Traveling While Black: This One’s for Watts

driving while black 2Traveling While Black. Where do I start? The accommodations on the slave ships? Full-price tickets for a Jim Crow ride? Accidents victims who were refused care at the white hospital, who died on the way to the “colored” one? Before there was Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, or Samuel DuBose, there was Marquette Frye, a motorist pulled over on a steamy August night 50 years ago. After he failed a sobriety test, his brother ran to get their mom to drive the car home to avoid having it impounded. All three ended up arrested, as more cops and more community members arrived on the scene, tensions mounting by the minute. That night all the police brutality, all the unemployment, all the broken American promises in a long-neglected community came due. Rage and fire spread over six days as 34 died, more than 100 were shot, and another 1000 were injured. The financial toll in destruction was upwards of $40 million—more than $300 million in 2015 dollars. Cut to 1991 where police beat motorist Rodney King to a bloody pulp after a high speed chase. In one of the earliest instances of a poliStraight Outta Comptonce-citizen encounter captured on videotape, people around the world watched in horror, certain that police would be found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon or excessive use of force. But the following year the jury couldn’t agree that the officers were in the wrong, so they walked. That’s when people took to the streets, and six black guys pulled white motorist Reginald Denny from his truck and beat him to a bloody pulp—the first blow in a rebellion that lasted five days, in which 58 died, 2,500 were injured, and $1 billion in property was destroyed. Cross dissolve to late July 2015, when I see an advance screening of Straight Out of Compton (pictured above), where director F. Gary Gray films several police encounters from the prospective of those detained: heads slammed against car hoods, chins pushed into pavement. “It’s the unnecessary humiliation that can be a part of policing” that sticks in the black community’s craw, Cube asserted. “They have to be heavy handed with criminals,” he added, “but why do they have to be that way with citizens?” Suffice it to say, it’s been a long, bloody ride. And we ain’t there yet.

Images: Russell Lee photo of five boys in Chicago on Easter 1941; still from Straight Outta Compton.

Adventures Along the Color Line

Before there was a biracial box, the juicy topic of light-skinned Blacks passing for white surfaced again and again in segregated America. In 1912, NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson published the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Manmike black & white, in which a fair-skinned guy witnesses a lynching, and then decides he’s done with the whole Negro thing, and goes undercover as a white man. But when he gets engaged to a woman in his new social circle, he must be honest with her, and find out if her love for him is more than skin deep.

In the 1920’s, Harlem Renaissance writers often embraced this subject, including Jessie Redmon Fauset in Plum Bun, a novel where the black main character trades on her light skin to gain social sway, but later feels she’s sacrificed, well, nella bookher soul. And then there’s Nella Larsen’s novella, Passing, about two women, once childhood friends, who make different choices: one marrying a white racist and living a lie, the other settling in with her black hubby in Harlem, and becoming active in the community.

(The latter story falls along the lines of my grandma, Wilma Johnson, who looked white and married my very brown skinned grandpa. I had thought she passed to shop on New York’s Lower East Side back in the day, but recently Dad said, “She shopped in East Harlem.”)

In Langston Hughes’ poignant short story, “Passing,” a light-skinned black son writes to his mother: “Dear Ma, I felt like a dog, passing you downtown last night and not speaking to you. You were great, though. Didn’t give me a sign that you even knew me, let alone I was your son.”

In a more humorous tale, Hughes’ “Who’s Passing for Who,” two of the people in the story appear to be passing for white, and then black, and then white—leaving the reader’s assumptions thoroughly upended.

walt & sis Walter Francis White, far right at his Atlanta University graduation, was both a Harlem Renaissance writer and a passer. But the NAACP leader never stepped out of the race to shed his blackness as if held captive. Instead, he whistled as he skipped along the color line, dipping his toe down on either side to stir things up.

From 1918 to 1930, he secretly investigated lynchings and race riots, reporting on them to raise awareness, and also to champion anti-lynching legislation in Congress. He never managed to get a bill through both houses, but did put mob violence on the map, attracting a host of allies, which served to reduce the number of lynching incidents.

Of Walter’s books, he writes on passing in the novel Flight, where the protagonist initially passes for Caucasian, and then later re-embraces her racial identity. The whole tragic mulatto trope of his time warned the light, bright and damn-near white not to risk crossing over, in part because it could be hazardous to your health if whites found out, but also because it cut you off from family as you nursed a spiritually cancerous secret. Still, at one point in the US, upwards of 13,000 light-skinned blacks a year exited the race, many never to be heard from again.walt & sis

Walter (right: with sister, Ruby) came from a family that could have easily passed. In fact a 1900 census listed them as white. And when his father got hit by a car in 1930, he received great care at the white hospital–until his daughter and brown-skinned son-in-law showed up. That’s when they wheeled the patriarch, still critical from his injuries, straight to the filthy Colored ward, where rats roamed at will. He died shortly thereafter.

Walter’s favorite whipping girl, Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel—for her series of stereotypical maid roles—got a career jumpstart because of a film that dealt with passing. Imitation of Life (IOL) starred a white woman, Claudette Colbert, and a black one, Louise Beavers, as mothers struggling to raise willful daughters. Till then, black folks were mainly on the margins of Hollywood films, but 1934’s IOL put the two women’s stories on nearly equal footing. The black woman’s greatest challenge was her daughter, Peola, played by uber light-skinned Fredi Washington fredi and louise(photo at left) who decides to pass for white for more opportunity and less hassle. Peola reclaims her blackness too late, returning home after her mother has died pining for her.

The upside of this sticky melodrama is that audiences ate it up, demonstrating to a doubting Hollywood that people really would pay to see a black woman co-star—as long as she was dark skinned and plump. Washington never worked in Hollywood again, returning disillusioned to her native New York where she became a journalist for a paper run by (the future Congressman) Rev. Adam Clayton Powell. (IOL got remade in 1959 with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.)jenner-dolezal

Over time, passing stories began, well, to fade. In Hughes’ Who’s Passing for Who, his narrator arrives at this: “We literary ones considered ourselves too broad-minded to be bothered with questions of color. We liked people of any race who smoked incessantly, drank liberally, wore complexion and morality as loose garments, and made fun of anyone who didn’t do likewise.”

As we continue to move deeper into an era where gender, race, and sexual orientation are increasingly fluid, people try on identities until they find the one suits them best, as those who would judge wrestle with their discomfort and outmoded expectations.

Photo Credits: B&W Mike,; Nella Larsen,; Walter at Atlanta University/with sister, White: The Biography of Walter White/Rose Palmer; Fredi Washington,; Dolezal/Jenner,

Because Josh Said So (Notes on a Revision)

whitewallet2As I told the writing teacher the eight most important turning points in my script—a k a story beats—I thought: He’s only half listening. But Josh Hoover of Thunder Studios got it, and his suggestions made me open up my screenplay and whack 12 pages right off the top.

“Often, your story starts too soon,” he shared in his 2-day class, now taught monthly at Long Beach Public Access Digital Network (PADNET). Then he said something that provoked an even more radical shift in my screenplay: That my main character didn’t sound like the main char

acter at all. It was her nemesis who took the most action, setting off the farthest reaching chain of events; so the story seemed to belong to him, Josh asserted.josh teaching class

I’d heard this before, but when he added his voice to the chorus, it felt like a consensus. So in paring away the first 12 pages, which had established actress Hattie McDaniel’s journey as the one the audience would take, I’m instead introducing the NAACP‘s Walter Francis White’s first, and am now beginning to chart the tale more through his eyes and sensibilities.

The shift is uncomfortable for me. Walter was a gutsy businessman, traveling globally, and going toe to toe with Congressmen, Presidents and other world leaders. I relate more to Hattie, the woman and artist, who often struggled. But why wouldn’t I welcome the opportunity to step into Walter’s more imposing shoes? Probably because it scares me to assume authority for touching so widely on the evolution of black culture, as he did, from arts to politics, from law to education, and beyond.

Truth is though, Walter was also an awalter and famrtist and an author. Helping to initiate the Harlem Renaissance, he hungered to spend more of his time writing. No doubt I’m drawn to the story of these two, born two weeks apart–Walter on July 1, 1893, and Hattie on June 18, 1893, according to the US 1900 Census–because they’re more alike than they are different. They both sought progress in their own ways, but perceived it differently.

My friend, Jill Dotlo, saw a natural connection between my astrological chart and Walter’s nearly three years ago. “No wonder you picked him,” she said, noting that we’re both Mercury in Fire people (Mercury in Leo, Aries or Sagittarius), who express themselves with vigor, confidence, and enthusiasm, even when their plans may not be practical. His Jupiter is on my Moon: You evoke joy and a sense of adventure, but can also overdo it. And his Pluto is on my Mars—”Whoa!” Jill exclaimed—which is often a powerful indicator of intrigue.

So maybe I was born to write about Walter’s expansive accomplishments, incorporate Hattie’s impressive range as an artist,  and continue to develop my own character by blending the best of theirs.

Top: Walter’s wallet at the Beinecke Library at Yale University; center, Josh Hoover’s class at PADNET, Long Beach, CA; bottom, Walter and his family at home in Harlem circa the late 1930s.

Following in Their Footsteps

One of my flaws is that I get stuck in the past, re-rehashing experiences over and over. But recently it came to me that I’m being led into the pages of black history to help keep it alive.

Langston CollageWhen I resided in Harlem from 1993 to 2000, I often reflected that at any given moment, my foot could be landing on the same spot once touched by the giants of our culture. I imagined the white outlines of Langston Hughes’ steps as I trekked the same streets as he did throughout our Uptown neighborhood, with his landmark home (lower left) located at 127th  Street, while my apartment nearby was at 132nd.

Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and more launched careers at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street, and all around nightclubs thumped with the black magic of music legends, who made tracks to gigs in wingtips, slingbacks and peep-toe pumps.ethel black swan collage

In 1921, Ethel Waters (right) recorded for Black Swan Records on 138th Street in Sugar Hill. Pianist/composer Fletcher Henderson said he heard her performing in a Harlem basement one night, and invited her to come record some “sides.”  Label founder Harry Pace claimed that Waters was his discovery, when he happened upon her at a cabaret in Atlantic City, and then sent her a ticket to come up to New York and record “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy.”

Waters maintained yet a third version of the story: “I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me,” according to

The entertainer aimed for the stars, and never hesitated to give herself a raise, which proved well worth it to Pace, who reported: “I sold 500,000 of these records within six months.”

So you could make art in Harlem, as the Renaissance amply proved, and you could make love:

My future grandparents had their “meet cute” on the steps of the 135th subway station. That’s where Oliver Johnson bumped into Wilma Elliott one fine day when one walkedbaby pamzy 2 up and the other down the steps of the station. The Caribbean immigrants—he from Barbados, she from Antigua—had four kids, including my dad, the baby of the bunch.

My parents met in Harlem, too, on 111th Street, where my mother’s grandparents lived on one side, and my father’s parents on the other. Mom remembers Dad pulling the ribbons in her hair when they were kids. Years later, after a military tour in Germany, they came home to Harlem, my birthplace. Who knew that as my parents rolled my stroller along those fabled streets, before they relocated to L.A. a few months later, that I would grasp Harlem in my tiny, balled fists, and never let it go?

The [Other] Brothers Johnson

Many know the guitar playing Brothers Johnson of the 70’s and 80’s, but fewer know the filmmaking Brothers Johnson: Noble and George. They founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916 to depict the talent and the intellect of “the Negro as he is in his everyday life.”

They also sought to do damage control: A year earlier, Birth of a Nation made the race—mostly played by whites in black face—look bad, rebooted the previously dormant Klan, and unleashed a parade of other horribles.

Elder brother, Lincoln_motion_pictureNoble, entered films by accident in 1914, according to Valerie Yaros of Screen Actor magazine. He got his first break when a production company, shooting a Western in Colorado Springs, needed a replacement for an injured performer. Tall and athletic, Noble was a skilled horseman and could pass for Native American.

Pursuing a career in acting, he moved to Los Angeles, along with friend and former classmate, Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Noble became the first Black to sign with the newly minted Screen Actors guild in 1933, and went on to accrue upwards of 100 screen credits playing Arabs, Russians, Chinese, Mexicans and (mostly) Native Americans. He funneled income from his steady gig at Universal into Lincoln.

George, a Hampton Institute grad, settled in Omaha, Nebraska, splitting his time between delivering mail, writing scripts, and dealing with exhibitors.

The brothers opened an office on LA’s famed black business row, Central Avenue*, with their film stage several miles to the west.

In their first production, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, Noble stars as an engineer who strikes oil and wins the girl. George called it “the first successful, Class-A Negro motion picture.” Well-placed friends at the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and Harlem’s Amsterdam News helped with promotion.trooper

The Trooper of Troop K, the first black Western, which pit the black cavalry against the Mexican army, went over big with audiences. Noble starred in the film, which played Tuskegee, Alabama; New Orleans; Omaha, and beyond.

Though the brothers managed to ride out World War I and the Spanish flu—which killed more people than the war—their coffers dipped painfully low. They’d tried unsuccessfully to get a War Department contract to shoot newsfilm of black troops in France. Distribution remained a  hurdle. George ultimately took a leave from the post office to raise capital and shoo the wolf from the door.

In front of and beorg_lincoln_motion_picturehind the camera, Lincoln Motion Pictures trained a number of young Black actors, screenwriters and camera operators.

George planned street parades and hired comely young ladies to hawk movie tickets at LA’s social venues and churches. But Lincoln’s target market viewed movies as a luxury. Banks refused to give the company a loan, and Oscar Micheaux and other filmmakers began to nip at their heels. Then Universal pressured Noble to stop making race films. Lincoln closed shop in 1922.

While none of the brothers’ films survive in tact, portions of them are in the Library of Congress, and George left a 60-year file of clippings, correspondence and photographs at UCLA’s Research Library when he died in 1977. Noble passed away a year later.

*Central Avenue was “a Booker T. Washington building, two hotels, an employment agency, two newspapers, a confident Watts Colored Independent League, a Dahomey café, a tough NAACP branch, a black baseball league—in short, a swagger and bourgeois pride that concealed vestiges of an oppressed past,”  Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film

When Walter Met Hattie

Hat and WaltWalter Frances White and Hattie McDaniel (left, center) met only once, but they spent years obsessed with one another.

They shook hands briefly during the summer of ’42, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which Walter headed, held its annual convention in Los Angeles. The Academy Award-winning actress also attended. I have to imagine that they got corralled into the picture by L.A.’s Mayor Bowron (right) because by then Hattie and Walter were on each other’s #*%@ list.

A couple of years ago, I made the trek cross country to the Beinecke Library at Yale to learn more about Walter, whose papers are there. White was light skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, yet his family had black and white roots. (An ancestor was President Harrison, who before he became Commander-in-Chief, fathered children with one of his slaves.) Gutsy, Walter went undercover to investigate lynchings; arranged legal defense for the Scottsboro boys; and leveraged the might of the NAACP to advance black rights on multiple fronts, setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.

Though it started in 1909, the NAACP didn’t gain momentum until 1915, when chapters began to form around the country to protest Birth of a Nation, which depicted black people as dangerous, ignorant brutes who had no business being free. The film glorified and reignited the Ku Klux Klan, which gave rise to Jim Crow, so the NAACP took the depiction of black people in films seriously from the gate. So when McDaniel won the Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she popped up on Walter’s radar as the most visible symbol of the kind of stereotypical role he wanted to shut down.

To be fair to Hattie and the black actors who starred in the films of the 30’s and ’40s, neither America, nor Hollywood, was particularly enlightened about race. (I’m sure some of you are thinking, and they still aren’t, but stay with me here…) Hattie grew up in poverty, and struggled to keep her career afloat during the Depression, which lasted well into the 1930’s. She was, as so many were, grateful for steady employment.

I became fascinated by the relationship between Hattie and Walter, in part because of a few lines in one of her biographies, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel, by Carlton Jackson: “She had a fear of being plunged back into her earlier conditions of indigence… thoughts like these made Hattie feel as thought Walter White was trying to grab the bread right out of her mouth.”

At the Beinecke, researching Walter, I saw a Yale student newspaper, which said something about Dean Kim Goff-Crews. I knew the name: She’s the great niece of Hattie McDaniel. I emailed her, and she told me to stop by. Her great aunt—through Hattie’s older sister, Etta–had died about a decade before Goff-Crews was born, but family memory of the parties Hattie threw; the way she doted on her nephews; and her legendary generosity lived on.

The more I thought about how their energies became enmeshed, the less surprised I was that when I came looking for Walter, I also found Hattie.

Photo: WinkFlash


cabin in the skySome years ago I had the bittersweet pleasure of sitting next to Lena Horne for the Broadway debut of Fences in New York City. Even at 70 plus, her beauty and magnetic smile drew fans, many of whom unknowingly stood on my foot as they fawned over her.

So I can imagine the singed feelings of one Ethel Waters, 47, as she played opposite Horne, then-26, in the overwrought black musical Cabin in the Sky (CITS). Waters is the devout Petunia, whose gambler husband can’t resist the charms of sweet Georgia Brown (Horne).

During filming, Horne hurt her foot, and the crew doted on her more than usual. Waters, famously insecure, tried to keep her anger to a simmer. But Horne’s unprecedented seven-year-contract with MGM had to weigh on her mind, especially since Waters, like the rest of the black pack, had to stump for every part she got.

As she continues to watch the crew cater to the comely Horne, Waters boils over. After a nasty rant, she finishes the film, but can’t find work in Hollywood for several years.

In the Los Angeles Tribune, black columnist Almena Davis writes about visiting the set of Cabin on the MGM lot in October 1942. She arrived as they shot the cabaret scene, where Davis observed the “arrogant Ethel Waters,” “adored Lena Horne,” and “pompous [Eddie] Rochester.” She saw Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who had bit parts, as well.

Davis digs in, pegging Hollywood as the place where they “portray your race in such a state of ridiculousness that you cringe in your seat… You try and match the continual parade of stereotypes: the crap-shooting scenes, the dialect, the traditional ignorant, superstitious celluloid darky, with the camaraderie with which the director displays toward the colored actors… And it doesn’t match.”

Hollywood stood on the black person’s foot, Davis asserts, and it would take a Herculean effort to force it to budge.