Friday, October 5, 2018

"Technicolored: Reflections on Race in the Time of TV"

Ann duCille is Emerita Professor of English at Wesleyan University and author of Skin Trade and The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Technicolored: Reflections on Race in the Time of TV, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Technicolored falls in the middle of a chapter on Shirley Temple as an American icon whose films from the 1930s were regularly shown on television in the 1950s and ’60s of my impressionable youth. I am concerned here—as I am throughout the book—with issues of racial representation and Hollywood’s fondness for what I call “stigmatic blackness,” mass mediated depictions of African Americans as the dominant culture’s “low-Other.” Little Shirley Temple, whose biographer describes her as “perfect 10”—“everything parents want their children to be”—was often surrounded onscreen by imperfect black caricatures, whose dark skin, bulging black eyes, lumbering gaits, and stammering speech worked to highlight Temple’s snow-white perfection and overdetermined precocity.

This excerpt from page 99 critiques a scene from The Littlest Rebel (1935) in which the distinction between perfect-10 whiteness and stigmatic blackness is played out in the contrast between Temple as Virginia “Miss Virgie” Cary, the bright, bubbly plantation mistress who is celebrating her birthday in the big house with ice cream and cake served by waiting slaves played by Willie Best and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the latter of whom entertains the birthday girl and her guests with a buck-and-wing tap dance on command.
Called from the lavish festivities inside, Miss Virgie is met on the front porch of her plantation manor by a group of slave children who have come to the big house bearing birthday greetings and a gift for their little mistress. But Sally Ann, the designated spokesperson, can’t manage to get out the simple salutation. Although older and much taller than the diminutive Miss Virgie, Sally Ann stumbles over a simple and presumably well-rehearsed greeting. “Miss Virgie. Please, ma’am,” Sally Ann says. “We all done come hereto wish you many happy... happy...”

“Returns,” the bubbly, hyper-articulate Miss Virgie interjects.

“That’s it,” Sally Ann musters. “We all done made you a doll and here it is,” she adds, holding out a black golliwog rag doll. “There was more I had to say, but, Mammy, I forgot it,” she cries, dissolving into tears and burying her face in Mammy’s skirt.

The magnanimous Miss Virgie, cradling the black doll against her white dress, tells Sally Ann not to worry: “This is the very nicest present I got. Thank you ever so much.” She exits, promising over her shoulder to save Sally Ann and the other slave children some birthday cake, which makes [them] dance with joy. As a child watching the film on TV in the 1950s and ’60s, I might have thought Miss Virgie’s promise of birthday cake played like a modern-day version of Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal pronouncement “let them eat cake.” But as a critic, I know the gesture is meant to make Miss Virgie loom all the larger for her largess to dimwitted [slaves], who thrill at the thought of crumbs.
I go on to point out in the ensuing analysis that the willing deference and submission of happy slaves depicted in such scenes are critical to the ideological schemes of early cinema and wholly in keeping with the benevolent portrait of the South’s “peculiar institution” presented on television and in our textbooks and songsters at midcentury. But because Technicolored is part memoir as well as cultural critique, I also confess my own vexed relationship to Shirley Temple. As a young viewer, I didn’t worship the wunderkind child star like Pecola Breedlove, the ill-fated protagonist of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), but I did covet those fifty-six blonde curls and that irresistible come-let-us-adore-you cuteness, even at one point asking Mrs. Ellison, the church lady who pressed and curled hair in her kitchen, to give me a headful of ringlets like Shirley. The result was an early admonishment to be careful what you wish for. I emerged from the hairdresser’s chair several hours later sporting a rat’s nest of tight, greasy coils atop my head that was anything but cute. In attempting to look like the white starlet, I had succeeded only in making my black difference ridiculous.
Learn more about Technicolored at the Duke University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue