Hattie McDaniel-She Paved the Way

Hattie

I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry. – Hattie McDaniel

She loved gardenias, laughing, singing and dancing. She was the daughter of former slaves who became an Academy Award winner. She worked as a maid and she frequently played maids in her long acting career. She is best remembered for her portray of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. She was Hattie McDaniel and she was a marvel who paved the way for other black actors in the highly segregated Hollywood studio system.

In addition to acting in over 300 films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on the radio in the U.S.  McDaniel was befriended by many of Hollywood’s most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland and Clark Gable. She would star with de Havilland and Gable in Gone with the Wind for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first African American to win an Academy Award.  An invitation to her yearly Christmas party was much sought after and Clark Gable was always a fixture.

The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind was almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to McDaniel; in any case when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform and she won the part. As the premiere of Gone with the Wind at The Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia approached, all the black actors were advised they were barred from attending, excluded from being in the souvenir program, and banned from appearing in advertisements for the film. Studio head David Selznick asked that Hattie McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia’s segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway. She did attend the film’s Hollywood debut, and upon Selznick’s insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.

While many blacks were happy over McDaniel’s personal victory, they also viewed it as bittersweet. They believed Gone with the Wind celebrated the slave system and condemned the forces that destroyed it. For them, the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood’s systemic use of racial stereotypes could find work and success there. As her popularity grew she began to be criticized by some members of the black community for the roles she chose to accept and for her decision to pursue roles aggressively rather than rock the Hollywood boat. Groups such as the NAACP complained that Hollywood stereotypes not only restricted blacks to servant roles but often portrayed blacks as lazy, dim-witted, perfectly satisfied in lowly positions, or violent. In addition to addressing studios, they called upon actors, and especially leading black actors, to pressure studios to offer more substantive roles and at least not pander to stereotypes. They also argued that these portrayals were unfair as well as inaccurate and that, coupled with segregation and other forms of discrimination, such stereotypes were making it difficult for all blacks, not only actors, to overcome racism and succeed. Some attacked McDaniel for being an “Uncle Tom” — a person willing to advance personally by perpetuating racial stereotypes or being an agreeable agent of offensive racial restrictions. McDaniel characterized these challenges as class-based biases against domestics, a claim that white columnists seemed to accept. And she reportedly said: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” Since she was earning a living honestly, she added, she should not be criticized for accepting such work as was offered. Her critics, especially Walter White of the NAACP, claimed that she and other actors that agreed to portray stereotypes were not a neutral force but rather willing agents of black oppression. McDaniel and other black actors feared that their roles would evaporate if the NAACP and other Hollywood critics complained too loudly and she blamed these critics for hindering her career.

McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one for her contributions to radio and one for acting in motion pictures. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp. But perhaps her greatest achievement lay in her paving the way for other black actors to be accepted in the motion picture industry. While she certainly played stereotypes she brought a human side to every role she played. Who can forget her anguished tears when Rhett and Scarlet’s daughter dies? It takes courage to face the criticism she did for her portrayals but every role she and early black actors played brought acceptance to black actors. Inch by inch, step by step, they won the respect of Hollywood and paved the way for the Denzel Washingtons and Halle Berrys of today and it is disrespectful to her as an actor to denigrate her work by judging it by today’s standards.

Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night, February 29, 1940:

“Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dressed up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.”

Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech:

 “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”

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I am a Racist

racism

You can’t fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity. – Bobby Seale

Recently a Facebook acquaintance called me a racist on the basis of a statement I made regarding Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, sparked riots in Ferguson, MO and created controversy across the world. A grand jury and the Department of Justice ruled the shooting justified based on the testimony of Wilson and eyewitnesses and also the findings of several expert witnesses based on autopsy findings. I was responding to her statement that he was a child who didn’t deserve to be shot. The comment I made that caused her so much angst was, “Just because a person is black does not mean they are always good.” She responded with one word “Racist”.

For a little background this woman is white who is married to a man from India and she is constantly accusing anyone who she perceives to be other than dark-skinned a “racist”. She justifies this as “reverse racism”. Well, racism is ugly and wrong. Period. There is no “reverse” in racism. Racism is racism and no one race is better or worse than another.

I spent my whole Federal career helping minorities and women to ensure they had equal rights and services. I taught Civil Rights and EEO nationally for my agency and I was honored many times for my dedication to making sure USDA services were offered to everyone equally. I say this not to pat myself on the back. It was a labor of love. I grew up in the South during the 60’s and I saw inequality. In 1991, I was living in South Georgia when I got the welcome news that I was being offered a job with the Federal government. One of the pre-requirements was a doctor’s exam. I duly reported to the doctor they told me to use and sat in the reception area to wait my turn. My fellow waiters and I had bonded in our forced boredom as we waited to be called in to see the doctor. A nurse put her head out of the door and motioned me up. She asked me, “Don’t you want to sit in the other waiting room?” Other waiting room? She cocked her head at the other patients and I understood that she meant the white waiting room. I looked at her in disbelief and went and sat back down with the other people who up until that moment I had not noticed were all black. I was outraged.

I have seen racism is every place I have lived. Racism against blacks and whites in the South and racism against Native Americans in Maine and Wyoming. I saw racism in Afghanistan among Muslims. No one race, color, religion or any other factor has clean hands as far as racism is concerned.

Am I a racist? I can emphatically say “No.” Am I prejudiced? Yes. And so are you. Prejudice is to be human. Every one of us judges others on first contact. It is our family tapes that we filter our judgement through based on our own life experiences. We all have gut feelings, instincts, emotions and they affect our judgements and our actions for good and for evil. But we are also capable of acting deliberately and analyzing our emotions, then making rational decisions despite our prejudices. And while the word “prejudice” has been used synonymously with “racism” by race baiters and the uninformed, prejudice is neither right nor wrong. It is an emotion like any other emotion. To be prejudiced does not necessarily translate into racism. Prejudices can be overcome with time, exposure and education. When our prejudices become biases and we treat people differently, then racism occurs. Racism is a deep-rooted superiority complex based purely on race or genetic feature and it is always wrong.

Prejudices can encompass not liking people based on mental illness, homosexuality, being short, being tall, being red-haired, freckles, gender, age, weight, and the list goes on and on. Can anyone truthfully exclude themselves of being prejudiced against something or someone? Many prejudices are socially acceptable and sometimes even encouraged. “She’s a vegetarian. I hate having to cook for her.” As I child I was taught certain behaviors to keep me safe in an area that has poisonous snakes. Even though I love snakes, to this day when I first see one I freeze and a frisson of fear runs through me. It only lasts a second then reason kicks in and I usually try to catch the snake so I can admire its beauty before I let it go.

To be called a racist was upsetting until I realized the true racist was the woman who called me that. She judged me based on my color. Her prejudice has turned into bias thus she reviled me with hate. It makes me sad. Until we as a society learn to appreciate all races we will never be free from the blackness of racism. It takes more than hurling insults at one another. It takes work and it takes looking into our hearts and looking at our own motivations.

Prejudice

Person 1: I’ve only known that person for 30 seconds, but I don’t like him.

Person 2: Why do you dislike him? Did he do something wrong?

Person 1: No, he didn’t do anything wrong, I just don’t like him.

Racism

KKK: We hate blacks.

Black Panthers: We hate whites

Sunni Muslims: We hate Shia Muslims