Hattie McDaniel is best known for her performance as Mammy, the sassy foil to Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Though the role called for yet another wide–grinned, subservient black domestic, McDaniel transformed her character into one who was loyal yet subversive, devoted yet bossy. Her powerful performance would win her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and catapult the hopes of Black Hollywood that the entertainment industry ––after decades of stereotypical characters–– was finally ready to write more multidimensional, fully realized roles for blacks.
But racism was so entrenched in Hollywood that despite pleas by organizations such as the NAACP and SAG ––and the very examples that Black service men were setting as they fought against Hitler in WWII–– roles for blacks continued to denigrate the African American experience. So rather than see her stature increase in Hollywood, as did other Oscar–winning actresses, Hattie McDaniel, continued to play servants. And rather than see her popularity increase, her audience turned against her as an increasingly politicized black community criticized her and her peers for accepting degrading roles. "I'd rather play a maid then be a maid," Hattie McDaniel answered her critics but her flip response belied a woman who was herself emotionally conflicted about the roles she accepted but who tried to imbue each Mammy character with dignity and nuance.
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About the Author
A professor of history at California State University and the coordinator of the film studies program at California State University, San Marcos, Jill Watts has written two previous books, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story and Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. She lives in San Marcos, California.
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Hattie McDanielBlack Ambition, White Hollywood
By Jill Watts
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Jill Watts
All right reserved.
Your Father Worethe Blue . . .
Your father wore the blue, greatest sign of free men history speaks of; wore it like a man and a soldier.
January 5, 1945
In early spring 1915, the McDaniel family of Denver, Colorado, received a questionnaire from the United States Department of Interior. A survey of veterans, it was addressed to Henry McDaniel, a former Civil War soldier who had served in Tennessee's Twelfth United States Colored Infantry. In failing health and with a limited education, he called upon his youngest daughter, Hattie, to help fill out the form. As her father spoke, Hattie McDaniel carefully inscribed the story of her family, detailing the events of her father's life before, during, and after the Civil War. Indeed, that war had impacted both the nation and Henry McDaniel. He had returned from battle so badly injured that it would shape the rest of his life and, later, the lives of his wife and children. In many ways, although she was born almost thirty years after the conflict was over, Hattie McDaniel was a child of the Civil War. Her father's war wounds were a daily reminder of his fight for his country and against slavery and racism. On that spring day in 1915, many, many miles away from Hollywood, the town that would make her famous, Hattie McDaniel sat with her father, listening as he told her about his past and her history.1
Born into slavery in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, Henry McDaniel was never certain of his birth date. He thought it was in October, probably the fifteenth, and guessed that since he was able to work a plow alone by 1847, he must have been born about 1838. He seemed to have no memories of his mother or father. But he clearly recalled growing up with his older sister and younger brother on the plantation of Robert Duerson. Although Duerson was not among the largest slave-owners, he came from an old Virginia planter family that had held slaves for several generations. In 1840, when Henry McDaniel was still a toddler, Duerson had thirteen slaves, seven working his fields exclusively. As was Southern practice, only the very old and the youngest, in this case Henry and his newborn brother, were exempt from labor.2
By the time he was five, Henry McDaniel was put to work weeding fields and caring for Duerson's livestock. From the beginning, life was hard for Henry McDaniel. Slavery in the United States had first sprung on Virginia soil, and by the 1800s, the cruel institution was well entrenched. Slaves were defined as property and subject to the demands and whims of their masters. Denied all rights, including that to marry, to hold property, to possess firearms, to vote, and, in many places, to learn to read and write, those enslaved had no protection under the law. At some point, most families were broken up by sale. The labor demanded by masters was grinding; workdays lasted from dawn to dusk. Punishments for even the most minor infractions were often whippings, some so brutal that they resulted in death.3
Yet those in bondage resisted slavery in a variety of ways -- including working slow, pretending to be ill, running away, and maintaining separate and often secret cultural and religious practices. In some cases, slaves resorted to violence in attempts to win their freedom. In 1831, only a few years before Henry McDaniel was born, enslaved preacher Nat Turner led a group of fellow bond servants from Virginia's Southampton County in one of the nation's bloodiest slave uprisings. Although Turner's revolt failed and he was executed, white Virginians became obsessively fearful of further slave rebellions. Subsequently, the state tightened its already oppressive slave codes, stepping up the policing of the black population and suppressing the religious practices of the enslaved. But the slave community continued to worship despite these restrictive circumstances. Faith was a cornerstone of those in bondage, and their private religious lives stood as an activist rejection of white domination and the institution of slavery. By many accounts, as an adult, Henry McDaniel was a deeply religious man; his spirituality no doubt evolved during his formative years.4
Still, the daily existence of American slaves like Henry McDaniel was bleak. Planters maximized their profit by providing minimal food, clothes, and shelter. Most slaves lived cramped together in either cheaply constructed slave cabins or barns and outbuildings. Provisions were meager; the staples of the slave diet were corn meal and pork fat. Clothing was either hand-me-downs or made from a cheap burlap-like material called slave cloth. Although many masters provided shoes, they were poorly made and fit so badly that even in the winter, many slaves refused to wear them. Medical care was virtually nonexistent. Cut off from his parents, Henry McDaniel's early childhood was one of both hard work and hardship.5
About the age of nine, Henry McDaniel faced one of the worst of slavery's horrors. In 1847, Duerson sold him, with his eleven-year-old sister and six-year-old brother, to Sim Eddings, a slave trader from Lincoln County, Tennessee. Although the international slave trade had been outlawed, the domestic trafficking of bondspersons flourished. The cotton economy produced a ravenous demand for labor in the Deep South, and the price of slaves, especially young males, skyrocketed. Eddings was a well-known trader with a thriving business. He transported Henry McDaniel and his siblings to his marketplace in Fayetteville, Tennessee, where he put them up for sale. In autumn 1847, John McDaniel, a farmer who lived near the town of Boonshill in Lincoln County, Tennessee, bought all three. Henry McDaniel was certain it was the fall of 1847; he clearly recalled John McDaniel's flamboyant younger brother Coleman "C. A." McDaniel returning home from fighting in the War with Mexico. Although Henry McDaniel and his siblings escaped separation and being sold into the Deep South, their lives hardly improved. Henry McDaniel was immediately put to work husking corn. Throughout the winter, he chopped firewood and, the following spring, plowed John McDaniel's fields for planting.6
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