Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood
by Jill Watts
ISBN 10: 0060514906 – ISBN 13: 97800605149074
I was in sixth grade when I was first introduced to racism. I had a black homeroom teacher and as young as I was, I could still see the pain he was in every day simply because of the color of his skin. It did not go unnoticed to me that he could not help or change that. He was the only black person, not just teacher, person, in the entire school district. I watched him deal with hate every day. It was the first time I remember feeling heartbreak. He lasted one year. Watching him, and others, go through the pain and consequences of hate has stayed with me ever since. As it turns out, his experience is identical to Hattie’s, even though it was two different eras. Hattie and her family suffered from this same hate a hundred years ago. We, as a society, never changed, despite what my other teachers told me. We haven’t changed. We haven’t learned. Not while Hattie’s mother and father were slaves, not when they were emancipated, not in Hattie’s lifetime, not in the 1960s, not in the 1970’s not now. We should be ashamed.
So I write about this fantastic book as a human that is fiercely against racism and who is holding a raging hatred of racists. And I’m doing it in 2020; in the middle of civil rights protests, again. Yep, we’re in a racial uprising, again. I hope we can obliterate it this time.
I wish we could have done it for Hattie’s family. I wish racism had never existed.
The most wonderful thing about reading Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood is that it shows a determination in Hattie to rise above it all. Watts reminds us a few times that Hattie’s main goal during her career was to “make people happy.” That made HER happy and that’s what she focused on…despite the situation dealt to her through no fault of her own. Not many of us can say we’ve found true happiness like that. The fact that she accomplished it despite being bombarded with ignorant hate throughout her life? That’s inspiring for me to say the least.
This is an excellent Hattie McDaniel biography. It include’s her family’s slave genealogy. It is a black family’s genealogy. It is a history of that so-called “golden age” of Hollywood. And it’s a record of how race pervaded it all.
I first read this excellent book last week, during the current racial uprising. After reading this book, it’s more clear than ever that we have never learned, we never fixed this problem, we never tried to understand why we hate based on the color of one’s skin. If anything, the problem is worse than ever. When you hate someone bad enough to harm them in anyway, over something like their skin color that can’t be controlled or changed by them, you make no sense. None. The very things that Hattie McDaniel was faced with, are the very same things that we hear about, read about, see with our own eyes this very day. It’s insane. It’s ignorant. And it pisses me off. The amazing thing is that she overcame everything to be happy and successful.
Author, Jill Watts has done extensive research to be able to give us such a clear, detailed history of Hattie’s life. That’s no surprise, considering Watts is a Professor of History at California State University and the author of three other books. She knows what she’s doing. If I have any complaint, it would be that I didn’t feel a closeness to Hattie like I did to, say, Myrna after her autobiography. But then, Hattie led a much different life in an entirely different world, even though they were both actresses in Hollywood during its “golden age”. The experiences of the two actresses were much different. Not because of talent or ambition. Only because of their skin color.
Hattie McDaniel was born to former slaves on June 10, 1893 in Wichita, Kansas. She died October 26, 1952. This is her story, her family’s story….and a history of how racism affected everything they did. The inspiring thing is how Hattie navigated through the hate and ignorance to still find success on her own terms in a vocation she loved. Several of her siblings did it too. That tells me a lot about the character of the slaves that raised them.
This book is a wake up call to me. Reading Hattie’s story makes me a witness to a human soul that’s been able to endure so much toxicity, but still find a way to rise above it and do what they love. I should be so lucky.
I love you Hattie. Thank you for rising above and giving us a lot to be happy about. You succeeded. Black ambition succeeded.