”I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid.” ~ Hattie McDaniel
A prime example of a black entertainer whose career was shaped and limited by colorism is wildly popular actress of the 1940s and first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel.
Pidgeonholed Into Subsurvient Acting Roles
Despite her success, McDaniel was always pidgeonholed into playing the stereotypical “Mammy” figure and other subservient roles because of her race and the dark color of her skin. Nearly 80% (74/94) of the roles she played were subservient ones, including maid, powder room attendant, cook, and house servant. The most notable example is her character, a slave respectively named Mammy, in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, a clip from which is hyperlinked below.
Starring in Her Own Show as a Maid
Because the roles available to her were so limited and he company saw limited use for her, her contract was bought out by the Warner Bros. not long after Gone with the Wind. She played a maid in Song of the South (1946), and starred in the radio show and sitcom Beulah, one of the first shows starring an African American woman as the lead, in which she also played a maid (video clip hyperlinked below).
Racism and Lack of Respect
Although she won an Oscar, because the ceremony was held in a segregated hotel, her management had to call in a special favor just so she could be let in. Once inside, she was made to sit at a back table on a far wall instead of alongside her co-stars. When she passed in 1952, her dying wish to be buried in the Hollywood cemetery was not honored because of the color of her skin. Her Oscar trophy was appraised as valueless and went missing from the University it was donated to. It was never located, and has been missing for over 40 years.
The Intersection of Colorism and Racism
The primary issue was not that McDaniel portrayed maids and Mammies; McDaniel indeed enjoyed acting and was able to make a living off of it. The problem was that because of her dark skin color, society could not envision her in a role above the “Mammy” stereotype and never offered her one. While she saw her postion as an actress as one of power, financial independence, and accomplishment–as it was– her roles themselves helped maintain the social perception of black women as subservient.
This created another issue– the negative perception of McDaniel by fellow blacks. Many blacks, particularly in the NAACP, rejected her because of her portrayal of stereotypes in her film roles. This is problematic because with the roles available to her as a black woman with a deep skin tone, she would essentially have to stop working as an actress to avoid portraying stereotypes. Limited types of acting roles combined with limited available jobs for black people in general meant that a black actress with a darker skin tone would have to choose portraying stereotypical roles and making a living but losing the respect of the black community, or working at a lower paying job full-time, such as an actual maid, and risking not making a living, also a far less than ideal option.
Black women with darker skin tones were held at the intersection of both rampant racism and colorism as, in addition to race-related discrimination, they were held to an even lower degree of respect than their lighter-skinned black counterparts who, while still held to a much lower degree than whites, had much more privilege and influence comparatively. To better put this concept into perspective, in the next blog post, I will discuss the career of McDaniel’s Beulah co-star Ruby Dandridge’s daughter, Dorothy Dandridge.