Last night I was channel surfing and came across the 1959 version of "Imitation of Life," a classic depiction of the "tragic mulatto." I hadn't seen it before and was drawn in out of curiosity. This version stars Lana Turner and Mahalia Jackson. The other actors, including the African American actress who should have been a central character never became a star in her own right.
Not knowing the name of the movie, nor having read the book I had no preconceived notions about the movie. Certainly, it was an emotional tear jerker. But, I had unanswered questions at the end of the movie.
Lana Turner played the role of a struggling actress who would do anything to succeed in the business. She's portrayed as a widow with a young daughter, as is Louise Beavers. The two of them are drawn together when Turner's daughter is found and cared for by Beavers. They hit it off and Beavers agrees to temporarily take care of Turner's daughter, while her and her daughter are living with them.
Beavers' daughter is a light-skinned girl who could pass for white in the book and both movies, hence the title "Imitation of Life." Throughout the story she attempts to pass for white. She's thwarted at every turn, however when her mother appears at school, on her job, etc. and eventually moves across country to Los Angeles to reinvent herself as a white person and seek her fortune.
The story is based on the book of the same name, written by a white author of the 1930's, which bears little if any resemblance to the movie I just described. The 1959 version with Lana Turner, which was written for her, excluded a lot of very objectionable shuffling and "nigger speak." In fact, the book and the 1934 version of the movie portrayed the beneficent white woman as a shrewd entrepreneur who took "Aunt Delilah's" pancake recipe, packaged and sold it, becoming the "pancake queen."
As the story goes Aunt Delilah wants nothing for this "secret recipe." She even goes so far as to beg the woman not to pay her anything for the recipe and to just let her keep on taking care of her and her daughter. Neither movie can stand up to modern standards, but the original version of the movie portrays the Black woman in a role that goes beyond subservient to downright ludicrous. The thought that she would not want a car, house and life of her own, but instead opts to let the white woman keep all of her money, while she continues living with her and playing nurse maid to her daughter goes beyond reason. Her fondest wish it turns out is to have a big funeral with 4 white horses to take her to the "pearly gates" of heaven.
The daughter plays a key role in the story, as she tries time and time again to pass for white always thwarted by her mother's dark complexion. In the end she not only rejects her race, but her mother too. She even goes so far as to tell her to walk on by without speaking if she sees her on the street, which in fact some Black people have done and continue to do.
Most recently, I've been conducting research on 5 Black presidents of the USA and it turns out some of them were passing. This knowledge has been passed down for generations by their relatives who made an agreement not to expose them. Warren G. Harding is a good example of this type of occurrence. One of his Black relatives has just published a book about him with photos of his Black relatives.
Ms. Hurst, was a noted Harlem Renaissance writer, although she was not an African American. Her work received some harsh criticism by Sterling Brown and other members of the community which she felt was undeserved. Her felling was that we should be grateful that she gave our story some attention.
We can forgive Ms. Hurst, for she was a product of her era. But, can we forgive the purveyors of this garbage for continuing to broadcast these stereotyped images of Black people on into the 21st century and beyond. I think not!
The whole notion of the "tragic mulatto" is a racist concept and speaks to the psychopathic racial personality of white Americans, which has in turn led to the exhibition of some psychopathic behavior on our part. Dr. Bobby Wright speaks of this in his book "The Psychopathic Racial Personality."
The "one-drop" rule, which states it only takes "one-drop" of Black blood to make you Black, while "one-drop" of white blood makes you conflicted is alive and well in modern-day America; because you'll never be accepted as being equal to white folks, despite the fact that you can pass for white.
In the final analysis the theme of passing, in the Black community is not unique. What was objectionable was the unrealistic portrayal of this unique phenomenon in the Black community.