OPINION: Donna Brazile reflects on the life and career of Hattie McDaniel and what we can all learn from her achievements this Juneteenth holiday.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
As we celebrate Juneteenth to mark the end of slavery in 1865, I’m reminded of the phrase “The Future is Unwritten.”
The phrase sounds like it could have come from one of our great civil rights leaders. But in reality, it’s part of the name of a 2007 documentary about the late singer and guitarist Joe Strummer of the British punk rock band, The Clash.
I like the phrase “The Future is Unwritten” so much that I’m going to discuss it in the context of Juneteenth, a holiday officially called Juneteenth National Independence Day. Black folks in many parts of the country have celebrated this holiday of liberation as far back as the late 1800s. Congress finally got around to making it a federal holiday one year ago.
In my mind, “The Future is Unwritten” speaks of possibilities and America’s role as the Land of Opportunity. Of course, those possibilities and opportunities have been severely limited for Black people since our ancestors were brought to this country in chains. But Juneteenth marked a historic turning point—the end of our enslavement after the Civil War and the beginning of our long and hard journey that continues today on the road to equality.
“The Future is Unwritten” makes me think of all the Black Americans who have refused to let our past and the cancer of racism determine our futures. Among the many in this category was Hattie McDaniel, the daughter of formerly enslaved parents and the youngest of 13 children. She was born 129 years ago, on June 10, 1893.
(Credit: YouTube screenshot)
As a young woman, McDaniel worked as a maid, just as my own mother did years later, at a time when Black women had few educational and professional opportunities. And then, against all odds, McDaniel rose to Hollywood stardom. But most of her roles were limited to playing maids in 74 films.
McDaniel’s roles were demeaning and reinforced negative stereotypes about Black people, and she was criticized by some within our community for playing the parts. But at the time, they were the only roles open to Black women.
“I’d rather play a maid than be a maid,” McDaniel responded to those who said she shouldn’t have taken the parts. To her credit, she refused to utter the n-word written into her script in her most famous role as an enslaved maid called Mammy in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.”
McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Gone with the Wind.” But she wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere of the movie in Atlanta because it was held at a whites-only theater. And when the Academy Awards were handed out at a whites-only nightclub in Hollywood, McDaniel had to get special permission to attend. She wasn’t allowed to sit at the same table as the white stars.
1939: British actor Vivien Leigh (1913 – 1967) holds on to a pillar as American actor Hattie McDaniel (1895 – 1952) tightens her corset in a still from the film, ‘Gone with the Wind,’ directed by Victor Fleming. (Photo by MGM Studios/Getty Images)
The movie’s racism has not aged well, but Hattie McDaniel’s achievement has. The part of Mammy was far from glamorous and did not have “Oscar material” written all over it. But McDaniel managed to imbue the role with dignity.
Would McDaniel have liked to play the part of a doctor, lawyer, corporate executive or elected official? Of course. But even after winning the Academy Award, just about the only roles she and other Black people could get in movies for years were as servants. She died in 1952 of breast cancer, at age 59.
Although she couldn’t wipe out racism in Hollywood, McDaniel was a trailblazer for Black entertainers. She proved that “The Future is Unwritten” by achieving more than any Black actress up to her time. Her achievement still stands out, because only eight other African Americans have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and only one — Halle Barry in 2001 — has won for Best Actress.
Oscar Winner Halle Berry Winner Accepts The Best Actress Academy Award For Her Performance In The Film “Monster’s Ball,” While Actor Russell Crowe Applauds Her During The 74Th Annual Academy Awards March 24, 2002 At The Kodak Theater In Hollywood, Ca. (Photo By Getty Images)
Every Black person who grew up in more recent times, when racism is less powerful than in McDaniel’s day, stands on the shoulders of pioneers like her. I imagine if you told Miss Hattie that in the early 21st century, America would have a Black president, a Black female vice president, and soon to be Black female Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Black people in other high-level positions in the real world and in the movies, she would think that was an impossible dream.
My advice to all Americans this Juneteenth is to work to make dreams of better days ahead a reality and to remember that “The Future Is Unwritten.”
Children must be taught about the good, the bad and the ugly of American history so that they write the story of a better future that’s more just and equitable than our past. Racism, after all, is rooted in ignorance and lies. The more we learn the truth about our past and about our fellow Americans, the harder it is for racism to thrive.
And let’s remember that while an uncertain future can be a frightening thing, a certain future would be boring at best and soul-crushing at worst.
After all, the flip side to that uncertainty is hope. Hope isn’t about certainty—it’s about possibility. Any amount of certainty is, to one degree or another, restricting. But the possibilities expressed by hope are limitless.
On this Juneteenth, let’s remember all the barriers Hattie McDaniel knocked down and resolve to knock down some more. And let’s make the future we create better than the past we left behind.
Donna Brazile is an ABC News Contributor, veteran political strategist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. She managed the Gore campaign in 2000 and has lectured at more than 225 colleges and universities on race, diversity, women, leadership and restoring civility in politics. Brazile is the author of several books, including the New York Times’ bestseller “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” @DonnaBrazile
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