Hattie McDaniel’s legacy goes beyond her roles, she chipped away at racism in Hollywood by simply existing and making room for herself.
If Ms. Hattie McDaniel was still with us, she would have been 122 years old, and she would probably be flawless. Today is her birthday and she needs to be celebrated.
For those of you who don’t know who Hattie McDaniel is, she is the first woman of color to be nominated and win an Academy Award in 1940 for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. The Mammy trope is one that is ubiquitous with racist America, it is present in pop culture as well as marketing. Hell, she is the original Aunt Jemima before they gave her a jerry curl afro and dentures.
The Mammy trope is represented as a thick, dark skinned Black woman who spends her time doting on a white family. She is a magnificent cook, a great listener, subservient in her spirit and she can probably sing a mean spiritual. The Mammy trope is non-sexual – as opposed to the Black Jezebel trope – but she has kids of her own. She doesn’t have the time to give them the attention they deserve because she is forced to take care of the white family she is bound to.
If it were up to just Hollywood, the Mammy trope would be Hattie’s legacy.
Hattie was a boss.
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First, let’s talk about Hattie McDaniel’s home in West Adams Heights, LA. In 1938, Hattie found herself a 17-room home in the neighborhood and moved in. Other Black celebrities like jazz singer Ethel Waters and actress Louise Beavers moved there too. This upset the racist white neighbors of West Adams Heights, so they began to set up racial covenants which restricted homeownership to white people and kept people of color from access to homes. This wasn’t uncommon and it is similar to redlining. Upset that the covenants weren’t all being upheld, a group of the white residents moved to sue McDaniel and the other Black residents. McDaniel was instrumental in organizing a coalition of supporters and her work helped get the lawsuit thrown out of court. This case would later help the Supreme Court “rule it unconstitutional for the courts to enforce restrictive housing covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948.”
Now let’s talk about Hattie taking on the NAACP. Now I am not a fan of the NAACP for many reasons and when Hattie started getting all the Hollywood roles as Mammy characters, the NAACP wanted her to stop because they thought the roles she played were hindering Black progress. They organized protests of her work and took away her proverbial black card. In response, she was quoted saying, “I could make $700 playing a maid or earn $7 a week being one.” Real talk.
While images of Black women as maids are as problematic today as they were then, Hattie was faced with only two choices – play the maid, or be the maid – she chose to do the former and be the best damn Mammy you ever did see.
Hattie invested much of her money into herself and her community. She was a philanthropist, activist and mentor to rising actresses. She was nobody’s Mammy in real life.
According to her descendants she motivated them to get less trope-like roles so that white people would be forced to see people of color outside of the Mammy or Sambo caricatures. Much later, it was comedian Mo’Nique who got what Hattie was putting down. When Mo’Nique won the same award in 2009, she started her thank you speech with, “Thank you Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that you did so I do not have to.”
Because Black women are so often overlooked – especially dark skinned Black women – it isn’t all too surprising that we forget to remember McDaniel and her legacy of greatness. When you talk about Sidney Poitier, talk about McDaniel. Her name needs to open every discussion about race and racism in entertainment because her work as an activist was crucial to our progress.
Hattie McDaniel’s legacy goes beyond her roles, she chipped away at racism in Hollywood by simply existing and making room for herself. The image of Mammy may be a shitty trope, but it was also a representation of Hattie’s skill which allowed her and others to occupy white spaces in Hollywood.