Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II

By Maureen Honey | Go to book overview

Popular Culture and the Arts

The Office of War Information conducted a campaign to break down racism in the civilian population, but its results were decidedly mixed. Only a handful of films with positive images of African Americans were made, for instance, and from 1942—1945, only sixty-four articles appeared on blacks in national magazines with large circulations according to The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. So dominant were racist beliefs in mainstream media that even well-intentioned articles on black people could reinforce widespread stereotypes. For example, as late as 1941, a Life portrait of an African American soldier refers to him as a “24-year-old colored boy” and the reader is told, “Unlike most Negroes, Raymond does not like dancing.” Furthermore, there are photos of him in stereotypical farmer's overalls with a broom and eating watermelon with his girlfriend, a college student. 1. Attention to African American women was virtually nonexistent. Only a handful of magazine articles appeared during the war years with black women as the focus, and these were, tellingly, on entertainers. Most of the progressive films produced in Hollywood placed men, not women, in new roles such as Bataan (1943), Sahara (1943), and The Negro Soldier (1944). The only nonmusical film to depict a black woman in a major role was Since You Went Away (1944), which featured Hattie McDaniel as a maid.

The most positive mass-media depictions of African American women were of singers on the stage or in movie musicals. Etta Moten, Anne Wiggins Brown, and others starred in Broadway plays such as Porgy and Bess and Carmen Jones, while opera stars Marian Anderson and Lillian Evanti toured the world's concert stages. Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Hazel Scott, and others appeared in all-black musicals such as Stormy Weather (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1943) as well as in sophisticated numbers included in white musicals like Panama Hattie (1942), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), or This Is the Army (1943). Dancers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus emerged during this period too and based their choreography on African and Caribbean culture. So important were these new portrayals, as restricted as they were, that theaters in the South commonly cut musical scenes with beautifully gowned, glamorous black stars. Testifying to wartime emphasis on black female beauty are the articles on Hazel Scott, Katherine Dunham, and Lena Horne in this section

____________________
1.
Life Goes on a Weekend Leave, August 11, 1941: 78—80.

-317-

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