Image by Fred Viebahn

Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove

Rita Dove


Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove

Rita Dove


Poem introduction

Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to receive an Academy Award. She received that award in 1940 for her role as a maid in the movie Gone with the Wind which was produced in 1939. Hattie McDaniel was torn between many varying political groups - there were those in the north who felt it was demeaning for her to have appeared as a Mammy in this southern ante-bellum epic although there were very few roles other than that for a black actress at that time. And then there were those in the south who were so outraged that her name was on the playbill and on the marquee with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh that they boycotted the theatres until her name was taken off. In 1940 when the Academy Awards were announced the ceremony took place at the Coconut Grove - a very famous restaurant - and those actors and directors and movie folk who were nominated for awards had to be let off about a block before the Coconut Grove and then they walked through the crowds to the event.

Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove

Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove

late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair,
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.

It's the day that isn't, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year -
and the shittiest, too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California,
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew...what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?

Hi-Hat Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
the "little lady" from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia & Fidelia,
one half of the Dark Barrymores -
dear Mammy we can't help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what

we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat's rustle,
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas City, six years old.
The man who advised you, now
that you were famous, to "begin eliminating"
your more "common" acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): "That's a good idea.
I'll start right now by eliminating you."

Is she or isn't she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile - your trademark,
your curse. No matter, Hattie: It's a long, beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait.


From American Smooth (W W Norton & Co. Inc., 2004; originally published in The New Yorker on 10 May 2004), copyright © Rita Dove 2006, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

Recordings

Rita Dove Reading from her poems

1Ö

2Shakespeare Say

3Parsley

4The Event

5Courtship, Diligence

6Straw Hat

7Dusting

8Roast Possum

9The Oriental Ballerina

10After Reading <i>Mickey in the Night Kitchen</i> for the Third Time Before Bed

11Canary

12The Island Women of Paris

13The Bistro Styx

14Demeter's Prayer to Hades

15Persephone, Falling

16Lost Brilliance

17Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967

18Freedom Ride

19The Enactment

20Rosa

21All Souls'

22American Smooth

23Fox Trot Fridays

24Meditation at Fifty Yards, Moving Target

25The Castle Walk

26The Return of Lieutenant James Reese Europe

27The Seven Veils of Salomé

28Chocolate

29Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove

Books & cds by Rita Dove