Justice for Josephine Baker means restoring her US nationality
Yesterday, France accorded its highest honor to a mixed-race American who achieved fame and acceptance there even as her own country treated her with scorn, racism and hostility. This American lost her birth citizenship, most likely due to sexist French and U.S. laws that denied women dual nationality, but never her attachment to the United States or her hope that it might someday redeem the promise of full civil rights for all its citizens.
It is not too late for Congress to right this wrong with a measure of equal symbolism and restore her nationality.
The American in question is Josephine Baker, the singer and dancer who scandalized and electrified Paris in the 1920s before she became a major celebrity, a decorated resistance fighter during World War II, an adoptive mother to a “rainbow tribe” of a dozen children from around the world and an entrepreneur. She was also a staunch supporter of civil rights in the country that rejected her, mostly forgot her and relegated her to a dismissive footnote in the rich history of African Americans who found artistic freedom and a measure of equal treatment in France that they could not find in the U.S.
When I came to Paris on assignment as a U.S. diplomat 25 years ago, the image I had of Baker was exactly this. I quickly learned, however, of the large place Josephine Baker still occupies in the French collective consciousness.
Yes, Baker was a stage dancer initially known for performing semi-nude or garlanded with her infamous banana skirt. But dancers today point to how pathbreaking her moves and raw expressiveness were, as well as how she helped to break taboos in her day, which still inspires choreographers now. She may not have lived in our digital age, but she was known worldwide much in the same way as Sherrie Silver, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga.
French journalist Rokhaya Diallo, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, well summarized many of the troubling aspects of the French government’s decision to induct Josephine Baker into the Panthéon alongside other honorees. There is a measure of political opportunism at play that ignores much of France’s own institutional racism and colonial past to highlight Baker’s undeniable contributions to the French nation. The nomination’s assertion that she “chose eternal France of universal enlightenment” for the sake of her lifelong fight for “freedom and emancipation” when she took French citizenship is pure hyperbole given the actual circumstance. The timing of his presidency announcement also suggests that President Emmanuel Macron had no problem using this grand gesture to get in a dig at Washington at the very moment Paris was fuming over the loss of a lucrative submarine deal with Australia.
It is significant that the date for this solemn ceremony marked the day in 1937 when Josephine Baker was naturalized as French. A key consequence, however, of this event was Baker’s loss of her American citizenship. U.S. and French law at the time made it virtually impossible for a woman to hold dual nationality. Like countless American women who married foreign nationals and were obliged to take their nationality (and who also had to reapply for U.S. citizenship after divorce or death of the husband), Baker had no choice. It probably helped, especially as she divorced this husband not long thereafter, that she gained French nationality she could retain, but it is wrong to assume Baker, by becoming French, intended to turn her back on her country of birth.
Indeed, Josephine Baker, as a French national, regularly traveled to the U.S. after World War II. Her remarkable participation in the 1963 March on Washington — resplendent in a uniform of the French resistance and the only Black woman to address the crowd — should be testament enough of her belief that, however bitter she was about her treatment and the treatment of others like her, the U.S. was at last on a journey toward something like true equality.
She was invited to the White House on that day to meet President John F. Kennedy, whose family she counted as friends. One of Baker’s sons told me recently how she regretted not being able to attend JFK’s funeral or that of Martin Luther King, but that she and her children did travel back to attend the funeral of Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Officially, Washington has so far largely ignored the high honor France bestowed on Josephine Baker. It is not too late, however, to correct that. Congress has the power to confer and restore American citizenship. I believe it is high time that Congress considers passing bipartisan legislation posthumously rescinding the cancellation of Baker’s citizenship.
Like her entry into the French Panthéon, this would mostly be a symbolic gesture. Nevertheless, for this long-deceased victim of racism, McCarthyism and the prevalent sexism of U.S. nationality law, it is time that the U.S. grant her a measure of justice she was always denied in the country she did not abandon but which largely abandoned her.
William Jordan is president of the Paris-based Association of Americans Resident Overseas (aaro.org) and a retired Foreign Service Officer. This article reflects his personal opinion and not necessarily that of his organization.
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