Today, as I write, it is Sunday, June 10. I imagine a lot of people have been born on June 10. Every single one of them are Geminis. Surely. But I am only going to mention one of them here. Hattie McDaniel. She is long gone now. She died in 1952, of Breast Cancer. And she entered this world in the year in 1895.
She had quite a remarkable life, if you ask me. First off the bat, she was born to parents who were former slaves. In Wichita, Kansas. She was the youngest of 13 children. Her mother, Susan Holbert (1850–1920), was a singer of religious music. That must be where Hattie got her stuff. And her father, Henry McDaniel (1845–1922), fought in the Civil War. Yes, standing with others to end slavery. He was with the 122nd United States Colored Troops.
But Hattie. She had performers’ blood in her veins from a very young age. McDaniel was a songwriter as well as a performer. Her brothers had a minstrel show. She honed her songwriting skills while working with them. And that is where it all began.
Yet, this woman took any kind of job, where ever she could get work. And it was not always performing on stage. After the stock market crashed in 1929, McDaniel could only find work only as a washroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Hattie wanted to perform on stage there. The owner was reluctant, but he eventually caved. And off she went, a regular, loved by all.
She did a lot of other things, here and there, to make ends meet. Then, in 1931, McDaniel moved to Los Angeles. She went out there to join her brother and two sisters. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook.
This goes on, but eventually, she landed her big role. She was Mammy, in Gone with the Wind. (She showed up for her audition in her maid’s uniform. I am guessing, it helped.). And it was in that role that she won her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The 1940 Academy Awards were held at the Coconut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. But here is the deal. She had to sit at a table with her escort at the far wall in the back of the room. You see, the hotel had a strict NO-Blacks policy. They only let McDaniel in the restaurant as a favor to the Academy. 1940 in America.
Over the years, she had many other acting gigs, but none of them as famous as her role in Gone with the Wind. At some point, her Oscar was “loaned” to Howard University to be put on display for her early achievements. But, during the 1960s, there were some Civil Rights Protests. People had asserted that her roles (and others) perpetuated poor stereotypes for blacks — portraying blacks as lazy, and dim-witted, and on. So someone grabbed her Oscar and chucked it into the Potomac River. Or so it goes.
There is a lot about her story that strikes me. I didn’t even mention that she loved and lost three times. She was married to three men, all of whom died from various causes, shortly after each marriage.
But besides that, from the very start, she came to this world from slave parents. (Remarkably, her father fought for freedom during the Civil War.) And then there was Hattie. She had the daily task of going out and struggling against the discrimination and hatred of that time — to work — at what she loved to do. And when she finally succeeded, and was given an award, she had to sit with that same cloak of discrimination and condescendence. Finally, years later, in the unkindliest of acts, someone who did not even know this woman, took evidence of her greatest achievement, and threw into dark and muddy waters, never to be seen again.
I don’t know what to say about us humans. We, the people. There are parts of our history which are downright shameful. I hope, with all hopes, that we are not adding to them right now. I hope the history books we are writing at this point, have the broader minds, crossing the t’s. Dotting those I’s. Writing the good story.
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. — Abraham Lincoln
I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all. — James A. Baldwin
I can’t change history, I don’t want to change history. I can only change the future. I’m working on that. — Boris Becker