In her autobiography Thursday’s Child, Eartha Kitt talks about growing up in the cotton plantations of South Carolina in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and how she was ostracized by blacks and whites alike because her lighter skin color made her neither black nor white. So how did she go on to become a great celebrity not just in nightclubs and recording studios, but also in theatre, movies and television? In 1950, Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world,” and cast her as Helen of Troy in his production of Dr. Faustus.
Given the recent controversy over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s remark about the game-changing likelihood of white Americans voting for a “light-skinned” African-American in the 2008 presidential election, I’ve compiled a partial list of African-Americans in Hollywood movies. I’m presenting them not chronologically but alphabetically, making it harder perhaps to see if in fact there is any kind of pattern or commonality in the pigmentation of black screen faces through the decades.
Here are the black women whose images flickered in our minds—Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Whoopi Goldberg, Pam Grier, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Queen Latifah, Butterfly McQueen, Mo’Nique, Juanita Moore, Beah Richards, Diana Ross, Anna Deavere Smith, Cicely Tyson, Ethel Waters, Vanessa Williams, Oprah Winfrey.
And the black men whose names on the marquee brought us into the movie houses—Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Louis Gossett Jr., Dick Gregory, James Earl Jones, Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy, Sydney Poitier, Chris Rock, Howard Rollins, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Paul Winfield.
And then, of course, there’s Michael Jackson, in a sad class by himself, someone whose pigmentation changed with his every public appearance.
Leaving Hollywood and the world of make-believe behind, how about the real world? Do we have a different set of criteria for the pigmentation of blacks in sports, in academia, in politics? As the nation gets ready to celebrate Martin Luther King Day next Monday, I find myself wondering—If MLK had been born decades later, with the same darker skin and the same oratorical skills, would we have elected him President of these United States? And would all the “tea-baggers” and right-wing Republicans crucify the “dark-skinned” King even more than the way they’ve been crucifying the “light-skinned” Obama?
Maybe Harry Reid was wrong. Maybe we aren’t ready. Maybe Hollywood needs to pave the way some more. Maybe Quentin Tarantino needs to remake Gone with the Wind with Kanye West playing Rhett to Mo’Nique’s Scarlett and, maybe this time, quite frankly, my dear, we ought to give a damn.