The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Burden of Being the First

I wonder what Lena Horne would say to Miss USA Rima Fakih.

Much has been written and will be written about Fakih’s pageant win. Not being a big fan of beauty pageants, I didn’t watch this one. So, my thoughts about it are pretty simple: Obviously, she met all the qualifications to participate in the competition, and lacking an ability to read the minds of the judges I can only assume she met and likely exceeded their standards for beauty and poise, and thus beat out her opponents. Leave her alone and let her enjoy her year-long reign.

On one hand it seems silly — given the unresolved fate of financial reform, the BP oil disaster, and any number of issues — that so much attention is being given to the outcome of the outcome of a beauty pageant. On the other hand, after while it made perfect sense to me. Because I thought of Lena Horne.

lenahorneinwhitedress.png In fact, Horne instantly came to mind because she was a veteran member of the club that Fakih just joined — by being a “first.” In Horne’s case, she was the first African-American woman to be fully (or not-quite-fully) glamorized by Hollywood. She stepped through one door opened by another, only to find she had to open one herself. That’s only half the burden of being first. The other is the reality that you have to forge your own path from there, hacking your way through expectations, assumptions, and prejudices that have grown for generations over “the path that you must go.”

Horne came along and, though it was clear she couldn’t be ignored, neither the movie industry or the American public quite knew what to do with her, because she challenged their ideas of beauty and how black women should be portrayed. She was beautiful, no doubt. Sexy, too. And that made it tricky to cast her. She couldn’t be cast as a romantic lead against a white actor (thus lost the role of Julie in Show Boat to Ava Gardner, who had to practice lip synching along with Horne’s recordings) and there weren’t many black actors that were being cast as romantic leads either. The studios, famously, created a new shade of make-up for Horne, “Dark Egyptian,” to darken her skin skin. Why? Because she photographed so light in her screen test, studio heads were afraid she might “read” as a white woman.

As an African American to reach a rarified tier of Hollywood fame, Horne wasn’t merely forging a path for herself but was expected to clear a wide enough path for those expected to after her (some of whom, like Diahann Carroll and Vanessa Williams, attended her funeral) often on her own. If white studio heads didn’t know what to do with her, African Americans who pinned their hopes on her as a “door opener” sometimes thought she wasn’t doing enough. The New York Times article on Horne’s death— which also recounts Horne’s difficulty finding a place to live in Hollywood, due to her race, and her — quotes her recalling that experience.

Looking back at the age of 80, Ms. Horne said: “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”

It’s that quote that made me wonder what advice Horne might have for Fakih. That and the reality that Horne, when she arrived in Hollywood and met with difficulty, was befriended and advised by another member of that same club — Hattie McDaniels, who was the first African American to win an Academy Award.


Not that Horne made any overtures to Waters or other African American performers (such as Katherine Dunham), who had paved the way for her. Hattie McDaniels was one of the few performers who tried to establish a relationship (Fredi Washington was another). McDaniels invited Horne to her home. In later years, Horne told Dick Cavett, “She said to me, you’re an unhappy girl and I understand why. Your own people are mad at you…Darling, don’t let them break your heart. We just haven’t learned yet how to stick together.”

By the mid-1940s Horne even took ownership of Stormy Weather, so to speak, when she sang it in the film musical that used it as a title. Employed (and underused) by M-G-M, Horne was given the glamour girl image that defined her thereafter.

Years ago, I saw an interview with Horne from the PBS documentary based on Donald Bogle’s book Brown Sugar: Over 100 Years of America’s Black Female Superstars, in which she talked about being invited to McDaniels’ home as a young starlet, and getting advice from McDaniels. I remember Horne saying that McDaniels told her that while she may play maids and mammies in the movies, “I am Hattie McDaniels in my house. …You have two babies to take care of. You just do what you have to do.” (McDaniels faced her own difficulties with restrictive covenants and finding a home in Hollywood.)

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the meeting between McDaniels and Horne would have to be the most obvious — that they represented near polar opposites of black female identity as they sat across from each other. McDaniels, who once said “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one,” made her way in Hollywood playing the kind of maid and mammy roles that Horne never would, and held on to her identity at the same time. Such was the burden of opening the door through which others would follow, including Whoopie Goldberg, Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, and Mo’Nique (who not only mentioned McDaniels in her Oscar acceptance speech, but paid homage by wearing a royal blue gown and a gardenia in her hair, as McDaniels did during for her Oscar win).

They may have appeared to be polar opposites, but the two shared a sisterhood as each carried the burden of being “first” at a time when African American identity was shifting and broadening, and the struggle to include African Americans as part of the American identity, and part of what it means to be an American, was underway. They share the task of helping redefine both identities. I imagine McDaniel’s pep talk helped give Horne a bit more strength to carry on as she opened the next door, having walked through the one that McDaniel’s opened.

And now Rima Fakih becomes Miss USA at a time when — once again — the “American identity” and what it means to be American is in a state of flux, and the seemingly rapid pace of change, including our first African American president and first Latina Supreme Court Justice, seems to have raised the level of white anxiety about race and identity to levels approaching those of Horne’s heyday.

In fact, I think it may be time for another PSA like the one the Ad Council ran after 9/11.

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In a way, the response to her win almost echoes the disbelieving response to Obama’s electoral victory.

In winning the title, Fakih defeated first runner-up Miss Oklahoma Morgan Elizabeth Woolard, who garnered headlines when she responded to a judge’s question about immigration policy by saying that she was “perfectly fine” with Arizona’s radical new immigration law. Just as they erupted over Carrie Prejean’s loss in the Miss USA contest 2009, the right is again alleging a liberal bias against Woolard. But many more right-wingers are enraged over Fakih’s crowning:

   – Conservative radio host Debbie Schlussel blamed Fakih’s win on a supposed “politically correct, Islamo-pandering climate” in America and labeled her a “Lebanese Muslim Hezbollah supporter with relatives who are top terrorists.” [5/16/10]

   – Right wing pundit and Fox contributor Michelle Malkin ranted that “Fakih’s cheerleaders are too busy tooting the identity politics horn to care what comes out of her mouth” and that “the Miss USA pageant didn’t want to risk the wrath of the open-borders mob.” [5/16/10]

   – Conservative author Daniel Pipes, who was briefly appointed by former President George W. Bush to the U.S. Institute of Peace, opined that “this surprising frequency of Muslims winning beauty pageants makes me suspect an odd form of affirmative action.” [5/16/10]

   – Fox News’s Gretchen Carlson complained that Woolard’s “informed opinion” may have cost her the crown, and said that Fakih may have won because we live in a “PC society.” [5/17/10]

In other words, “There must be some mistake.”

AA-critics usually argue that such logic is actually the fault of AA, because it generates suspicion. But this criticism reflects a rather shocking ignorance of racism. The sense that whites are being cheated in favor non-whites is as old as slavery itself. White Confederates framed the War as an attempt to cheat whites out of their God-given right to subjugate black people. When colored troops hit the field fighting for the Union, and managed to win a few battles, white Confederates reacted with disbelief, the great diarist Kate Stone said.

Having lost the War, ex-Confederates formed the Klan and forcibly resisted Reconstruction to the point of an actual coup d’etat. Of course they didn’t call it that. They claimed to be resisting unjust Northern efforts to force “Negro domination.” When Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries, footage of the fight was suppressed and Congress banned the filming of all prize-fights, less such imagery threaten the illusion of white supremacy. And so on….

The point is that the narrative of white supremacy holds victimhood sacred. It paints whites as the truly put-upon class and asserts that non-white success–black, brown, red, yellow and now “Muslim” — is mostly achieved through vile and despicable means. When reality challenges that view, white supremacy simply moves the goal-post….

Bigotry creates its own logic, and shifts with the times. Bigotry argues that Barack Obama, president of Harvard Law Review, is either “not really black” or if he is black, surely the product of system which has unjustly promoted his rise. Bigotry calls Sonia Sotomayor, a Phi Beta Kappa, Pyne Prize Winner and Summa cum laude, is “Miss Affirmative Action 2009.”

That it’s never happened before doesn’t suggest that something is wrong. It shows that something was wrong, and is beginning to change. That this has never happened before is a sign that a door was closed that needed to be opened. It means that the goal posts weren’t moved far enough fast enough this time.

If an Arab American has never won a beauty pageant (is that even true?) doesn’t there have to be a first? Of course there does. It has to be news before it reaches the point where it’s news anymore. And reading Rima Fakih’s story prior to her Miss USA win shows that she gets it.

Michigan.jpg While Fakih was originally hesitant to compete in pageants for fear of being stereotyped as shallow, she hopes her experiences will pave the way for a new generation of Arab American girls to pursue their dream.

“The reason I never entered many pageants was because I had bought into the negative stereotypes of contests and I was afraid that our community would not approve of it, but the community has been very supportive so far,” she said.

“They’ve been very proud that I’m from their community and ethnicity and that I’m representing our state.

“My goal is to show people that we can go beyond borders and do anything we want because the USA is not about one ethnicity and everyone comes from something; it’s all part of the melting pot in the free world.”

While Fakih says that the people from Miss Michigan and fellow contestants have been great to her, she has seen a few negative comments on pageant message boards about her ethnicity.

…But the comments only serve to add more fuel to her fire as she prepares for her run at the Miss USA crown.

She got it before she won, because no minority enters such a contest without knowing that if she wins she will be “the first,” and or without some inkling of the burden and responsibility that goes with it — that of being a “credit,” of being an “example,” and expanding future opportunities for unknown others.

Honestly, I don’t think Horne would anything to tell Fakih that she didn’t already know. But I imagine Horne giving the same advice that Fakih’s father gave her, “Be yourself. Know who you are and never let anyone tell you or decide for you what you are. You a young woman with a lot of people’s hope and hate focused on you. Don’t let them break your heat. You just do what you’ve got to do.”

Its what you do, when you’re “the first.”

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