Of Aunt Jemima and Dolemite

Nancy Green, a former slave, served as the original model for Aunt Jemima

Nancy Green, a former slave, served as the original model for Aunt Jemima

Louise Beavers is all smiles as Delilah Johnson in Imitation of Life

Louise Beavers is all smiles as Delilah Johnson in Imitation of Life

Dolemite is a bad m-----------------------r

Dolemite is a bad m-----------------------r

One of the interesting things about my schedule is that because all of the classes are in the African and African American Studies program, things tend to overlap and complement each other. On more than one occasion, something that has come up in one of Carpio’s classes became relevant in Shelby’s class. But the best thing is that on any given day, in any given class I can learn something new about something I thought I knew. Take Wednesday. Professor Gates’ lecture was entitled, “Sell-Outs or Race Men and Women: The Strange and Curious History of Uncle Tom.” He started out by showing us clips of the original 1934 version of  “Imitation of Life.” Based on the book by Fannie Hurst, Gates said the movie – along with “Green Pastures,” – is one of the most important black films of all time. In Louise Beavers’ portrayal of Delilah Johnson, she is a direct embodiment of Aunt Jemima, from her wide-tooth smile, to the fact that she is makes a mean pancake. Incidentally, she gives the recipe to the white woman that she takes care of and wants nothing in return other than to continue taking care of her. The movie also perfects the Tragic Mulatto character in Peola, the little light-skinned girl who doesn’t want to be black. Gates raised an interesting question. Why is Peola light enough to pass for white when her mother is so dark? The movie brings to the screen the theme of racial betrayal that James Weldon Johnson wrote about in 1912 in, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” We also related the movie to the writings of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, DuBois, Fanon and E. Franklin Frazier. Go pick up the movie. It is a classic.

         Which brings us to another “classic.”


         We watched it Wednesday night in Carpio’s Humor screening. I am not sure of “Dolemite” was meant to be a comedy, but we laughed through the whole movie. I have seen my share of blaxsplotation movies, but I had never seen “Dolemite.” Maybe I knew something. From a production standpoint, it was probably one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I lost count of how many times we saw the boom mike. Plot? Still trying to figure it out. The acting was stiff. The fight scenes were slow. I could go on. We all left the screen baffled. But “Dolemite” is a cult classic, mainly because of Dolemite’s use of rhyme, which falls between funny and vulgar. But strip away Dolemite’s pimp-clad delivery and he presents narrative poetry from the black oral tradition. On two occasions, he recites, “Shine and the Titanic,” and “The Signifying Monkey.”

         These poems, and many like them, started cropping up in the early 20th Century as a counter to the “New Negro Movement.” The NNM was designed to kill the Old Negro of Sambo and Uncle Tom and set out to prove that the Negro was as capable as any white man. The New Negro was tall and erect. Proud and strong. But there was also an underground discourse that was anti-religious and rooted in black vernacular. It was the Ying to the New Negro’s Yang, a kind of “Politics of dis-Respectability.”

         These poems were vulgar, used dialect, and were considered the audible sign of stupidity and ignorance. It celebrated everything the upper class railed against.

         Both movies are well worth watching.

Published in: on November 19, 2008 at 5:54 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. do you know of a site that sells rudy ray moore’s poetry in print form?

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