My French lesson on Josephine Baker

According to Joni Mitchell, “In France they kiss on Main Street.” Oui and non. Some kissing, mostly smoking. Sorry Joni. Actually, while in France, I asked for the location of Main Street. The confused look I received told me that “Main Street” is not really a thing in France or, more likely, they had no idea what I was trying to say. My French language skills are more like a dog with a large vocabulary. And that’s before I try acting it out, which I think is endearingly annoying. My wife says I’m half right — annoying.

Three things you can always count on when visiting France: fabulous food, great wine, and a labor strike. We hit the trifecta. And with good weather to boot. As usual, I waged a losing battle trying to take a shower without flooding the bathroom. Is a proper shower door too much to ask? Before getting on a nationalist high horse and piling on the French about mundane cultural differences I must acknowledge that France put us to shame in the treatment of one of our own: Josephine Baker.

A visit to her home in the Dordogne region, Chateau des Milandes, now a national historical monument, was an eye-opener. We mostly know Josephine Baker as the Black Jazz Age cabaret entertainer scantily clad in a banana skirt. But she is so much more than that. Growing up dirt poor in St. Louis, uneducated and subject to virulent and violent racism, she witnessed Black families being burned out of their homes. Despite many obstacles, she made her way to Broadway and achieved modest success. Moving to France changed everything. She became one of the most successful entertainers in the world. France loved her and she loved France. Josephine Baker was an American original who was never truly embraced by her country. Returning to the United States at the height of her popularity, the Stork Club in Manhattan refused to serve her. Hotels remained strictly segregated and off limits and when she fought back, famed columnist Walter Winchell accused her of Communist sympathies.

Patriot, civil rights activist, humanitarian, Josephine Baker led by example. She joined the French Resistance and served in the French military during World War II. We’re not talking about celebrity public service messages. We’re talking about espionage. She risked her career and her life spying for French counterintelligence. After the war, in addition to being awarded a French Resistance medal, and the Croix de Guerre, she received the ultimate accolade, the Legion of Honor from President Charles de Gaulle.

In the United States she refused to perform for segregated audiences despite threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan. In 1963, at the March on Washington, proudly wearing her French Resistance uniform, she spoke out against discrimination before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Back home in France, she adopted 12 children from around the world, her “rainbow tribe,” to show that children with different religions and different cultures could live and thrive together.

In 2021, she was posthumously given France’s highest honor: induction into the French Pantheon. She was the only Black woman and only American to receive that honor.

As I mopped up the latest shower monsoon in my hotel bathroom I felt a little foolish criticizing the French over an inconvenience. France welcomed and honored Josephine Baker. America disapproved and ignored her. Despite the delicious meals we had enjoyed, learning of our indifference left a bitter taste.

M.A. Duca is a resident of Twin Lakes, narrowly focused on everyday life.

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