A year ago, I learned that the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass, lived only 15 or 20 miles down the road from me in California. I became aware of Kenneth B. Morris Jr. when I wrote a story for NBC news about the coffee-table book, Picturing Frederick Douglass, which said the legendary leader was also the most photographed man of the 19th Century.
I started my article thus:
“Born into slavery in 1818, it’s likely that Frederick Douglass wore rags as a child. But he borrowed the clothing of a seaman and stole away to freedom in 1838. As an abolitionist, author, and adviser to U.S. presidents, he donned luxurious ascots, vests and overcoats. Historians know this because 160 distinct portraits of him exist — compared to only 126 of President Lincoln.”
It was paging through the book—a new edition of which will soon be published with eight new FD photographs—that I became aware of Douglass’ descendant Kenneth.
After nearly a year of back and forth emails, I finally got Ken to come to my house for lunch last March, and we talked for a couple of hours about one of his famous grandfathers. (The other was Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington.) I recorded our conversation, and then let the voice memo sit, untranscribed, for the better part of a year.
Then around October, I finally got it typed up. More than 30 pages worth. I traveled much of October and November, worked on a project in December, and when I came up for air in January, I realized it was the Year of Frederick Douglass already, and groups around the country had already begun celebrating the 200th year of Douglass’ birth.
In a great rush, I called up Douglass’ descendants, heads of organizations hosting FD events throughout 2018, and even chatted with a man whose family once enslaved Douglass in Maryland. I pitched stories to several outlets, but no one bit.
Then I thought, What Would Frederick Do? He’d publish the stories himself. In fact, he was a newspaper publisher.
So, since we still have a free press—so far—I’ll be posting stories about Douglass that inspire me in the coming days, weeks, and months. If you have information about a cool Douglass event, or a Douglass story that inspires you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As A.J. Aiseirithe,one of the people keeping a Frederick Douglass Bicentennial calendar, told me: “We could start right now and tell stories about him…through the end of 2018, and we would not have said everything that needs to be said.”
A hundred years after The Birth of a Nationwas released in 1915, actor Nate Parker is at work on a film using the same name.
The original, made during the silent picture era, was directed by D. W. Griffith, and adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel and play, The Clansman. The story centers around two white families—one Northern, the other Southern—who fought on opposite sides during the Civil War, but ultimately unite in their efforts to trap the newly freed Negro at the bottom of society with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan.
Parker’s film, as you might imagine, will vastly depart from that narrative. It’s set to explore the life of Nat Turner, visionary preacher turned badass, who led a bloody slave rebellion in which 60 whites were killed before Turner was captured and hanged.
Parker wrote the project and will direct it, inspired to retell Turner’s story because “when black history came around, I saw the pictures of the [slave] ships and all the people, and it brought intense shame and embarrassment.” Those feelings stemmed from his lack of knowledge about blacks’ attempts to stop the “dirty system” of slavery.
Parker’s take on Birth of a Nation “isn’t a story about a black guy that killed white people,” he has said, it’s “about an American hero that fought for ideals that America was supposed to be built on: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, one nation under God.”
Recently I watched Griffith’s film (the whole three-hour-plus epic can be seen here) as research for my novel about a little remembered battle between America’s first black Oscar winner, and the man who headed up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 25 years. Efforts to protest Birth played a significant role in expanding the then-budding the NAACP, which was founded in 1909.
Here are my notes on the original:
–Many of the key black roles are played by whites in blackface, with make up that gets dodgy at the neckline.
–The “tragic mulatto” trope is rolled out, including a biracial man who becomes drunk with power, and a “mixed” woman who spits, tears at her clothing, and has a drifting gaze that makes her look deranged.
–Love is lavished upon a newly created Confederate flag, and racist quotes from Woodrow Wilson (above), then-President of the United states, appear on title cards throughout. (Wilson and Griffith were roomies at Johns Hopkins University.)
(The 28th Commander-in-Chief allowed Birth of a Nation to be shown at the White House, and also authorized cabinet members to reverse racial integration in the federal civil service. Under his administration, federal restrooms and cafeterias became re-segregated, and partitions were installed to separate black federal workers from white ones. As you may have heard of late, some are calling for Wilson’s name to be removed from public places.)
–The original movie asserted that freed blacks should not be treated equally or given the vote because they were irresponsible and dangerous.
–Blacks elected to Congress during the brief Reconstruction Era are portrayed as whiskey-drinking, fried-chicken eating uncouths. When black men aren’t carousing, they’re trying to seduce white women. One brute is so obsessed that he chases a white damsel to her death, which the KKK quickly avenges.
—At the end of the film, blacks try to vote on election day and the KKK, hooded and towering above on horseback, block their path.
While Griffith’s Birth of a Nation gave America a blueprint for how to disenfranchise, marginalize and terrorize black people, Parker’s said his intention was to show a younger generation of black kids that their roots are not at the bottom of a slave ship. “We stand on soil that has reminiscences of our ancestors. We’re not alone.”
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.
Some 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.