Can you choose your color today, or must others still do that for you? Can anyone of us with mixed heritage be predominantly called by just one name? What does that say about the heritage you choose (or is chosen for you), and the heritage not chosen? It appears to me that regardless of your standing in society, regardless of your accomplishments or natural talents, you must choose a color – or one will be chosen for you.
I wonder at that. In some ways, our nation has come a long way since Patricia ‘Pinky’ Johnson, in its day a very controversial film about a young black woman who passes for white.
“Pinky” was a slang term for light-skinned black Americans. We trust the term as used here is not offensive to anyone today as we are using same only as historical reference.
Lena Horne wanted to play the title role in this movie. Ms. Horne, among the most accomplished actresses and singers of all time, (awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk; Recording and Motion Pictures), was considered “light enough” to photograph “white” in the films of that time. However, that time was 1949 and 20th Century-Fox felt the movie would not show in most theaters (and for sure none in the South) since love scenes with a white actor were essential to the story. As a historical reference here as well, a “love scene” in the movies back then was an embrace or a kiss lasting more than a second (or about what you see Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed do in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). This was also the main reason she lost out on playing “Julie”, a role depicted for a “mulatto” woman in MGM’s 1951 remake of Show Boat.
In her autobiography, Ms Horne said she photographed so light that MGM was afraid people would mistake her for a white woman, so they had Max Factor (yes, the makeup legend himself) create a make-up line for her to “appear” as a black woman on screen with black men. For the films where the cast was white, MGM shot her scenes so they could be cut out when the films were shown in the South. Hey now, you don’t have to like every aspect of our history, but to ignore or deny any part of our history is simply foolish and only serves to condemn us all to repeat its mistakes in one fashion or another (e.g., Gay Rights).
Indeed, our nation has come a long way since the first showing of “Pinky”. The last US census showed that an increasing number of Americans identify themselves as “multiracial and mixed-race” when asked to identify their heritage and an increasing number is expected to choose so in the 2010 census. Nevertheless, customs and society norms, like any addiction, are difficult habits to break. The parents of our President are both white and black, yet the world, as does President Obama, describes himself only as a black man or an American of African decent. We are not attempting to diminish any of the reasons for this choice, but attempting to understand how a focus on “color” continues in 2009. For example, one of the readers of SurfaceEarth, C.Grego, recently commented that he was surprised to hear that CNN does not consider him a white man (he is Portuguese).
“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.” Ms. Horne.
I believe we are long past that daydream now, and I hope Ms. Horne agrees. In regards to race, we have crossed the Rubicon. Sure, we can all turn around, look back and focus at the soiled and bloodied foot prints leading to the river, but cross it we have. It’s time to move on, and I wonder at that.