31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #5: Dorothy Dandridge

In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.


by Annette Jones

I encountered Dorothy Dandridge as “Carmen” sometime in the early 2000’s. Still exploring my culture and trying to relate and identify with others, Dorothy quickly came to represent a personal hope for me.

I had grown up reading stories about the “Tragic Mulatta” and believed that, based on my own experiences as a Mixed-Race woman, my life was destined to be filled with heartbreak, tragedy and then death! That changed, however, when I saw the “hip-swingin floozey” that walked into the cafeteria at the beginning of the classic film “Carmen Jones. She had poise, walked with a confidence that was hard to miss, and she smiled – which meant happiness of some sort!

According to Wikipedia, “The ‘tragic mulatto’ is an archetypical mixed-race person (a ‘mulatto’), who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”. As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society in a society divided by race, where there is no place for one who is neither completely “black” nor “white”. This trope was also used by abolitionists in order to create a mixed-race (but white-appearing) slave that would serve as a tool to express sentimentality to white readers in an effort to paint slaves as “more human”.

When I was searching for and trying to create my identity, that definition is what I found to define me. It was driven home by countless stories during slavery and times since which proved things just never ended well if you were mixed.

Dorothy Dandridge showed me, through her role in Carmen Jones – and more importantly through her personal life – that “weak”, “confused” and “victimized by society at large” did not have to be my persona. Instead, strength, decisiveness and in-control-of-her-own-destiny is what Dorothy exuded, and I embraced that.

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Dorothy’s star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Photo credited below

After my enjoyment of Carmen Jones, I learned more about Dorothy. Her life – depending on how you choose to look at it – can indeed be seen as tragic. In love with a white man in the 1950’s, she wasn’t light-skinned enough to pass so she was never more than his lover. She had a child born with physical and mental issues who would need around-the-clock care her whole life.

Despite her fame, she experienced racism and discrimination that, I’m sure, cut to the core. Once, when she was the headliner at a hotel nightclub for whites only, she wanted to prove to her white manager that, despite her celebrity status, she was still just a Nigger. She went out to the pool and stuck her toe in. Everyone in the pool got out and the pool was drained and cleaned. She died at the same age I am now – 43, of an overdose.

Dorothy’s life was also wonderfully exciting and ground-breaking and she enjoyed many accomplishments. Her celebrity began with singing and dancing. She performed with iconic greats like the Nicholas Brothers and Cab Calloway. She was a regular entertainer at venues like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre. She was cast in the leading role of the all-Black production of Carmen Jones, among other leading and/or ground-breaking roles. Dorothy was also the first Black actress to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Dorothy’s life was not one great big tragedy. She has left a body of work behind as proof. She has also left me and many others behind who look up to her and see her as a beacon of light. She was not, and is not, simply the series of tragedies she experienced throughout her life. She is the sum of all her parts – tragic and wonderful.

So, if you see me on any given day with extra swag in my swagger or a special, feisty twinkle in my eye, know that in that moment there is nothing tragic – destined or otherwise – about me and my life. I too am the sum of all my parts, and my tragic moments are simply some of the bricks in my foundation.


 

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Annette Jones lives in Tukwila, Washington with her husband, three kids and a dog named Bella. She likes to spend her time avoiding housework and cooking for the community. You can usually find her doing something related to the Hillman city Collaboratory and the social services business she runs with her husband. 

 

Walk of Fame photo originally published as Los Angeles 2011 #60 by Mr. Jincks is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

Featured image originally published as Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, “Car from classic_film. The image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic

 


 

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