1940: Oscar So Black

Hattie Mcdaniels With Academy Award
Best Supporting Oscar used to be a plaque.

The real Oscar buzz began for Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind, after she nailed a scene where she tearfully relays to family friend Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) that Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is suicidal over the death of his baby girl.

While black folks and black newspapers alike didn’t “give a damn” about Gone With the Wind (GWTW)—the film adaptation of a racist novel that glorified slavery—they were excited that McDaniel could potentially make history with a Best Supporting Academy Award win.

The actress couldn’t rely on buzz, however. Nor would she could depend on Hollywood to do the right thing. Instead, she walked into producer David O. Selznick’s office in Culver City, Calif., with a stack of articles that and gently leaned on him to submit her name for Oscar contention.

Hattie in mirror
McDaniel close up.

Black journalists urged readers to write Selznick and demand that McDaniel be put in the running, and a letter from McDaniel’s sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho, predicted that discrimination and prejudice could be wiped away if she were to win. Selznick agreed with her supporters that her performance was Oscar worthy, and put her name forward. (Awkwardly enough, one of the actresses she was up against was co-star de Havilland).

McDaniel’s journey to that moment was a slow, arduous climb. Though she’d come from a talented family of entertainers in Denver, only her two older brothers had consistent success in show business. The eldest had died in his 30’s, while Sam McDaniel, a few years older than Hattie, landed bit parts and played Deacon McDaniel on CBS’ radio show, the Optimistic Do-Nut Hour. Mostly he earned his living as a bandleader.

Baby sister Hattie struggled, often taking domestic work, as her mothers and sisters before her. Though she performed often, and even toured with a 1929 Show Boat production, the Depression gutted her entertainment career, and she came west from Milwaukee where she was squeaking by in 1931. In Los Angeles, she was a recurring cast member on Sam’s radio show and gigged with the Sarah Butler’s Old Time Southern Singers. She also took on domestic work to make ends meet, just as older sister, Etta, did. All three siblings got roles in moving pictures here and there.

Hattie and clark
Friends McDaniel and Gable in Gone With the Wind.

With the success of 1934’s Imitation of Life, featuring a white woman and a black woman as friends (actresses Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers), bigger, brown-skinned women such as Beavers—and McDaniel—were suddenly in vogue. And when McDaniel got word that Selznick was casting GWTW, she read the 1935 Pulitzer Prize winning novel several times, determined to claim the part of Mammy for herself.

Landing a contract would mean guaranteed pay for several months, but it required patience as Selznick milked the free publicity by dragging out the audition process. He even sent talent scouts to acting troupes around the country. Several stars, including McDaniel, screen tested for their parts more than once.

Once she’d won the role, shot her part, and been nominated for the Oscar, McDaniel became the first African-American to attend the ceremony, then-12 years old. In the background, actor Clarence Muse, columnist and actor Harry Levette, and journalist Earl Morris were the among the first African-American Academy voters to cast ballots that year, according to one of Hattie’s biographers, Jill Watts.

USPS06STA004B
2006 U.S. Postal Service

Still, some black folks were not appeased by what they perceived to be window dressing on a shack of a story that demeaned blacks and made slavery seem tepid compared to the real thing. Walter Francis White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  nudged Selznick for several years to consult with him (or a black scholar) to expand and enhance GWTW’s black story line. Selznick corresponded with White, and yet held him at bay. But the producer could not stop protesters from picketing his feature outside theaters around the country, or at the Oscar ceremony itself at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.

That pivotal night, Fay Bainter, the previous year’s Best Supporting winner took the stage and proclaimed how happy she was to present this “particular” honor which “enables us…to reward those who have given their best regardless of creed, race or color…” With that, she teed up the announcement that McDaniel had scored the momentous victory and an historic first.

McDaniel bounded up the steps to accept her award—back then a small

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 11.22.28 AM
McDaniel got her second wind with radio’s Beulah.

plaque with a petite Oscar figurine welded to it—and forgot(?) the speech Selznick International had prepared for her. Instead she spoke from her heart.—and very possibly from a speech that she and journalist and friend, Ruby Berkley Goodwin Ruby Berkley Goodwin, had written together. (GWTW went on to take 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.)

Flowers and congratulatory telegrams poured in from around the country, with papers, big and small, championing the victory. But within a year or two, McDaniel was again desperate for work. Her career floundered until 1947, when she landed the role of Beulah on the radio.

 

 

 

 

 

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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, vindicatemj.wordpress.com; Nella Larsen, goodreads.com; Walter at Atlanta University/with sister, White: The Biography of Walter White/Rose Palmer; Fredi Washington, essence.com; Dolezal/Jenner, resourcesforlife.com

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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