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July 20, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Back when the world was white

March 26, 1998

As a young girl growing up in the 1950s in the United States, the world I saw — that is the one presented on television, in movies, cartoons, comic books, commercials and advertisements, children’s books, textbooks and magazines — was a white world. Totally white.

Never mind that the New York City neighborhood I grew up in was mostly black (although my neighbors and schoolmates were also Jewish, Greek, Puerto Rican, and Irish), the world of images was completely white.

A popular beer at the time, Rhinegold — sponsored an annual “Miss Rhinegold” contest. The local grocery store had posters of “Rhinegold Girl” hopefuls, and on the grocery store counter were ballots for you to vote for the one you thought the most beautiful.

I had my choice of several blondes, a couple of brunettes, and perhaps one each with auburn and red hair. This was a difficult choice for me and my friends every year, as each young woman appeared more beautiful than the next — and all, of course, the very image of beauty:  creamy white skin, blue, green or hazel eyes, silky hair.

When the Mickey Mouse Club started its television show, I was in a child’s heaven. I really liked Annette Funicello, but I thought the most perfect-looking little girl in the whole world was my namesake, the blonde Karen.

My friends and I listened to the music of singers like LaVerne Baker and groups like the Five Satins and the Platters, but the singers we saw on TV were Perry Como and groups like the Four Freshmen.

When I was young and the world was white, if a black person was in a movie I knew about long before it appeared at the local movie theater because it would be the talk of the neighborhood. If a black person appeared on TV, we would run to the next-door neighbor’s apartment with the earth-shaking news that “Harry Belafonte is on!”

Sidney Poitier was the most visible black actor in Hollywood, and my friends and I wouldn’t dream of missing a movie he was in. His roles had dignity and substance denied so many other black actors at the time. But whereas now he seems to have earned the right to play the role of a man, then, whether he was a handyman or a detective, he was always a black man. In any case, the man who played “Mr. Tibbs” is now the Honorable Mr. Sidney Poitier, Ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan.

I can think of no black actresses of that era who enjoyed Poitier’s level of success. As a young girl I admired Dorothy Dandridge, a beautiful and talented actress who I think might have been a big star if she had been white. Because she was so seldom seen and not popularly known, I often thought she was a figment of my imagination.

Hollywood regularly found material in dramatizing the lives of entertainers. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers and Fanny Brice are all prominent entertainers who, among others, had their stories told on the silver screen. No doubt they had stories to tell, but what about Bessie Smith, Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington? Surely they had “stories” too. It wasn’t until recently that Hollywood seemed to think jazz legends Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker had interesting lives worth preserving on celluloid.

It’s only in contemporary films that one can see black men cast in the roles of lovers and fathers and heroes — black people playing real people, not stereotypes. Better late than never, I guess, but it sure seems late when you think Americans of African descent represent the 15th generation in the United States. Certainly it’s not a matter of quotas but of reality. The real world is not mostly white.

In the old films, no one thought twice about presenting an America that was exclusively white, or at least, an America in which black people were hardly visible.

Not too long ago the film “The War of the Worlds” was on television here. I’d heard about this movie (made in 1950 and adapted from a novel by H.G. Wells) many times and wanted to see it. It was indeed an amazing movie. And the most amazing thing was this: the entire United States was being destroyed by aliens, people were running all over the place in total chaos, and there was not one black person in sight!

I would have been amused if I wasn’t so annoyed. My husband, picking up on my mood, opined, “Oh. This film was made before black people existed.”

Now, when I see old films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s and there are no black people in them (except as a face in the background of a maid or a porter) I just say to myself, “Oh yeah. That was back then. When the world was white.”

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POSTSCRIPT

Of course there are now so many prominent black entertainers and actors it doesn’t warrant comment.

And I note the stunningly beautiful Halle Berry (the first ‘black’ — her mother is white — woman to win a major Academy Award) played the role of Dorothy Dandridge in a TV dramatization of her life.

Although I use the word “black” throughout this article — back then, when I was young, calling someone black was like calling them a curse word. There was nothing cool about being identified as “black”, and it was a word that might be put into use to insult someone. And if you had dark skin, well, just too bad for you.

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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