by Colin Dayan
Did I know or had I ever seen Dorothy Dandridge when I was growing up in Atlanta in the fifties and sixties? If I had, I have no memory of it, no sense of her allure, no awareness of her talent or her tragedy. I knew the name but had no idea why. My mother, the woman of glamor who reserved a sneer only for me, admired Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, and later, when I was older, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson. I do not recall her ever mentioning or even listening to Dorothy Dandridge.
But something happened this summer in Nashville, only a few months ago now, though it seems a lifetime, something that changed what I think about and how I think. For better or for worse, what can only be called obsession began with a name that floated, it seemed, over my eyes as I awakened one morning: “Dorothy Dandridge.” So the weekend after the name sounded out over my head, I forgot about the Nashville heat and read “Everything and Nothing,” her purported autobiography, and Donald Bogle’s biography (Dandridge and Conrad 2000; Bogle 1997). The latter sits on my desk with a photo of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
Before I felt, heard, saw that name in early dawn, I fell asleep with the terror—the only word that fits what I felt—the terror of Trump. As early as his nomination, I watched his speeches with a fascination that made my blood run cold. After his election, along with the mainstream media, I found myself staring at the gold elevators in Trump tower, not bedazzled but horrified by the sight of the man’s smile, his nasty humor and sheer ugliness. With each of his actions, whether constitutional affront or outright racism, I felt less and less able to write anything political, and certainly nothing about him—except for the random tweet or Facebook post. It is only now, now that I have steeped myself in the story and sight of Dorothy Dandridge that I can write again and face down in words what is not only a story about her, but also about this country. The two stories—one about Hollywood’s first African American screen legend and the other about a white supremacist president who has lit the flame of a racism that smoldered, never disappearing but always ever waiting to be known.
Her disappearance from the memories of most white people I’ve talked to remains puzzling, if not startling. She was the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award. She lost to Grace Kelly in A Country Girl. But Dandridge’s life in cinema—the roles she was offered or the butchering of scenes for showing in the South—as well as her doomed experience of love—the men who would not marry her and the sadist who did—leads me back to my early experiences of race hatred and off-handed scorn.
So I ask that you take these personal memories as if ritual practice, an invocation that I repeat each time I write or speak about this time of stigma and radical nonbelonging. These old inequalities and racial discrimination might be repackaged in unexpected forms, but they remain the same. As recently as 2012 in an interview with Roland Martin, Harry Belafonte reminded his interlocutor, “I don’t think a black woman ever paid as great a price for her blackness as Dorothy Dandridge.”1
I was born and raised in the South. After nearly four decades away, I returned. Now I live in Nashville. I was thirteen in 1963 when Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham Jail, when four girls died in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing there, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Malcolm X suffered Elijah Muhammad’s discipline of public silence after he described Kennedy’s murder as a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” In Atlanta, “the city too busy to hate,” Lester Maddox took up the Confederate flag, iron skillets and ax handles at his Pickrick Restaurant to block “colored folk” from entry. My father’s friend Charlie Leb dragged the Reverend Ashton Jones by his feet, across the floor and out the door of his restaurant on 66 Lucky Street.
Hate was in the eyes of the white men who were tall and proud. Hate caused fires to start, glass to break, guns to kill, clubs to hit, dogs to chase and bite. The dogs were big. They were German Shepherds, not the Blue Tick or Red Bone hounds used to scent out black slaves and then prisoners. The eyes of the white men tracked me. Their mouths were smiling. They grinned as they beat up people kneeling in prayer. They smirked as they circled around reporters whose cameras they smashed.
Now, fifty years later on the streets of Nashville when I see white men looking at my dog and me, I quicken in sight of their smiles. Are they grinning because they like the breed? Inviting me to bond with them in having a game dog, a dog that knows no fear and never gives up, as loyal as the day is long? Or is it that same old lethal grin, telling me with their eyes and in the twist of their lips that I might be walking now but they could hobble or cripple me anytime they wanted. Not only could they kill. They toyed with, tortured and trashed.
Southerners like the macabre, and that’s why the best jokes—and some of the oldest songs—begin in the least likely of places. Out of the rapid-fire joining of cruelty and pleasure comes the peculiar lilt to songs like “Run, Nigger, Run,” or even “Sewanee” or “Oh Susanna.” This perfection of white power is not unfeeling. That is the terror. Instead, listen closely to the music and you realize that what really gives the chill is the affection, the near empathy with the lost, the stricken, the harrowed.
With the soft shoe of minstrel insult and the meticulous terror of the KKK, history took a turn into romance: a dream of wisteria, longing, and lazy laughter. Even in what might seem like poverty and dead-end living, Gilbert James (“Gid”) Tanner, chicken farmer and lead fiddler of the “Skillet Lickers,” could belt out with gusto these unexpected refrains to their country version of the inimitable “Old Gray Mare” (Dayan 2016a: 35–48):
The old gray mare,
She kicked on the whiffletree
Kicked on the whiffletree
Kicked on the whiffletree
She kicks at the whiffletree in a dilapidation that somehow energizes instead of enfeebles: “I danced all night with a hole in my stocking, / Down in Alabama”; “I got a great big house with nobody living in it, / Down in Alabama”; “I got nothing and nowhere to put it, / Down in Alabama.” These songs are not soothing. And perhaps that is why the high and unchanging old irrational violence of the South never quite goes away. It remains locked in the senses, this way of life, even for those who claim to abhor its catastrophic racism. Let me repeat: It is the humor, the knock-jaw laughter in the most gruesome scenes that is as American as apple pie. Trump channels this past, this time of jocular gore, when he encourages his followers to sock, punch, or lay low people who don’t belong, or invokes violence against alleged “criminals” or “thugs” before a largely white police audience.
Is that why his rallies have such a carnival feel—people crowding close, shoving past each other, all in on the joke and having a real hoot of a time? Perhaps that’s why no matter what is revealed about Trump—his lies, his downright fraud and thievery, even his Russian connections—it does not matter. Those who come to hear him, who voted for him, who would go to the ends of the earth for him, feel they know him. What do they know? They know a feeling. A feeling is familiar to them, something in their blood, in their bones, a visceral memory of hate and celebratory violence.
* * * * * * *
That old, old feeling is still in my heart. Nearly two years ago now, I began to watch Trump’s speeches with fascination. I asked my husband to watch them with me. He couldn’t stand it. He called Trump a “clown,” an “idiot.” But I saw something else as I looked at how he connected with his audience: how he looked into the eyes of his admirers. Whether a protestor that he ominously urged people to take out as in “the old days” or someone who idolized him, their reactions brought to mind not just the tired populist descriptors of rousing demagoguery but more exactly a riposte to politics as usual. Instead of reasoned and reasonable disquisitions on correct government and abstract terminology, he appealed to something visceral that stopped me in my tracks.
I have long felt that liberal elites or secular humanists missed something crucial about the faith and energy of the majority of people in our country. I wrote against Sam Harris and his smug attacks on the religious among us in a piece for Raritan called “Melville, Locke, and Faith” (Dayan 2006). I thought about how Melville wrote his fiction in order to question and subvert the less than sanguine impulses that lurked in beneficent humanism and the promoters of its polite but hierarchical strategies of impairment. In my recent book With Dogs at the Edge of Life, I wrote about pit bulls and the men who love them—rural whites, in particular. I had hoped to open a space for conversation with those we find marginal, undesirable, and aesthetically unpalatable, or worse. But—that, all that—was before Trump (Dayan 2016b).
When I watched Trump speak in the days when few of us took him seriously, I saw something that mattered: the animality—what Cora Diamond calls “sheer animal vulnerability”—that we needed more not less of (Diamond 2008: 74). I also thought about Aimé Césaire who celebrated “madness,” the hurling folly of “persistent cannibalism,” which was nothing else than the wild, or, he was bold enough to imply, savage embrace of the very degradation that had been visited on him and all blacks by whites (Césaire 1983: 49). That Trump’s revolution had little to do with the downtrodden but everything to do with whites who felt victimized by any shred of equality or respect for people of color left me wondering about resistance: how we might not only threaten the status quo, but join together and fight. Fight the only fight worth living for on what remains of this planet—against injustice, rampant inequality, race hatred and the sordid destruction of all mammals, human and non-, whether gradual or sudden, deliberate or casual.
As a woman of faith, I also understood the kind of passion he communicated to folks with whom he actually had little in common. It did not matter to them that he was not a practicing Christian, or that he had little to do with biblical commands of monogamy or self-abnegation. It did not matter because he did something else that roused their hearts and minds. That something has nothing to do with enlightened reason. Such reasonableness and embrace of rationality is often the way to silence a majority of people who remain unimpressed by the claims of humanity, or the liberal humanism that depends on them. As Hannah Arendt recognized with vexation in Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, the call for the “rights of the citizen and the rights of man” was never a guarantee of equality, for it always depended on the largesse of the free in the name of the bound (Arendt 2004: 377–82).
Trump understood the danger of somehow seeming to be on high talking down to the lowly. Sure, he’s pretty high on the ladder of success, honestly gained or not, but he made sure to demonstrate that even with all that money and glitter, he remained vulnerable. He got hurt just like the man in the crowd. If someone booed him, he looked at that person; he got angry and actually appeared to be hurt. I was amazed as I watched him perform like no politician I had ever seen.
But I am still shocked by his win. Nashville, the town where I live, is quiet, and people seem numb. I am afraid. I dread the dire effects of his terrible racism, misogyny, and what is nothing less than fatal nostalgia for an America that was never great, unless you think it triumphant in the talent for slaughtering, enslaving, and excluding.
But I understand in my gut why he won, whom he spoke to, and why they needed to be heard. When Hillary Clinton alluded to some of his followers as “deplorables,” was it because they are racists and misogynists only, or is it also that they are not quite up to snuff in terms of education and class—naive enough to quest for God, seized by a sensibleness of what is real in the miraculous? There’s a reason why writers have turned recently to the ignored and scorned white rural men and working classes of America. They know that they are also our fellow citizens and share in hopes and dreams—perhaps not ours—but they are nonetheless worthy of respect, even if—and until—we have to take up guns to defend ourselves against them.
Trump is illogical. Yes. Trump is prejudiced. Yes. But more than that he is our consummate white supremacist. Bad logic makes good racism. He creates a reality that flies in the face of logic. The most fantastic fictions are put forth as the most natural, the most reasonable thing in the world. These fictions endure in a lexicon of degradation well honed and reiterated every chance he gets.
Shock and Awe: Trump’s extravagant performance of cruelty, outright racism, and rule by executive decree in apparent defiance of the law has been called a “constitutional crisis,” described with such adjectives as “unprecedented,” un-American,” or “unpatriotic.” But we should not forget that his relentless generalizing operates under cover of excessive legalism. Perhaps excess is key to his success. America has always been excessive—not least in its institutionalization of slavery and its subsequent practices of incarceration, unique in the so-called civilized world.
Trump believes that torture—specifically banned interrogation methods such as waterboarding—works. But can it ever be legal? Recall how George W. Bush attempted through White House lawyers to legalize torture. The infamous “torture memos” redefined the meaning of torture and extended the limits of permissible pain. Yet unprecedented as they appeared at the time, they relied, in their ingenious legal maneuvers, upon at least thirty years of court decisions that gradually eviscerated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Bush needed the “torture memos” (sounds so quaint now) to skirt the rule of law, but this new dispensation needs none of it, since Trump and his cronies have already summoned the sometimes amorphous, always definitive moralistic standards that circumvent the basic tenets of constitutional law. Depending on vague and undefined legal provisos proclaimed by the executive, this regime relies on arbitrary willfulness backed up by police power, or in the case of what Trump calls the “carnage” in Chicago, his tweeted resolve to “send in the Feds.” Police power is state power, ostensibly activated whenever there is any supposed threat to the health, safety, or welfare of citizens. Since 9/11, the “war on terror” has widened the net: alleged terrorists, enemy aliens, illegal immigrants, all tarred with the same brush, are easily cast outside the pale of empathy.
Terror and legality go hand in hand. Whether we look back to the law of slavery, to the legal fiction of prisoners as slaves of the state, to legalized torture in the “war on terror,” or to the discriminatory profiling and preventive detentions that we characterize as “homeland security,” we see how our society continues to invent a phantasm of criminality, and thus creates a new class of condemned.
* * * * * *
What is the specific history that might explain the perpetuation of generalized legal stigma, the enlivening and perpetuation of race hatred? Whether in the Code noir of St. Domingue on the eve of the Haitian revolution; in the rules, regulations, and experience of slavery in the American South; or in the fact of civil death after Emancipation in New York and beyond—in all of these the practice of ritual—its repetitions and staying power—was extended to and coextensive with the exercise of law.
In Democracy in America Tocqueville wondered, what was the key to domination so unusual that “old words like ‘despotism’ and ‘tyranny’ do not fit”? He tried to explain how oppression could operate in a society of equals. The ominous leeway in the interpretation of American legal rules—all the way from nineteenth-century slave codes, down via twentieth-century prison cases, to our own century’s Bush administration torture memos or Trump’s unconstitutional executive orders—has led to the continuous redefining of persons in law: the stateless, the civilly dead, and the disposable. The redefinition—this creation of new classes of condemned—sustains a reasoning that goes beyond any mere logic of punishment.
Real terror plucks us by the sleeve and comes along naturally, forever just occurring, always perceptible just at the edge of our vision. What terrorizes is this casual but calculated disregard. A terror relayed not by the dogs, hoses, and bombs in the new South of the sixties, but by the near nonchalance of legal murder anywhere in the United States today: as if these living breathing black citizens, now dead, were not supposed to go about their lives, walk down the street, stand on a corner, put their hands in their pockets, take a toy gun to the park, go down the stairway of their own building—breathe.
The dogs of Hurricane Katrina, citizens turned refugees in the United States, disappeared “ghost-detainees” held incommunicado in prolonged detention, sick cows kicked and prodded to slaughter, nooses found in trees, in university offices, civilians killed, maimed, locked up—the rituals and rationales of terror proliferate. The police power in the USA confers on the state virtually unlimited power over the citizen, and it is used every day to maintain the presumptions and privileges of white supremacy. The codes and sanctions of slavery always resurface and find new places to inhabit.
Abolitionists in the United States—as Frederick Douglass reminded his audience—never quite accepted ex-slaves as equals. Instead, they still bore a stigma of the “deepest degradation,” to paraphrase Justice Roger Brooke Taney in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). We have only to follow one day of the news since the election of Donald Trump to know the deep racism that exists among the white population.
Exclusion and stigma, always based on color, still drive this country, economically, politically, and socially. It is always the oppressed, the marginal, the most aggrieved who are asked to be dignified, not the officer who shoots or chokes a black man or slams a black woman’s head into the pavement. The call for nonviolence works only when it is addressed to the marginalized, to the people who must take to the streets to seek justice. It is never addressed to the police who operate in this country with brutality and largely with impunity.
What happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, Mississippi, Texas, Ohio—what happens with regularity all over this country—has a long and sordid history. When slaves were emancipated, the US South criminalized blackness through its black codes and Jim Crow. When those laws were declared null, we criminalized blackness through red lining and the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws. Now our prisons are filled with African Americans whose presence there bears witness to a legal system that projects a criminality that is almost always black. The killing of unarmed black men in the stores, parks, streets and stairwells of the United States is backed up by something old and hoary, what I have mentioned already, known—especially since emancipation—as police power.
The haunting continues, and it is preserved most cunningly in legal rules and regulations. Old forms of terror maintain themselves as they find new content. In thinking about how spectacles of terror control the racially marginalized, the weak, and the socially oppressed, I recall Sir Frederick Pollock and Frederick William Maitland’s insight into the witchcraft behind the law: “Where there is no torture there can be little witchcraft. . . . Sorcery is a crime created by the measures which are taken for its suppression” (Pollock and Maitland 1898: 555–56; Dayan 2005: 64).
The ghost of slavery still haunts our law and holds us in its thrall. The difference now is that Trump incarnates in his person and his words more than just prejudice. He is wanton. There’s a lot of history in this word, in its hints of depravity, effeminacy, frivolity, and excess. The term also refers to pitilessness. Glee and malice work together in the abuse of those targeted for humiliation. Trump boasts, blusters, struts, and lies. This lethal affectation is his power.
Starting afresh is part of the American dream. Perhaps that’s why the realities of lynching—“Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” as Billie Holiday sang—are part of a history that is erased with every new administration, with every Martin Luther King Day. But the return to chain gangs in the summer of 1995, the hitching of prisoners to posts in Alabama, the purging of books, even legal and religious, from prison libraries throughout the US right now, remind us that the past lives on. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past” (Faulkner 1951: 92).
* * * * * * *
“That old feeling is still in my heart.” Dorothy Dandridge remains with me still when I walk down the street or stand in front of a class. If I put on lipstick, I think about her lips. And when I run my fingers through my thick hair, I no longer want to make it straight; I am delighted by the wayward curls that never look sleek. And for the first time, I know how awe becomes utterly down-to-earth, a feeling both extraordinary and commonplace. That is the threat she works through and manipulates, a temptation that is also an affront; a come-on that is also a warning, a ritual that will not quit. How she entices. She touches herself, runs her hands through her hair, and moves as if in ecstasy. But through it all there’s this sense of restraint.
Ambivalence, the uncomfortable sense of both/and, and an enticement to sink with her into the depths she courts. All this was and remains too much for people who just want to have fun, escape into a world of make-believe, or indulge in fantasies of hate.
Dandridge performs an ambivalent obsession. Both hateful and adoring, it’s the feeling that bedevils white America when it gets a peek into the forbidden now revealed by the taboo made flesh and blood. To expose the virulent hypocrisy of such a response, she offers herself on the altar of blackness as it is both fantasized and feared by whites. And at a time when Hollywood directors were most vexed by codes and censors, here came an actress who threw a wrench into their empty tokenism. She was more than they bargained for, and they knew it.
So Dorothy Dandridge scared people. Too black and too white, or neither black nor white, she fit nowhere. She made viewers think. Knowing in her bones how race hatred, ever inventive, traveled from the South to Hollywood, though under cover as entertainment—perhaps even more pernicious and long lasting because of that—she threatened. Her rendition of “You Do Something to Me” is a call to arms. She literally blasts through her guise of demureness and hesitation, with the dare in her eyes, what she does with her hands. And when she parts the frontal split in her long dress before she strides forward among a phalanx of men, it’s a severance as fierce as the parting of the Red Sea, and at the same time, somehow fantastically, it is also the consummate seduction. Even in her early three-minute “soundies” in the early forties, she played her femininity to the hilt, even as she crushed it under foot. Whom was she fighting? What did she fight against?
At a time when blackface was common, jungle movies scintillated, and a black woman could expect to play only maids or mammies, she was the first African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award playing opposite Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones in 1954 (the year of Brown v. Board of Education); the first to break the color barrier at the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria; the first to appear on the cover of Time and Life, although the article in Time reduced her compelling talent and promise to the “wriggling” of a “caterpillar on a hot rock” (Time, February 4, 1952).
Imagine how Dandridge’s beauty—her taut elegance and louche sensuality—turned blackness into something not to be laughed at or condescended to. How threatening that was to the quiet, quotidian white supremacy that came packaged as domestic cheer and wholesome fun. On lonely Saturday afternoons in the kitchen with Lucille, the woman who raised me, I watched as she controlled the television channels. My choice was “Popeye,” but as usual she controlled the channels. Quick Draw McGraw and The Mickey Mouse Club lost out to Maverick and Rawhide. She dominated always. Humming, she adjusted things, and the picture took shape.
Out onto the stage came a black man dancing with one leg. One peg. It was “Peg Leg” Bates. Oh what, I wondered, happened to cause such a sight? And, as always, Lucille told me a story. I hear the music. I feel her presence. Peg Leg, she said, “felt too deep, his heart was too good.” But the devil had him in his hands and bore down on him in a car on the road to Florida. After the crash, no one came for hours to get him out from under the car.
Years later I found out that while working in a cotton gin mill in South Carolina, the lights went out, and his leg got caught and mangled in a conveyor belt. Since white hospitals were segregated and there were no black hospitals nearby, the doctor cut off the leg on a kitchen table.
What do I remember of that thumping rhythm, the bulging eyes of the peg-legged man? “I want to dance on this peg, and I want to be good at it.” The one-legged man, filled with grace, was tough enough to say, “When I swing this peg around . . . you’ll think that I’m Fred Astaire.” No Bojangles shenanigans for Peg Leg Bates. Even if he had to wear blackface to perform in a white theater on Broadway, he did what he had to do; and he did it well, tap dancing with a high-rising seriousness. The first black to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1950, he appeared twenty-one times, more than any other tap dancer. When he made his final appearance in 1955, he must have been around sixty.
This, then, was the world that Dorothy Dandridge entered. The stage was set for big black mamas or tap dancing daredevils, and then she appeared. When thinking about the tragedy of her life, it’s both easy and strategic to blame it on inner demons, a mean, aloof mother, or a penchant for abusive men. But it is instructive and urgent now—in the time of Trump—to understand what her story tells us about a particular history of the United States. Its peculiar and long-lived brand of racism depends for its sustenance on an intricately contrived practice of subjugation that succeeds most when its object is most celebrated and apparently indomitable.
The more Dandridge surpassed the expectations of a white world, the less she was expected to do. At the height of her fame and glory, she could not find a role here, though she persisted in breaking the color codes of the Flamingo in Las Vegas, as she made sure her band could enter the front doors as she had; introducing Martin Luther King at a rally in 1963; and, in one story, after she put her toe in the pool at another hotel in Las Vegas, it was promptly drained.
Though it’s tempting to present Dandridge as a victim, I prefer to take her story as an example of astonishing resilience with a forgotten legacy. Why is one of the most beautiful and alluring actresses of the century so unknown that when Halle Berry played her in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, it was just that: an introduction. There is more to this story of oblivion than her private drama. What remains unsettling and keeps her down even in death is the erasure specific to this country and its take on strong women—especially if black. And now, Dandridge comes before us, as she must, at a time when a certain senator named Kamala Harris who alone properly questioned Jeff Sessions is vilified, hounded, and threatened. Dandridge comes before us, again, after Charlottesville, and all the other scenes of vile race hatred and brute violence that Trump has aroused and continues to incite against black people and Jews, whether members of the Ku Klux Klan or Neo-Nazis.
Arendt, Hannah. 2004. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Shocken Books.
Bogle, Donald. 1997. Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography. New York: Amistad Press, Inc.
Césaire, Aimé. 1983. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). In The Collected Poetry, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dandridge, Dorothy, and Earl Conrad. 2000. Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy. New York: Harper Collins.
Dayan, Colin. 2005. “Legal Terrors.” Representations 92: 42–80.
———. 2006. “Melville, Locke, and Faith.” Raritan 25, no. 3: 30–45.
———. 2016a. “The Old Gray Mare.” Yale Review 104, no. 2: 35–48.
———. 2016b. With Dogs at the Edge of Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
Diamond, Cora. 2008. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” In Philosophy and Animal Life, 43–90. New York: Columbia University Press.
Faulkner, William. 1951. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Vintage Books.
Pollock, Sir Frederick, and Frederic William Maitland. 1898. The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I. London: Cambridge University Press.