By IYARA FUMILAYO (Michelle Webster), poet, writer and journalist. She is currently completing her MFA in Writing and Consciousness at CIIS
This is an excerpt from “From Journalism to Poetry, Pots and Dance: Black Women Navigating Life and the American Workplace through a Reflective Lens of Double Consciousness” (2010)
When I think of Hattie McDaniel, I think of the first African-American woman to receive an Oscar. I think of the film "Gone with the Wind," or a few others, the names of which I do not actually know, and I see instantly the image of a jubilant or sassy maid. I am aware that Hattie made more than 300 films, although she only received an official credit on about 80 of these. And I know that her portrayal as maid or mammy dominated these roles. I remember that her acceptance speech for the Oscar gave thanks to the Academy and she also expressed a wish to be a credit to her race. And herein I believe was an unfolding of the dual existence that may have crowded her worlds within her world of Hollywood; her “Double Consciousness” reality. She was the quintessential maid of white Americans, and as much as I would like to say most people seemed to think of that extraordinary “actress” when seeing a movie clip or photo of her, I know that it would be a half-truth at most. It seems as though Hattie had somehow, in her multiple roles on screen, walked into a reality that would have her doing dishes and singing were she to show up at party outside of Hollywood circles.
Her portrayal of Mammy in "Gone with the Wind" was indeed extraordinary. Her character embodied the warmth and dignity that any actress might be proud to exude. She brought a quality and talent to many of the parts that make up her legacy of films, but the roles seemed redundant and sustaining of an ethnic stereotype that became a living curse that would not die. Grappling with continuing her career was perhaps one of Hattie’s biggest challenges. She had an audience of both whites and blacks but the roles were certainly to appease the white audience. She received backlash from members of the African-American community when she took on a movie role about black servants longing for the old ways of the south. Perhaps this is exactly why she continued to have so many chances to appear on screen. Even her fellow actress Butterfly McQueen, best known for her performance as Prissy in "Gone with the Wind" (and the line “I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies!”) had refused to go forward as an actress playing only or mostly stereotypical ethnic roles. Butterfly chose to end her acting career by 1947 as the opportunities for roles that were beyond the ethnic stereotypes for African-American women became fewer and fewer. She began working in various other types of jobs, none of which are known to have included a position as a maid. Butterfly pursued other areas including political studies and later earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
In terms of “Double Consciousness” I found that Butterfly seemed to be navigating her existence forcefully, perhaps even to the detriment to her film career. She seemed to know how she wanted to be recognized and wanted to create an existence that acknowledged her desire to be perceived beyond the stereotypes that were being pushed toward her. She pushed back and out of Hollywood to make this a reality for her.
When the popularity of the book "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett began to soar, it seemed inevitable that a movie would be in the works; it was, after all, portraying black women as maids. Based in Mississippi, the novel tells the story of the lives of black women maids and the white women who employed them. It explores their relationships, and both the bad, and what some perceive as the good, of their “community." This book raised concerns for me immediately upon reading it. First there was the question of language. Why was it that the maids were written to speak in a perceived black dialect but the white southern women had no accent in the novel? This took me outside of a feel-good story and the intriguing personalities of the maids and placed me into the “now” or better yet, “Double Consciousness,” of my existence. I was uneasy that the author may have selected to portray the white women of the novel this way to avoid the stigma sometimes given to the southern drawl as being less than or ignorant and that she wanted to put distance between the white women and their black maids.
The question following this was, Why? My suspicion was that the author wanted to exert a superiority and difference between the two groups of women as human beings, perhaps making the maids almost an antithesis of the white women, whom they served in order to survive. Beyond this was the book’s popularity in mainstream America among different races but certainly primarily among white women. My expectation that a film of this type of book was inevitable and the thought of shoe-ins for Oscar nominations for the actresses portraying maids brought to mind Hattie and the complexity of “Double Consciousness” spilling over into my era, linking us almost seven decades later.
Hattie was a stage actor, singer-songwriter, comedienne, radio performer, and a television star. She garnered respect from various communities, including her own, the African-American community. What we know now is that there was a longing for Hattie to move beyond and perhaps above her roles as mammy and maid and perhaps even out of the heavy physical body that she was forced through contract to keep in order to continue her career in Hollywood. She died at the age of 58 in 1954.
In 2011, with the release of a new movie bringing back the “glory” and “dignity” of the role of black maid, I’m afraid Hattie would be frustrated, or at the very least saddened, to see that there remains a climate of limited opportunity for African-American women in Hollywood. If one of the African-American actresses from "The Help" should predictably win the Oscar for the role of black woman as maid, I can’t decipher the burden of “Double Consciousness” that will have connected us as black women through time. This ethnographic lens will project a journey into what will feel and seem digressive. I’ll look back and forth from two worlds and a dual existence that expands in a surreal way, to a time that many African-Americans wish really was just a movie.
Movie Clips featuring Hattie McDaniel:
“Sooner or Later” 1946
“The Ed Wynn Show” December 15, 1946
“Judge Priest” 1934