You’re listening to a series about the cultural legacies of three very complicated women: Carry Nation, Hattie McDaniel, and Rosie the Riveter. Each made history — and they still exert influence today. Join us as we touch on Black American migration, Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, and (of course) Gone with the Wind. She may have died almost seventy years ago, but Hattie McDaniel has had a lot going on lately. Of course, she was an icon, and icons enjoy an eventful afterlife right here on earth.
For full Show Notes, click on Transcript and scroll to bottom.
Feminist Foremothers, ep. 2: Hattie McDaniel
Welcome to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. I’m your host Emily Christensen.
You’re listening to a series about the cultural legacies of three very complicated women: Carry Nation, Hattie McDaniel, and Rosie the Riveter. Each made history — and they still exert influence today. Join us as we touch on Black American migration, Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, and (of course) Gone with the Wind. This is
Episode Two: Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood Icon
She may have died almost seventy years ago, but Hattie McDaniel has had a lot going on lately. Of course, she was an icon, and icons enjoy an eventful afterlife right here on earth.
Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about mama.film. In 2019, Lela Meadow-Conner brought independent movies by and about women to her microcinema in Wichita, Kansas. Since then, she has collaborated on projects such as the rePRO Film Festival and the Mothership Screenwriters Lab.
This podcast was launched as part of mama.film's 2021 partnership with the Sundance Film Festival. To learn more about mama.film and purchase tickets to upcoming shows, visit mama dot film.
Hattie’s eventful 2020 began in May, with the release of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix miniseries Hollywood. It presents an alternate history of the film industry in the late 1940s. In Murphy’s invented past, a ragtag group of outsiders changes the movie business — and America — forever. Queen Latifah guest stars as Hattie McDaniel, who is pleased to see a young Black actor break new ground of her own.
Not long after, WarnerMedia launched HBO Max, a streaming service that includes content from its various subsidiaries, not just HBO. For example, you can watch Turner Classic Movies on the new platform. And the TCM catalog includes the highest grossing film of all time: Gone with the Wind, starring Hattie McDaniel.
HBO Max was in its early days when the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by writer, director and fellow Oscar winner John Ridley, He won in 2014 for his adaptation of the memoir 12 Years a Slave. Ridley called on WarnerMedia to pull Gone with the Wind.
He argued that the film “glorifies the antebellum south,” and “[perpetuates] … painful stereotypes of people of color.” But at the same time, Ridley wasn’t advocating for the film be — quote — “relegated to a vault in Burbank.” Instead, he proposed that WarnerMedia present the movie with a little bit more context.
Ridley pretty much got what he asked for. The day after his LA Times piece, WarnerMedia removed Gone with the Wind from HBO Max. It returned about two weeks later with a short introduction from historian and TCM host Jacqueline Stewart.
Hattie was born in Wichita, so around here she’s in the news on an occasional basis. In September of 2019, I heard a story about her on my local public radio station. In the segment, Karla Burns discusses Hattie’s legacy with Carla Eckels, KMUW’s director of diversity, news and engagement.
CARLA: Karla, where are we at right now?
KARLA: We are at the site of Hattie McDaniel’s home. It’s not here anymore, but this is the site of her birthplace, 925 North Wichita.
Like Hattie, Burns was born in Wichita, about ten blocks from the McDaniels’ old address. Both women began performing in church, and both played the role of Queenie in the musical Show Boat. Burns was nominated for a Tony and took home a Drama Desk award for her performance in the early eighties Broadway revival.
In 1982, Burns appeared in an hour-long Show Boat television special hosted by Merv Griffin.
GRIFFIN: This role of Queenie is not unfamiliar to my next guest. She has — it’s tailor-made for her — she’s been playing this role for something like ten years. She’s almost made a career out of the role of Queenie, and she is good. Here singing “Hey Feller” is Karla Burns. Karla?
[Applause and cheers]
BURNS [singing]: When you yen/ For a gent,/ Give him en-/ Couragement,/ Only den/ Will he come to stay./ You must declare yourself,/ Or you'll be/ On the shelf;/ If you wait too long/He'll get away….
You can find the whole thing on YouTube. It includes a brief interview with Burns, whom Griffin is clearly charmed by. We’ll also drop a link to the video in our show notes.
In the nineties, Burns won a Laurence Olivier award, again for playing Queenie — this time in London. The Olivier is Britain's most prestigious theater award, and Karla Burns was the first Black person to receive one.
The connection between the two Wichita-born has been stronger than ever since Burns first began performing Hi-Hat Hattie. Larry Parr based his one-woman show on the life of the Oscar-winning icon. The musical includes one memorable scene in which Burns sings both parts of the Showboat duet “Ah Still Suits Me.”
The role has deepened Burns’s appreciation for Hattie. Here’s another clip from her K-M-U-W interview:
“She really paved the way, I mean she was a singer, actor, dancer. She was everything I knew that I wanted to be heading into my education. She was the one that I wanted to fashion my life after."
Unlike Hattie, Karla Burns grew up in Wichita. She attended West High School and graduated from Wichita State. The McDaniels moved a few years after their youngest daughter was born. There’s no real evidence that Hattie’s time in Wichita directly influenced her entertainment career. But her family did play an important role in the history of Kansas.
Part One: Exodus
Hattie’s father Henry McDaniel was born into slavery in Virginia. He never knew his parents, so he didn’t know the exact year of his birth. He began performing forced labor at the age of five. When he was nine, Henry and two of his siblings were sold to another enslaver, and they wound up in Tennessee.
That’s where Henry was when the Civil War began. He was in his early twenties, and as soon as they were able, he and his brother joined the Second Colored Regiment of the United States Army. Henry was hospitalized for severe frostbite during his service. During the Battle of Nashville, an explosion shattered his jaw. He never received medical attention for his injuries, which left him at least partially disabled for the rest of his life.
Life in Tennessee became increasingly difficult for freedpeople after the federal government abandoned Reconstruction. After the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the establishment of Jim Crow laws, the American South was a dangerous and difficult place for Black citizens. Henry and his wife Ssusan Henry were living in Nashville in the late 1870s when they began hearing promising rumors. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, who worked as an undertaker in Nashville, was promoting Kansas as a sort of new promised land for Black Americans.
As the birthplace of John Brown, Kansas was a powerful symbol for formerly enslaved people. The radical abolitionist led Free-Staters into battle against pro-slavery forces in the 1850s. This violent period is known as Bleeding Kansas, and Brown and his allies ensured that Kansas entered the union as a free state.
In 1879, about six thousand freedpeople made their way from the lower Mississippi Delta to Kansas. The first mass migration of Black Americans was called the Great Exodus, and the migrants earned the name Exodusters. They saw themselves as modern-day Israelites whose long period of wandering would be rewarded.
Some freedpeople found success in Kansas, but it wasn’t the paradise that Exodusters like the McDaniels were hoping for. Although the state passed an anti-discrimination law in the 1870s, many White residents were not pleased by the influx of migrants. Land was either unaffordable or inhospitable, and jobs were hard to come by. The McDaniels lived in Manhattan for a time, then in Baxter Springs, where “Pap” Singleton failed to create an all-Black community. Exodusters did establish some communities in Kansas, however. The best known is Nicodemus, which holds two distinctions: as the first Black settlement west of the Mississippi and the only remaining western town founded by Black Americans during Reconstruction.
The McDaniels moved to Wichita seven years after they first set foot in Kansas. They settled in the small but bustling Black enclave centered around Water and Main Streets, just north of the courthouse. In the 1920s, years after the McDaniels had moved on, Black Wichitans began moving northeast. By the beginning of World War II, the heart of the community was the intersection of Ninth and Cleveland.
The Kansas African American Museum is the steward of Wichita’s Black history. It’s located on Water Street in the former Calvary Baptist Church building, once the center of the old neighborhood. Museum visitors can view works from its collection of Black and African art and learn about the Black experience in Kansas. You can even take a self-guided walking tour of the area around the museum, which was once home to numerous Black businesses, churches and social clubs.
While the McDaniels lived on Wichita Street, Henry worked for a contractor hauling bricks. His coworkers remembered him as a hard worker, but his war injuries soon made it impossible to keep a consistent work schedule.
Shortly after the McDaniels arrived in Wichita, Henry hired a White lawyer to help him file for a disability pension, which he qualified for because of his military service and related injuries. His application should have been a slam dunk, but the government pushed back. Henry was never treated for his shattered jaw, so there were no records of his battle injuries. This was a sticking point, despite sworn testimony from those who could corroborate Henry’s war injuries. It took eighteen years and numerous appeals until Henry was granted the measly sum of six dollars a month.
By then, the McDaniels had established themselves in Colorado. Many of their fellow Exodusters moved on, too. Denver had its own problems, and the McDaniels continued to struggle financially. But they joined a large and thriving Black community. This is where many of the McDaniel children first established themselves as entertainers.
Their place in Kansas history remains. Exodusters were the first large group of freedpeople to challenge their circumstances by changing their geography. They were not the last. From 1915 to 1970, nearly six million Black Americans left the South in a movement known as the Great Migration.
Isabel Wilkerson chronicles this period of our history in her book The Warmth of Other Suns. In the following passage, she describes the calculations Black families had to make:
“From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every Black family in America, had a decision to make. There were sharecroppers losing at settlement. Typists wanting to work in an office. Yard boys scared that a single gesture near the planter’s wife could leave them hanging from an oak tree. They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. In this, they were not unlike anyone who ever longed to cross the Atlantic or the Rio Grande.”
While working on this podcast, I took a break to read a recent novel: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which made the Booker Prize shortlist last year. The main character is Wallace, a Black, queer PhD student at a Midwestern research university. Wallace is an outsider in all kinds of ways. He grew up in poverty, he’s the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he’s the only Black student in his program.
I surely wouldn’t have connected Taylor’s novel to Hattie McDaniel’s story if I hadn’t been engaged with both at the same time. But Real Life is partly about negotiating an existence in mostly White spaces, so I couldn’t help but think of Hattie.
In one scene, Wallace shares his childhood trauma with a new lover. And in a passage about moving on, I heard an echo of the Black migrant experience. I didn’t think I could do it justice, so here’s my friend Julius:
“When I left it behind me, when I got the money to go to school and get away, I sealed it all behind me, because when you go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you. You can lay it down. You can leave it for the ants. There comes a time when you have to stop being who you were, when you have to let the past stay where it is, frozen and impossible. You have to let it go if you’re going to keep moving, if you’re going to survive, because the past doesn’t need a future. It has no use for what comes next. The past is greedy, always swallowing you up, always taking. If you don’t hold it back, if you don’t dam it up, it will spread and take and drown. The past is not a receding horizon. Rather, it advances one moment at a time, marching steadily forward until it has claimed everything and we become again who we were; we become ghosts when the past catches us. I can’t live as long as my past does. It’s one or the other.
In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson quotes the academic John Dollard, who studied the South in the late 1930s. He wrote, “Oftentimes just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do.”
He said leaving can be a form of resistance.
What is remarkable is that some of the McDaniel children nurtured the same spirit of resistance alive. They kept moving to pursue new opportunities until they finally got to their version of the promised land: Hollywood.
Part Two: A Happy Ending for Hattie
Consider yourself warned: This section contains spoilers for the Netflix miniseries Hollywood.
In 1931, Hattie moved to Tinsel Town. She was thirty-six, and her resume already included two decades of professional experience. When she was still in high school, she began performing in her brother Otis’s Black minstrel troupe. Later, she launched her own, all-women minstrel group. She performed in nightclubs, and recorded blues tracks.
Three of Hattie’s older siblings were already trying to establish Hollywood careers. Sam McDaniel had a gig on a radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour, and Hattie joined the cast as the character “Hi-Hat Hattie,” a bossy maid. During her first years in California, she worked as a maid in between film and radio jobs, almost all of which called on her to play the role of a domestic worker. Even after her Oscar, she continued to play similar roles. Over the course of her career, she played a maid more than seventy times.
Hattie McDaniel is first mentioned in the second episode of Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Hollywood. The story begins in the late 1940s, a few years after Hattie’s historic Oscar win.
Young studio actress Camille Washington, played by Laura Harrier, is studying elocution alongside other Hollywood hopefuls when she gets her first speaking role in the fictional Ace Studios’ newest picture. Except she wasn’t chosen for her talent. Camille is Black, and her so-called “big break” is playing a maid.
The actress delivers her first line in the “Mid-Atlantic” accent she’s been studying — but that’s not what the director is looking for.
DIRECTOR: Cut! Let’s do a pickup. I just wanna do one more. Can we do the line a little more funny?
CAMILLE: Is it a joke?
DIRECTOR: Just think, what would Hattie McDaniel do?
In the second take, Camille affects a servile posture and delivers the line in a broad, sing-song Southern accent. Her “adjustment” is met with approval.
Camille Washington is fictional, like most of the main characters in the series. Dozens of real 1940s directors, producers and stars appear as minor characters. And a handful fall somewhere in between fact and fiction. These include actors Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong, and Hattie McDaniel. Each was a real person, but their storylines revolve around fabricated plotlines.
Murphy gives Hudson an emotionally satisfying life as an out gay man, which includes a loving relationship with a talented screenwriter. Wong gets the part — and the plaudits — she deserves.
Hattie’s rewrite isn’t quite so dramatic. She has to settle for being Camille’s mentor. As viewers, we are to understand ssing the younger woman become a huge star is enough of a happy ending for Hattie.
HATTIE: Hi, is this Camille Washington?
HATTIE: You don’t know me, but my name is Hattie McDaniel.
CAMILLE [whispering to XXX, her boyfriend]: It’s Hattie McDaniel!
[speaking into the receiver] Yes, of course I know who you are, Ms. McDaniel.
HATTIE: Well look, I’ve been reading about you in the trades, and my heart just about jumped out of my chest. I never thought we’d make the leap in this country, but here we are. Now, am I to understand that you are playing the lead role in a studio picture?
CAMILLE: That is correct.
HATTIE: So she’s the romantic lead, not a fuckin’ maid?
CAMILLE: No ma’am, it’s the lead role.
HATTIE: Well. Motherfucker, praise be! I am so proud of you. But you should know, it’s going to be rough. I’ve been through it: Hollywood. So if you need anything, darling, just ask me. All right?
Ryan Murphy said he wanted to create a happy ending for these real people who surely deserved better from Hollywood. I understand the impulse, although I’m certain that Hattie would have written herself a different kind of happily-ever-after. After all, she was still working during this period, and she was disappointed by the mostly crummy parts she was offered after her Oscar win.
When Gone with the Wind was in the news last year, Anthony Breznican rehashed an interview he conducted with Olivia de Havilland in 2004. That year, Warner Home Video released a four-disc commemorative DVD of the film. de Havilland played Scarlett’s sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes. She was also nominated for an Oscar in the same category as Hattie.
Ultimately, producer David O. Selznick campaigned for McDaniel, not de Havilland. I’ve wondered about that. Was he trying to prove something, or was this an act of penance? It’s not as though his blockbuster movie just recently fell out of favor. Black Americans registered their objections well before the movie began shooting. Some community leaders appealed to Selznick directly, and the producer was well aware of the outcry in the Black press. At the same time, Hattie received positive reviews. Several Black journalists encouraged their readers to write Selznick directly to ask that she be considered for the industry’s highest honor.
According to the 2004 interview with de Havilland, both she and Selznick knew the results before the awards ceremony. In those days, an accounting firm didn’t safeguard the names of the winners. De Havilland said Selznick had a spy, but actually the Los Angeles Times leaked the news. The obvious question is, did Hattie know in advance?
No, de Havilland says. She was already at the hotel where the ceremony would take place. Whereas de Havilland, Selznick, Vivian Lee and Clark Gable would arrive fashionably late. They were pre-gaming the ceremony at Selznick’s house. The cast didn’t sit together that night, either. The Ambassador Hotel was whites-only. The management agreed to sit Hattie and her escort at their own table at the periphery.
I’ve heard Hattie’s acceptance speech before, but not the introduction by Fay Bainter, who presented the award. Let’s listen to both.
FAY BINTER: I’m really especially happy that I’ve been chosen to present this particular plaque. To me, it seems more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America. An America we love. An America that, almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who have given their best, regardless of creed, race, or color. It is with the knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque that I present the academy award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role during 1939 to Hattie McDaniel.
HATTIE MCDANIEL: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry, and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the awards for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you and God bless you.
Like Hollywood-the-miniseries, Bainter’s speech creates a convenient, progressive-sounding fiction.
And like Fay Bainter, the series is practically bursting with its own self-importance. It centers around the fictional movie Meg, which depicts an interacial romance between two struggling actors. Not only does the picture get made, it’s released across the country, becomes an enormous hit and nets a ton of Oscars, including a best actress win for Camille. The miniseries even hints that the film’s success may have solved racism.
I do understand why Ryan Murphy wanted to give Hattie a rewrite. Let’s go back to that Anthony Breznican interview with Olivia de Haviland. As recently as last summer this guy framed it as full of fun, behind-the-scenes tidbits about a historic Hollywood moment. But my takeaway is that on the most important night of her life, Hattie’s coworkers excluded her. And during her moment of triumph, Hollywood couldn’t resist the opportunity to pat itself on the back.
Then I think about other indignities she suffered. Hattie didn’t attend the premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta because the theater wouldn’t seat Black people. Before her death, this groundbreaking actress asked to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery. Her wishes were not honored, because in the early fifties the cemetery was Whites-only. Although Hattie counted many of her White colleagues as friends, only the actor James Cagney attended her funeral. So yeah.
Hattie McDaniel made history when she won her Oscar, and nothing and no one can ever take that away from her. But the award didn’t represent a career breakthrough for Hattie, who ended her career playing yet another maid in the TV series Beulah. And it wasn’t an immediate harbinger of change for the film industry, either. It would be more than 50 years until another Black woman won an academy award for acting.
Who wouldn’t want to rewrite the heck out of all that.
Ultimately, the movie industry failed Hattie while she was alive. It’s simply too late to give her a happy ending, as appealing as that idea sounds. Perhaps at this point it’s better to think about how best to honor her.
Here’s one very small way: Queue up a classic film about the Black migrant experience.
Part Three: Daughters of the Dust
Thirty years ago, Julie Dash’s first full-length film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Like Hattie, Dash broke new ground: Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film directed by a Black woman to obtain wide release in the U.S.
It follows the Peazant family through a day and a half in 1902, as they prepare to leave a Gullah community on one of Georgia’s barrier islands. Like Henry and Susan McDaniel a quarter-century before, the Peazants plan to leave the South in search of a freer and more prosperous life. All except Nana Peazant, the family matriarch, played by Cora Lee Day. In one scene, she begs her grandson Eli, played by Adisa Anderson, to remember his heritage and keep the family together in their new home:
NANA PEAZANT: Eli, I'm trying to teach you how to touch your own spirit. I'm fighting for my life, Eli, and I'm fighting for yours. Look in my face! I'm trying to give you something to take north with you, along with all your great big dreams. Call on those old Africans, Eli. They’ll come to you when you least expect them. They’ll hug you up quick and soft like the warm sweet wind. Let those old souls come into your heart, Eli. Let them touch you with the hands of time. Let them feed you with wisdom that ain’t from this time. Because when you leave this island, Eli Peazant, you ain’t going to no land of milk and honey.
Gullah communities have successfully passed down their dialect and foodways, both of which are central elements in Daughters of the Dust. Dash’s own ancestors inspired the film, which she also wrote and co-produced on a budget of less than a million dollars. Like the Peazants, her father’s family migrated north in the early twentieth century.
Nana spent the first part of her life in slavery, and the film alludes to plenty of horrors, including sexual assault and the ever-present threat of lynching. One of the stories woven through the nonlinerar narrative is the legend of the Ibo Landing Mass Suicide.
At the same time, Daughters of the Dust is suffused in beauty. Artist Kerry James Marshall, now considered one of the most important painters of his generation, served as the production designer. Another artist, Arthur JAY-fa, won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance for his work on the film. Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade is partly inspired by their work. Not long after the album dropped, Daughters of the Dust returned to theaters. It is widely considered one of the most important movies of the twentieth century, and it’s included in the National Film Registry.
Hattie McDaniel and Julie Dash are often mentioned together in stories about groundbreaking figures in the history of Black film. As far as I know, Dash wasn’t thinking of Hattie when she created her masterwork. But in telling an original story about Black migration that is entirely devoid of cliche, Daughters of the Dust honors Hattie, as well as the millions of Black Americans for whom migration is a crucial part of their family history.
Interlude: Follow, Unfollow, or Pause for Thirty Days
Every episode, we ask: how would this particular foremother conduct herself on social media? Would Hattie McDaniel be an automatic follow, or no?
For me — I mean, of course. Of our three initial foremothers, Hattie’s the one I’d be most excited to see on social media. The first episode covered the prohibitionist Carry Nation. I stand by my conviction that she would be great on Twitter. But Carry would simply be tranlating her combative communication style for a new context. She founded two magazines, wrote an autobiography, and delivered numerous speeches. We have a pretty good sense of her whole deal.
Hattie, on the other hand, had to walk a very fine line when she spoke publicly. She was careful not to jeopardize her position in Hollywood, but she also deeply cared about her standing in the Black community. When she was criticized for portraying racial stereotypes, she famously shot back, “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid.”
Hattie had the ability to gracefully shut people all the way down in a way that reminds me a little of the comedian Ziwe. But clearly TikTok would be her ideal platform.
Part Four: Lost Cause
In her new introduction to Gone with the Wind, Jacqueline Stewart says that watching the movie “can be uncomfortable, even painful.”
Boy, is she right about that. The movie announces its racist, revisionist intentions from the beginning. Right after the opening credits, this text crawls across the screen, over an instrumental arrangement of “Dixie:”
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...”
Ugh. Later, in a scene famous for its cinematography, Scarlett searches for Dr. Meade in Atlanta. The crane shot slowly withdraws, revealing the bodies of hundreds of dead and injured soldiers lying in the street. Then the camera lovingly pans over a waving Confederate battle flag — the same one some of my fellow Americans still fly.
Gone with the Wind presents its Black characters, including Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy, as singularly motivated to serve their enslavers. Mammy is a formidable woman, yet her entire identity is wrapped up in service of Tara and its White residents. We don’t learn her backstory. We don’t even know her real name.
I hadn’t seen Gone with the Wind in thirty years, and I barely remembered it. I thought it was a silly, pretty romance that conveniently skips over all the bad parts of the Confederacy. Well, I could not have been more wrong. The film adaptation doesn’t include some of the worst parts of the novel, such as its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary peacekeeping force. But the movie commits at least as many sins as it ignores.
Author Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900, well after the end of the Civil War. Her grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and she grew up hearing glorified war stories. Supposedly, she was shocked when she finally learned, at the age of ten, that the successionst South had actually lost.
By the turn of the century, the Confederacy had gone through what we might now refer to as a rebranding. It was called the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause was predicated on a series of falsehoods about the antebellum South. It holds that the Civil War was about preserving a way of life. Adherents of the Lost Cause want you to know that the war wasn’t really about slavery much at all. They would even have you believe that slavery was an institution that benefitted the enslaved as well as enslavers.
The efforts of ex-Confederates were vindicated when the United States Army named its new southern bases after Confederate generals. Ten Army bases still retain those names. During his presidency Donald Trump insisted they must remain that way, as the generals are quote- “part of a Great American heritage.”
In some quarters, the Lost Cause is alive and well, and Margaret Mitchell’s novel is one of its central texts.
Having rewatched Gone with the Wind, I’m ashamed to say that I was kind of obsessed with it when I was in eighth grade. I lugged the novel around in my backpack, the mass market paperback edition with Rhett and Scarlett passionately embracing on the cover. It seemed like the longest book that was ever written, and finishing felt like a major intellectual achievement.
I can’t believe I missed all the red flags. I certainly wasn’t taught that Confederates were tragic-yet-admirable, or that slavery wasn’t really that bad. The more I thought about it, though, the more I recalled hearing bits and pieces of the Lost Cause: for example, that General Robert E. Lee was a patriot, despite the fact that he led an army against his fellow citizens.
I found another clue: a young adult book I read in middle school called Gone with the Witch. The Scholastic paperback is Number Three in the Teen Witch series by Megan Barnes. The book’s protagonist, Sarah, is a thirteen-year-old witch-in training living in southern California. She becomes obsessed with the movie version of Gone with the Wind, and accidentally transports herself (and her best friend Micki) to a pre-Civil-War Georgia plantation. I suspect this stupid book is what turned me onto Gone with the Wind in the first place.
Like me, Sarah was particularly interested in the clothes. Barnes writes, “She wished she’d been around then to wear beautiful gowns with wide hoop skirts. She could have rivalled Scarlett O’Hara in high spirits and excellent taste, she was sure. And the men back then! Boys no older than [her boyfriend] David, wearing those impressive gray uniforms with boots.” Once Sarah travels back to 1860, she is tempted to stay because of the gowns and the balls and a young Confederate soldier who catches her eye.
The enslaved people who work this Georgia plantation barely rate a mention. When they do, Sarah justifies herself with the thought that they would soon be freedpeople.
Sarah’s only real critiques of Civil-War-era Southern culture are about gender norms. She’s more concerned with the limitations on her own freedoms than the fact that her new lifestyle is predicated on the labor of enslaved people. Ironically, Teen Witch Number Three was published in 1989, the very same year Kimberly Crenshaw first used the term intersectionality.
Gone with the Witch isn’t the first young adult book to reference Gone with the Wind. In S.E. Hinton’s 1964 Y-A classic The Outsiders, Johnny and Ponyboy read the novel together while they’re hiding out. I found two other young adult novels that use Michell’s book as a plot device. Decades after the publication of Gone with the Wind, they repackaged the Lost Cause for a young, uncritical audience.
In an essay for the online literary magazine Electric Literature, Meg Elison writes about Gone with the Wind’s “mythology of whiteness.” Like me, Elison first read it as a child, but she continued to reread the book throughout her adolescence and early adulthood. Every time she revisited it, more of the novel’s text and subtext revealed itself. Elison advocates for another kind of revision:
It takes literacy and critical thinking and listening to people of color to realize that not only is Gone with the Wind fiction, but most of what you know is fiction. Your family history is fiction. Your elementary school textbooks are fiction. Your construction of yourself is fiction. We all have to read ourselves more than once. We have to proofread and edit ourselves. We have to rewrite ourselves every day. We have to learn to separate truth from fiction from fake news. This is a monumental task, and most of us will fail.
I shouldn’t end this podcast without mentioning something else about Gone with the Wind: Hattie McDaniel is great in it. You might be thinking, “Duh, Emily, she won an Oscar.” To which I would say, plenty of Oscar winners turned in not-so-great work.
But Hattie’s performance is grounded, even modern. Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable do a perfectly fine job of chewing the scenery, at least by the rather theatrical standards of the era. But there’s a timelessness to Hattie McDaniel’s acting. She said she felt connected to this character, and that’s easy to believe when you watch her move through the film, doing incredible work with what she was given.
When I think of how best to honor Hattie’s legacy, I keep going back to Meg Elison’s rewriting metaphor. This is not the rewriting of the miniseries Hollywood, which merely obscures the past. This kind of rewriting, making things right, can only happen in the present.
That might look like contending with the legacy of Gone with the Wind, as Elison did in her Electric Literature essay. As Spike Lee did in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman. That movie opens on the famous street scene with the waving Confederate battle flag. Rewriting might look like watching and reading and listening to the work of Black artists and creators, or learning about the history of the Black community where you live.
It could also look like honoring Hattie McDaniel in the city where she was born.
That 2019 story on my local public radio station was about Hattie’s lack of recognition in Wichita. The Kansas African American Museum has been raising funds for a new historical marker at the location of the McDaniels’ Wichita home. According to Denise Sherman, the museum’s executive director, they plan to go forward with installation in March. The date hasn’t been set yet, but you can find updates on the museum’s Facebook page and website. There you can also contribute to a special fund that will be used to cover the costs of the marker.
Meanwhile, you can see another tribute to Hattie on the side of the Historic Dunbar Theatre, near the intersection of Ninth and Cleveland. Priscella Brown’s Horizontes Project mural includes a portrait of Hattie, alongside fellow comedy legends Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor.
I hope that Wichita will continue to find ways to honor Hattie McDaniel and her family. Because Otis and Sam and Etta McDaniel were brave and ambitious and talented performers. And of course, because Hattie was an icon.
It seems only fitting to give Karla Burns the last word. Here’s one final clip from her 2019 interview with Carla Eckels on KMUW:
“I talk about Hatttie McDaniel in every single lecture that I do, everywhere that I go, because she’s an important Wichitan, she’s an important Kansan, she’s an important icon, she’s a legend in the world of performing. The first African American person to be nominated for and win an Academy Award. How special is that? There will never be another first. It was Hattie McDaniel from Wichita, Kansas.
Thanks for listening to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. Feminist Foremothers is written and hosted by Emily Christensen, produced by Emily Christensen and Lela Meadow-Connor, and edited by Kylie Brown. The illustrations are by artist Hannah Scott, who made portraits of each foremother for this podcast. Sharp observers will catch our own minor rewriting of history: In Hannah’s version, Hattie holds the traditional Oscar statue. In real life, winners in the supporting categories received smaller plaques. I guess we couldn’t resist giving Hattie a little something extra.
Big thanks to Julius Thomas the Third — the other Broadway performer you heard in this episode. He lent his voice to the passage from Brandon Taylor’s novel Real Life. And shout-out to my radio role model Carla Eckels for her insight and encouragement.
You can find me on Twitter @SchmemilyEmily. (Schmemily is spelled S-C-H-M-E-M-I-L-Y.) Find a complete transcript and check out our show notes at mama.film. The show notes include links to the books, movies, and articles discussed in this episode, plus further reading about Hattie McDaniel and some of the subjects we touched on.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please spread the word, and I hope you’ll join us for our last episode. (At least, our last episode for now.) Look for it at the end of March.
First Black Oscar Winner Hattie McDaniel Lacks Recognition In Her Hometown Of Wichita, KMUW: Lela and I were inspired to choose Hattie McDaniel as a subject in part because of this story by Carla Eckels.
The story inspired me to learn more about Karla Burns, a Wichita-born performer who has always seen Hattie McDaniel as a role model. Both actresses played Queenie in the musical Show Boat more than once. Here’s the Show Boat TV special from 1982 that we pulled a clip from. The Karla Burns segment starts at 42:10.
If you’re interested in the history of Wichita’s Black community, The Kansas African American Museum is a must visit. The staff and volunteers are friendly and knowledgeable, and the museum hosts original history and art rotating exhibitions, plus a permanent exhibition of African art and artifacts.
In 2020, TKAAM published African Americans of Wichita, available locally in the museum store or from Watermark Books. Take a self-guided tour around Wichita’s original Black community with an app called Bike Walk Wichita: Tours and Routes. Download it from Google Play or the App Store.
Hattie McDaniel has been celebrated in Wichita in a few different ways over recently. I mentioned Priscella Brown’s Horiztontes Project’s Dunbar Theatre mural in the episode. In the fall of 2020, Sarah Joy Harmon created a portrait of Hattie for Depth of Field: A Wichita Photo Album, a temporary installation in downtown Wichita organized by Wichita Festivals, Inc. And AIGA Wichita recently released We’re Here and Still Standing, a postcard set “celebrating the black leaders and artists who helped shape Wichita, Kansas.” Of course, one of the cards is a portrait of Hattie, based on artwork by Kynnedy Moore. You can buy it at Vortex Souvenir.
Nell Irvin Painter’s Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction is the seminal work on the Great Exodus. It’s available from the Wichita Public Library.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Shonda Rhimes optioned the book Netflix; playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith is adapting the text for the streamer.
For a quick summary, watch this brief video about Black migration from Black History in Two Minutes (which includes an appearance by Painter).
I wound up talking very little about Hattie McDaniel’s acting career in this episode. In part, that’s because her connection to Kansas has more to do with her family’s Exoduster experience. It’s also because Karina Longworth has already covered this territory on her terrific Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This. Her episode about Hattie McDaniel is part of a six-episode series called Six Degrees of Song of the South.
If you want an in-depth look at Hattie’s life, check out Jill Watts’s Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. I relied heavily on Watts’s account of the McDaniel family history. Also worth a read, a shorter piece: “What Hattie McDaniel Said About Her Oscar-Winning Career Playing Racial Stereotypes,” from Smithsonian Magazine.
Ryan Murphy’s Netflix miniseries Hollywood inspired a lot of interesting criticism. A small sampling:
In her Vanity Fair article “How Beyoncé’s Lemonade Helped Bring a Groundbreaking Film Back to Theaters,” Yohana Desta explains — well, I suppose the headline says it all. The restoration and rerelease of the film brought new critical attention to Daughters of the Dust. (“The year’s best and most original movie was made in 1991,” wrote Richard Brody in the New Yorker.) Here are a few of my favorites:
Op-Ed: Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now: John Ridley’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times prompted HBO Max to temporarily pull Gone with the Wind from its platform.
A few days later, Pamela K. Johnson responded in the pages of the same paper: “Op-Ed: I don’t like ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but I hate to see Hattie McDaniel canceled”
The film is accessible again, but now it begins with an introduction by TCM host and film historian Jacqueline Stewart. She wrote about the reasons to preserve the movie in an opinion piece for CNN: “Why we can't turn away from 'Gone with the Wind.”
In “The Lost Cause’s Long Legacy,” Michel Paradis explains how U.S. Army bases came to be named for Confederate generals (The Atlantic). q
Here’s proof that Gone with the Witch is real. I’m linking to its Amazon listing, because it includes a review from School Library Journal by Elaine E. Knight of Lincoln Elementary Schools, Illinois, who drags the book much the same reasons I do (albeit she does so less colorfully): “Bewitched, no. Bothered and bewildered, yes.”
“How Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' expertly uses 'Gone With the Wind,' 'Shaft' cameos,” Bill Keveney, USA Today: I had to sneak in a reference to the opening scene in BlacKkKlansman, since the second Kansas-born Oscar winner is Kevin Willmott, who won for co-writing the screen adaptation.
Finally, “Part Four: Lost Cause” ends with the thoughtful essay “How I Bought Into Gone with the Wind’s Mythology of Whiteness,” by Meg Elison.