sit up in the balcony. They're going to sit wherever they can afford my tickets."

Lee: The theater listened to her and desegregated its seats.

Stevenson: This woman was amazing.

Archival Recording: I would like to introduce to you a person who though far in residence from our shores has come all the way from her home to be with us today, Ms. Josephine Baker. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: Her activism earned her a spot as the only woman to give an official speech at the 1963 March on Washington. She told the audience about how in France, she didn't feel like a person defined only by the color of her skin, but rather a fully accepted human.

Josephine Baker: I want you to know that this is the happiest day of my entire life. You are a united people at last. You are on the eve of complete victory. Continue on. You can't go home. The world is behind you. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, his widow Coretta Scott King asked Josephine Baker to take over as a leader of the movement, but Baker declined writing later in her autobiography that her children couldn't afford to lose their mother.

Baker died in 1975 when she was 68 years old. More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession. And the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Ricki was at the Pantheon induction ceremony last month, and she says the experience almost moved her to tears.

Stevenson: It's bringing me full circle from that three-year-old who watched her on stage with her rainbow tribe of children to being invited to attend her induction into the Pantheon. She is immortalized. It was the French do pomp and circumstance like you have never seen before.

But this was a solemn, dignified, beautiful, breathtaking ceremony. What they did was they brought out a coffin, brought it down, the military men and women and choirs bringing it down this blocks-long red carpet. And the music and the people standing there, I mean, along the side, and people weeping. And it was just, you know, impressive. It was so impressive.

Lee: The ceremony was definitely impressive, and it was moving to see a country rally around the memory of a Black woman. But some Black French activists say that all the pomp and circumstance on display that night glosses over hard truths about the real experience of being Black in France.

Diallo: I was born and raised in France, and I've got in my country so many times, "Where are you from?" And even if I say, "I was born and raised in Paris," people are, like, "Yes, but where are you from from?"

Lee: More when we come back.

Lee: While Ricki Stevenson was at the Pantheon ceremony, author and anti-racism activist Rokhaya Diallo was watching it on TV. And there was one thing that President Emmanuel Macron said that really bothered her.

Translator: And let no one today distort the universal nature of the cause, because being Black for her 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.

Diallo: That's very interesting that our president opposes the fact of being Black to the fact of being free. Like, what does it mean? You can be Black and fighting in the name of your blackness and still be a free citizen. So saying that, Macron says to all the people of color and Black people who say that there is a problem with race in France that it's not true and that Josephine Baker, unlike them, is above race.

Lee: After George Floyd was murdered and people took to the streets in France, President Macron did acknowledge how quote, "Address, name and color of skin could impact someone's experience in the country." But his government has resisted more in-depth discussions of racism. And many officials in his party have said, "The movement for Black lives is American and has no place in France." We reached out to Macron's office for comment but didn't hear back.

Diallo: To me, it's a direct message to the current anti-racist movements, because lately, especially after the murder of George Floyd, we've started to speak openly about race and about systemic racism in France, which was not the case before. Because France is supposedly universalist and is supposedly colorblind and is trying to push that narrative of France having nothing to do with race.

Lee: Which one, it seemed from our history it wasn't true, but also sounds like he's trying to "all lives matter" this moment.

Diallo: Exactly.

Lee: Well, let's go back in time just a little bit to the France that Josephine Baker and so many other folks were arriving into, especially in the mid 20th century. A lot of Black Americans, celebrated artists from James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois and everyone was flocking to France, fleeing the virulent racism and the white supremacist violence of the American South in particular. But why did they find a relative safe space in France that they couldn't find in America? What was the difference? What was the environment like where it did suit them to some degree?

Diallo: What is true is that all those people from the U.S., those Black people from the U.S. had access to places in areas that were not accessible in the U.S. You could go to the cafes. You could go to the many different venues, which was not possible in many places in the U.S.

So there was not the same kind of segregation. But at the same time, France was also a colonial power. Like my family from Senegal, in the 1920s when Josephine Baker was dancing, they were not even citizens from France. They were colonized, and they were subjects.

So it was a refuge for African American, because as they didn't have anything to do with the French history, they were not exposed to the discriminatory laws that were targeting colonized people. And there was also forced work, (FOREIGN LANGUAGE), I don't remember how you say that in English.

Lee: Indentured servitude?

Diallo: Yes, exactly. It was still occurring until 1946, almost a century after the abolition of slavery. So it was possible in the colonies to force someone to work legally until 1946. And the exact same time, you had people like Sidney Bechet, like Richard Wright, like Josephine Baker, who were enjoying the freedom in Paris.

So it's not to diminish, you know, their experience, because it really happened. But it shouldn't erase the fact that at the same time you had people in Asia, in Africa, in the Caribbean, in South America who were facing a very different France.

Lee: Rokhaya deeply admires Josephine Baker and her contributions to France and the Civil Rights movement, but she says Baker's fame has complicated origins.

Diallo: To me, Josephine Baker is an incredible figure. She's fabulous. She's inspiring. She was brave. And she's a very important symbol of our nation. At the same time, when she came to France, she drew the interests of people who were in charge of creating shows because she was a Black person. And the first shows in which she took place were inspired by what people thought about Africa at that time. It was meant to perpetuate the image of Africa, especially the part that was colonized by France then.

Lee: In one of her most famous dance routines, Baker wore a skirt made from 16 rubber bananas. And while she found ways of claiming ownership over the racist costume, Rokhaya says the image always leaves her with mixed feelings.

Diallo: She was kind of impersonating the idea of the exotic Black woman, and she really managed herself to make fun of this image and to kind of ridicule it by having choreographies that were parodic. But the purpose of the show was directly connected to her blackness.

Lee: Do we have a sense of how Josephine Baker would have reconciled that? Because as a global citizen and one who had activist impulses, she would have understood the difference between her experience and a Senegalese, you know, French subject, right? I think she would have understood that. Do we have any sense of how she might have balanced or reconciled or confronted that truth?

Diallo: I'm sure she understood, but I don't know how much she was connected to those communities of people of color who came from the colonies. Josephine Baker, it's important to say that when she came to France she was only 19. And she was illiterate.

Lee: Wow.

Diallo: So it was not maybe her place first to be among the people who were thinking about the French oppression, because she was probably not aware of what was happening in other places than, you know, where she was. And she didn't have maybe the tools to first as a young person understand the dynamics of power.

Lee: And, you know, France isn't exclusive in holding all these kind of conflicting ideas where some people of color and Black were celebrated while they also not only maintain and support but participate in this other kind of subjugation. What is it about France where all of these ideas can work simultaneously? And I'd probably argue that it's still happening today, right, or even in America, right? We can be oppressive and have the carceral system but then love LeBron James, right.

Diallo: Exactly.

Lee: But talk to us about France in that space.

Diallo: Yes, it's interesting because even today if you are a Black American in France, you are celebrated. Because once people understand that you're not French or African, you have nothing to do with our history. And there is a kind of complex, there is an admiration towards the U.S.

So if you are from the U.S., you're not Black anymore. And it's interesting because I was speaking out in my first documentary that was crossing the experience of people of color in France and in the U.S. I interviewed Jake Lamar, who is an African American novelist who's been living in Paris for two or three decades I think now.

And he was telling me that when he was checked by the police, because here in France you can be checked by the police randomly in the streets. Randomly means, like, mostly people of color and men. So when he was checked as a Black man, once he just gave his American passport, there was no problem anymore.

It's the same experience that I live when I go to the U.S. When people hear my accent and understand that I'm French, I'm no longer Black. They ask me about fashion, about whatever they connect to France. And I live a very different experience of blackness being in the U.S. when people understand that I'm European.

Lee: That's wild. And how do you personally balance that? How does that make you feel? Does it make you feel any kind of way?

Diallo: You know, I was born and raised in France, and I've got in my country so many times, "Where are you from?" And even if I say, "I was born and raised in Paris," people are, like, "Yes, but where are you from from?"

Lee: 'Cause you're not really French, 'cause you can't possibly be really French, right?

Diallo: Exactly.

Lee: It's impossible.

Diallo: And now I've got, like, "Oh, your French is so good, how come?" And I'm, like, "Because I was born here. And my grandfather was also French, because he was colonized, so we've been French for a very long time." But when I go to any other country including the U.S. and I say, "I'm French," people accept that. And I feel much more French out of my country than in my country, because it's not questioned in the same way. And so your accent is a protection, (LAUGH) you see?

Lee: Yeah.

Diallo: Yes.

Lee: That's amazing. So I know you've been kind of unpacking the complication here with this honoring of Josephine Baker while France has been much like again America racist, and continues to manifest racism in different ways. And I wonder how people have responded in this moment. Like, how are people responding to you? And I know you wrote this really amazing op-ed critiquing and unpacking this stuff. How have people responded?

Diallo: Thank you for asking the question, because my op-ed starts with my admiration to Josephine Baker that is unquestionable. Because she was an exceptional woman. But the response in France was so negative. It was so negative that a couple of days after the publication of my op-ed, my name was on trending topics of Twitter France and said that I was trying to undermine another Black woman, which was funny, because they never see color except when it's mentioned by a Black woman or a people of color.

So they said that I was trying to diminish Josephine Baker as a human being. It was very shocking, because once more, I really admire who she was. Because she was a trailblazer in her time. And I know that she played a role in the fact that I do exist today in any way as a French person in the public sphere. They couldn't stand a Black person saying, "Okay, I'm happy, but."

Lee: Rokhaya says through this criticism, she keeps coming back to Josephine Baker's banana skirt.

Diallo: I'm happy, but at the same time there is a part of me (SIREN) that questions and wonders why, you know, I'm not comfortable with the whole image, the banana skirt that you mentioned. You know, because whenever someone is exposed to racism in Europe, and I guess it's the same all around the world, they get bananas.

Like, the football players when they are getting racial slurs, they get bananas in the face. Our former Minister of Justice, who is Christiane Taubira, she's a Black woman, she got bananas when she was a Minister of Justice. So the symbol of the bananas is also racism. That's why I was not totally comfortable with the symbol of the bananas around her hips.

Lee: Mm-hmm. It's the purest form of white supremacy, because we're never fully human. And it doesn't matter if we're talking about Americans or French. We as Black people and descendants of the continent will never be fully human, let alone fully French or fully American or fully wherever we're talking about.

Diallo: Exactly.

Lee: So it's clearly an uncomfortable image at best.

Diallo: Yes. It operates the same way. Wherever you are, you're facing white supremacy, which puts itself into the way it's conformed to the local culture. At the end of the day, it's the same. Like, I told you that in the U.S., I kind of felt safe when people understood that I was French.

But when I covered the Ferguson uprisings, I knew that I was Black. And no one had nothing to do with the fact that I had a French passport, because once I don't say anything, I'm just one Black person among many others. And I'm facing the same kind of white supremacy, so even that kind of protection that you can feel is fragile.

Lee: Do you think there's any possible way, and obviously this is not to diminish Josephine Baker's accomplishments at all. She's an amazing woman, but is there any way she ends up in the Pantheon if she's a Black French woman? Or is her Americanness that has afforded her all this birth into the space?

Diallo: I think that she wouldn't have had the same story if she was a French woman. She was able to navigate in the French white supremacy also because she was American and because she was facing a very different kind of racism. In the movies, the parts that she had were very stereotypical, because she was always playing that exotic woman from Tunisia, from Martinique, who was in love with a white man that never loved her back.

Lee: Right.

Diallo: In her real life, she was such a popular woman with men and white men, but on screen, it was not possible to make her lovable. Coming from another place maybe gave her a kind of audacity that she wouldn't have if she was raised in the context of French racism, being racialized as a French colonized woman.

Lee: Mm-hmm. Do you have a story about traveling abroad while Black? Tell us about it. You can tweet me at Trymaine Lee, that's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or write to us at That was Into America at NBC and the letters U-N-I-dot-com.

Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Special thanks this week to Olivia Riçhard. I'm Trymaine Lee. Catch you next Thursday.