You’re born on New Year’s Eve. 1906 or 1909. Your official bio makes you older, your tombstone, younger. One written in ink, the other in marble. But what doesn’t matter is, you can sing and you can dance and you can act. What matters is, you are black. You are a woman. And it is now, or any time.
Maids. Hat check girls. Waitresses. Prostitutes. Tribal women. Blues singers. These are the women you play because these are the women you can be, while the rest lace themselves up as Southern belles, socialites and molls. You’re their friend, their confidant, just as young, just as pretty, a maid’s uniform can’t hide that. But they are blonde, even in black and white, and no matter how many times your voice is heard, your name doesn’t appear onscreen. The radio’s easier, no one can see your face, but — no one can see your face. The arch of your brows, the smirk in your smile, the deep dark life of your eyes. You crowd around a microphone with people the same color as you and entertain a world that isn’t.
When you’re 33 or 36, Val Lewton and RKO show up, and, after ten years in Hollywood, you rescue yourself. In movies with names like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Phantom Lady and Strange Illusion, you play a waitress and a maid and a maid and a maid but you have guts and looks and sass and smarts and when the white people see monsters, you run and they don’t and the audience sides with you.
At 38 or 41, you’re finally offered a part with a first and last name. She is an ex-maid, and you could kill somebody for the difference they claim it makes, but you take it and when Robert Mitchum sits down next to you, the camera rolls into life and so do you. It’s the best you’ve ever been and it’s the best you’ll ever be given.
Looking around the parking lot and the studio at all the pale eager faces, the straight hair, the light eyes, the upturned chins that have never had to look down, you find yourself halfway to a decision. There’s a sharp, deep anger inside you, crisp as cut apple, and maybe your father was a sharecropper and your mother was his wife and you’re a thousand miles from Texas — it isn’t enough. When you attend the premiere and watch your straight, bright body move on the largest screen you’ve ever seen, it isn’t enough and it’s the least human you’ve ever felt. You are in the balcony. Fifteen years and you are in the balcony. Roped off, an exhibit with your short, succinct label in bold brick letters: COLORED. All the distance in the world can’t separate you from that. Your hands move before your mind tells them to. Gripping the edge, you drop your eyes and take in the scene. 63 movies have given you a director’s eye. One lid closes and your fingers form a rectangle, boxing in the tuxedoed and diamond-encrusted crowd below. When the camera clicks you know, fully and completely, you are not a part of this, you have never been a part of this. You will never be allowed to be a part of this.
So you descend the stairs and walk out the backdoor of the theater, the one that isn’t but might as well be marked especially for people like you. You don’t pause. You walk until you get to your apartment. You turn on the light. It’s filled with everything you care about. Some are framed posters of movies only you know you were in. They will have to go. It will all have to go.
No-one can appreciate quiet unless they’ve known noise. Thirty years later you die a doctor’s wife, comfortable and safe in Inglewood, living off the money you earned when you were young and beautiful and so much less than you wanted to be. Two months before your 79th birthday (or is it 76th?) you find yourself in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, in the same ground as former Los Angeles mayors (the 10th, 31st, 35th, 36th, 38th and 41st), Rasputin’s daughter, the composer of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, suffragette Caroline Severance, Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Academy Award, Ernestine Wade, Sapphire from Amos ‘n’ Andy, and Dooley Wilson, Sam in Casablanca. There’s also Louise Peete, the second woman to be executed in the state’s gas chamber. You don’t know who she killed to get there, but maybe they had it coming.
You played maids. Hat check girls. Waitresses. Prostitutes. Tribal women. Blues singers. And the most unreal thing of all: an actress. The night you die, you have a vision. Dancing across a stage you can’t see for the flowers at your feet, your waist bends and the applause is a cyclone picking up all the little black girls in the world and tipping them over to look down at a black form, the center of all the lights and noise and booming freedom and energy and life. Sparks shoot from their tiny hands and you look up at millions of eyes that see you and all you really are, the similitude of your outside and the endless parade of grit and ability and intelligence and grace of your inside. The arch of your brows, the smirk in your smile, the deep dark life of you winks at all those little girls who watch you like a dream. You are black. You are a woman. You exist. Have, are and will, now or any time.
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art. She resides in Graham, NC, with her cats, Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin.