Somebody bawl fo' Beulah
June 14, 2010 8:11 PM   Subscribe

The backstory to The Beulah Show. "After Beulah was cancelled, the three networks and independent television producers, fearful of being accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes, stopped casting Blacks in their shows almost entirely for the next fifteen years."
posted by unliteral (15 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In this new format, Beulah was like a deferential Lucy Ricardo, continually getting her employers (the Henderson family) in - then out of - all sorts of trouble.

Has this person ever watched "I Love Lucy"? Lucy Ricardo is always (almost always) deferential. The whole set-up of every episode is that she rebels and does zany things but then almost always gets her comeuppance at the end. Of course she's feisty and sassy, but that's only to set up Ricky putting her over his knee and spanking her rear end or to set up her saying "Yes sir" when ricky lectures her about her wayward behavior.
posted by blucevalo at 8:24 PM on June 14, 2010

Whoa, I didn't know Aunt Jemima was real.
posted by graventy at 8:32 PM on June 14, 2010

I feel oddly ... compelled to get ... new ... Dreft ...

... tomorrow ...
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 8:46 PM on June 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

I just watched the clip -- Waters's Beulah was much more deferential than Lucy ever was.

Funny -- her character seems so sharp, even cynically dark when with the other black woman, but the minute the white woman walks into a kitchen she starts playing a fake bubbliness -- perhaps that's just reflecting reality as it was.
posted by jb at 8:49 PM on June 14, 2010

that Dreft stuff can't have really done what the ad claimed, or else we'd all have boxes of it in our kitchens still. Clean dishes without scrubbing?
posted by jb at 8:51 PM on June 14, 2010

This line of thinking ...

Filmmakers faced a major challenge when they wanted to cast Black actors in mainstream motion pictures prior to the 1960s. How do you create a situation where blacks and whites would realistically be in the same place at the same time, interacting in any meaningful way with one another? It rarely happened in real life

really, really, bugs me.

Even the conservative, rural side of my very Euro family had "meaningful" interactions with black families prior to the 1960s. They were, realistically, in the same place at the same time on the farm, at the factory, on the basketball court, and even in the schools. I'm sure it wasn't always positive, or always equal (knowing my family there was probably a gentile but somewhat formal politeness, except for the drinkers who tended to love everyone until they passed out).

Just because Hollywood writers can't envision something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.
posted by kanewai at 8:58 PM on June 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

"... fearful of being accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes, [the studios] stopped casting Blacks in their shows almost entirely for the next fifteen years."

i don't know how many times i've wished they'd leave us out of their stupid fantasies forever.
posted by artof.mulata at 9:47 PM on June 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

unliteral: "The backstory to The Beulah Show"
The article does backflips here ...
The reaction to Beulah was overwhelming. Hurt, with his back to the studio audience, would whirl around quickly and shout, "Somebody bawl fo' Beulah?" The crowd would collapse in laughter. "Somebody bawl fo' Beulah" became a popular catch phrase, as did another Beulah-ism, "Love dat man!"
... to avoid mentioning clearly and explicitly that Beulah was played by a white man.

Hopefully this is a tremendous wtf moment for you, dear reader.
posted by boo_radley at 10:16 PM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's so weird, isn't it? Usually racist societies tend to ignore the 'lesser' races they despise, denigrating them, and at most using them as stark examples of evil. The Nazis would never have thought of staging plays or dramas about Jews. And yet we white Americans were obsessed with the black people that we were obviously convinced were inferior.

I've been thinking about this for years. It's hard not to – my heroes are people like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Clifford Brown. But I look to them, and they're coping with this... this sort of fawning that's at the same time outwardly warm and inwardly abusive on the most violent and heinous levels. That kind of dualism – the apparent love that is actually hate, the saying one thing and thinking another – may seem apparently Southern, but we all did it. Us Northerners were mostly interested in the "black phenomenon" through this Southern dualism anyway; we didn't watch TV shows about black folks heading north to Chicago to get jobs, or struggling families trying to get by – we loved shows about subservient, Southern-toned black mammies.

The article says that they were afraid of accusations about racial stereotypes, and I'm sure that might be true; but that does not change the fact that such roles were standard fare on television before then, and continued to be standard fare in film and on the stage. Duke Ellington recounts proudly in his memoirs (and I've heard tell elsewhere, too) about how Lena Horne flatly refused roles as maids, saying her daddy had been one of the richest men in town, so why should she stoop so low? But it must have been such a difficult thing, because here they were offering you a lead role, a title role, in a television show – the first black woman ever, I imagine, to have a lead role in a television show. This Hattie McDaniel was walking a line that, in a sense, every black person had to walk in that time: how much is too much? How far do you engage a deeply and pathologically racist society before you're indulging it, how much good can you do before you're just perpetuating lies?

What a painful time. Another artist – I must say, a greater artist, and probably the finest musical voice the American continent has ever produced – Louis Armstrong faced this problem, too. He made his decisions, and he, the great man, did so with crystal clarity; he could be a comedian when it suited him, or he could be an incisive, bold, and brilliantly noble musician as well. But not half a generation later, in the 1950s, younger black folk, who were understandably bitter about their ongoing status in society, called him an Uncle Tom for playing out for the white man. That was a faint, shimmering sign of progress, I think we can say looking back on it now; the standard was changing, and black people were demanding what was rightfully theirs. It just pays to remember that Louis Armstrong, and Hattie McDaniel, struggled in painful times, bringing what nobility and dignity they could to their artistic lives, and doing their best to give to the world – the whole world – something fine to look to.

And again, what the hell were we white people thinking? I think on some level we must have known we were wretched. We must have known that this hideous, evil system we'd set up was nothing but sorrowful. And so we did the further injustice of focusing on them more, of putting black folk in this racist spotlight, with affection, flawed though it was. It will always bring me shame to think about those times, to think about what my grandparents and great-grandparents did to perpetuate such cruelty and pain. But I can say this: there has never been a greater gift given on god's earth, never been a finer legacy passed down on this planet, than that which was given by black people to all people of this nation. Hattie McDaniel might have been conflicted, but there was something in her of the fighting spirit that did not hesitate to attempt to display a noble, proud, bold heritage in the face of cruelty. She's refusing to sink beneath a particular level, and trying to cope with what she's been handed by a society that flatly does not care what happens to her race, much less her person. And there's something beautiful in that to me.

It's sort of frightening, actually. Because I know very well that on some level every single fucking white person who ever enjoyed this program in its time knew that. And they did nothing. Her nobility pleased us, and we didn't do a goddamned thing about it.

Sorry. I've to go now. Stuff in my eye, &c.
posted by koeselitz at 10:38 PM on June 14, 2010 [9 favorites]

I dunno, boo_radley; that Beulah was played on radio by a white guy [.ram] is indeed a wtf moment, but the article does mention it pretty clearly at the end of part one:

When Marlin Hurt died unexpectedly in 1946, Beulah went on hiatus while a yearlong replacement hunt began. The series was revived in 1947 when another white man, Bob Corley, took on the role of Beulah. Corley was roundly rejected by listeners and gone within six months. It was then that network execs had a revolutionary idea - why not cast a Black woman in the role?

I love this kind of popcult history. Thanks, unliteral.
posted by mediareport at 10:44 PM on June 14, 2010

I think on some level we must have known we were wretched...

You seriously, even for white people, cannot judge an entire people like that. You must judge individuals on their own merits, and that explains your confusion. "White" does not equal "White supremacist," even at the height of Jim Crow - attitudes varied widely, and still do, from person to person.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:13 AM on June 15, 2010

This article annoys me. It's full of ridiculous asides like "the ultimate musical indictment of slavery, 'Strange Fruit.'" (hint: the keyword to this song is "hang") and "Lifetime contract? Isn't that the definition of slavery?" (no, that's not). Grawr.

OTOH I'd never heard of Beulah, and that YouTube segment linked is great. I agree it's all sorts of problematic. But as stereotypes go, Mammy / Aunt Jemima isn't so awful. The problem is that's all we got for so many years. So many more interesting stories could have been told.

I've plugged this on MeFi before, but if you're interested in the history of African Americans on television make a point of watching Marlon Riggs' documentary Color Adjustment. It's fantastic.
posted by Nelson at 7:44 AM on June 15, 2010

I wish Color Adjustment was on Watch Instantly or Google Video. I saw the first half of it in a college class, but then the TA teaching the class forgot to bring it to the next class and moved on to the next section and I never got to see the rest of it.
posted by luvcraft at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2010

Anyone? ... Anyone? ... Beulah? ... Beulah?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:10 AM on June 15, 2010

The Nazis would never have thought of staging plays or dramas about Jews.


One thing that must be understood about racism is that very few racists actually believe those other races are "inferior". What motivates racists isn't that other "races" are inferior, it's that they are other. The alleged "inferiority" is an ex post facto rationalisation for a "got mine, fuck you" mentality. Indeed, what truly excites the racist juices isn't this alleged inferiority of other races, but rather the thought that they may be superior: more cunning, or sexually irresistible. Those stereotypes have historically been the most dangerous by far.

For example, the timing of the two main anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda films, "Jud Suess" and the "documentary" "Der ewige Jude", wasn't at all a coincidence: both were issued in 1940, shortly after the beginning of WWII. After all, the official Nazi propaganda line is that Poland, with British and French backing, had started the war. And, of course, a Jewish conspiracy was to blame: Germany was merely defending itself. Reinforcing the racist stereotype of the scheming Jew was crucial for maintaining popular support for the war effort, and, of course, for preparing the genocide that was to follow.

Speaking of which, it's difficult to escape the impression that one of the main reasons for the sympathetic, if condescending portrayal of black people in American popular culture between the 20s and the 60s was the sympathy and curiosity that many Jewish entertainers felt for this other disadvantaged minority. They may have been prejudiced and condescending towards black people, but they were by no means dismissive or hostile to them.
posted by Skeptic at 9:49 AM on June 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

« Older A bonsai family tree   |   Anywhere, TM Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments