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Race, Gender, and Cinematic History: Ramblings on Aida Overton Walker and Clara Bow

November 15, 2017

I don’t intend for this essay to degrade all men or shame them. That’s not my job nor do I care to do so. Anyway, I think our current climate is doing fine taking care of that. This is just a means to further extrapolate on the struggles that women, Black and non-Black, endure strictly because of our genetic makeup. Beyond that however, this is just an excuse to write about two amazing women that I feel aren’t heavily touted in history the way they deserve. I’ll start with an anecdote:

Over the weekend I went to a bar and began making small talk with a male stranger. Somehow, per usual with my conversations, the small talk turned into a deep political conversation teeming with complicated topics like race, crime rate, confirmation bias, and the current deluge of sexual assault allegations coming out of Hollywood and within the political sphere. In response to this part of the discussion in which myself and another woman sitting with him explained just how common aggressive sexual advances can be, the man responded to our explanation by saying that he knew of men that were raped and sexually assaulted too. “So women,” he said with his hands up in earnest sincerity, “I get it.”

While his assessment that sexual assault knows no discrimination is correct, what this guy could not comprehend in his drunken arrogance and privileged views on the world was one simple truth: no, you don’t get it and you never will unless you’ve personally endured it. The recent window of allegations that has opened may give us all a deeper look into the imbalance of power in the world—despite women comprising of half the global population—but it certainly doesn’t allow any of us to truly understand what women who come forward to reveal abuse, and those who don’t, are grappling with. I think it’s important that we all remember to not confuse sympathy with empathy because to do so is a fallacy that makes us believe we are able to handle the weight of someone else’s tragedies.

Our individual struggles are too nuanced and loaded to be written off as a simple “I’ve never encountered your pain, but I get it.” Similarly, women will never understand the weight of sexual assault endured by a man; nor will white people understand being Black and navigating through America; nor will able-bodied citizens grasp what it’s like to be a lifelong disabled body citizen. Even financial destitution can never be truly understood by someone who hasn’t endured it. Hypothetical mental gymnastics don’t solve these issues. However, I believe it is our duty as human beings to validate one another’s experiences and commit to making this difficult existence we are all born into easier for each other. If for nothing else but for the simple fact that we have all consciously agreed to take part in a society that places you at a disadvantage based on non-controllable forces and occurrences.

This realization seized me the next night after that bar talk when I fell into a rabbit hole of history. These days an internet spiral is more of a chore than a pleasure, but the other night I possessed a laser like focus when revisiting the lives of two women in the early 20th century: Aida Overton Walker and Clara Both. Both are idols of mine that have appeared in my life years ago through synchronicity. Bow during a silent movie obsession I possessed in my youth despite having never watched a silent film at that time, and Aida appeared during my research on Black women in cinematic history, although she’s never appeared in a film. On this night, while spending the better part of 3 hours deep diving into each woman’s life, my heart broke repeatedly at how their careers were eclipsed and their histories almost erased because of the times the lived in.

Aida possessed an arresting glow that went beyond physical beauty. She currently decorates my cubicle at work as a constant reminder of the glamour and resiliency held by Black women during the turn of the century, an era of unbridled determination and self-awareness that many aren’t aware existed then. Growing up, I was privileged enough to have countless Black women to admire. During my childhood, there was a boom of Afrocentrism that swept over the Black community and bleed into the mainstream culture. I had television, movies, and music to remind me of the beauty of my people, of our creativity, of our place in American society and our culture. We were fierce then, unrelenting. Most importantly we were multifaceted. We were nerds, thugs, models, cool kids, smart, intelligent and we knew our history. The exposure was short-lived. It seemed by the time I grew into my adolescence all of this disappeared. Our representation got squandered once again forcing us into one-dimensional caricatures: video girls, rappers, strippers; mammies, toms, and coons.

That knowledge of history was no longer present in my life within pop culture. I had to search for it and there was little encouragement to do so. That is until I watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled in high school. Lee’s biting commentary about a television producer finding unwanted success when he reverts to coonery shook me to the core. I was struck with an unshakable need to truly know the history of my people and not just our capture, enslavement, and civil rights achievements. Blacks have made profound contributions to American culture but most of us grow up only learning about 5% of it. Little white boys that I knew in middle school used to regurgitate the poisonous beliefs that Blacks hadn’t contributed anything to America. They thought we only made rare achievements now and then. This thought process was so prevalent that it began to leech into my subconsciousness. Though I luckily shook free of that belief, it taunts thoughts of Americans all across the country. Bamboozled helped teach me the importance of not only knowing my culture’s history but communicating that education so that it’s not rewritten by the wrong hands.

Aida Overtone Walker was aware of this over a century ago when she lit up the stage and captivated both American and British audiences with her talents. Considered the “Queen of the Cake Walk” (the electric slide of its day), Aida was a vaudeville triple threat. She didn’t seek to become merely successful on the stage, but she worked to change the hearts and minds of those who witnessed her. She wanted to uplift the Black race and refused to partake in the status quo of performing demeaning roles and donning black face even though her stage partners, husband George Walker and stage actor Bert Williams, did so. Aida’s fight for proper representation seeped into her performances and dance numbers which guided her overseas to London where she taught elite, high-class society members these lessons as well.

by Cavendish Morton, sepia glossy print on printing-out paper, 1903

At the height of Aida’s fame, a popular, often salacious dance was trending in the theatre world. The “dance of the seven veils” or “Salomé’s” dance, was a sexually charged number that Aida wanted to reexamine. Oscar Hammerstein, I invited her to perform her version of Salomé on his famed Rooftop Theatre. Instead of given audiences what they expected, she performed the dance with emotion, modesty, and creativity. From records of the performance, Aida delivered a truly feminist inspired performance that pissed off some because they wanted eroticism and impressed others. Aida was sick of seeing Black women be the object of sexual desire while being stereotyped as deviants. She showed that this dance, salacious in nature and usually written by men, could possess emotion and intention.

Aida became one of the only Black performers to showcase her talents in exclusively white New York theaters and is known for evolving her career into an artistic, highly influential one. Nevertheless, Aida’s career was short-lived and she died from kidney related illness in 1914 at 34 years old. It hurts me to my core that her beauty and talent managed to just miss the mark of getting crystallized on film. The same year that William D. Foster, one of the first African American filmmakers, completed The Railroad Porter in 1912, Aida and her longtime partner Williams cut ties over creative differences. A year later, Williams would star in Lime Kiln Field Day, the oldest surviving all-Black film. Although the film was abandoned during its post-production, the Museum of Modern Art recently restored and premiered it in 2014.

Two years after Aida’s death, Noble and George Johnson founded The Lincoln Motion Picture Company and produced socially conscious Black films setting the stage for Oscar Micheaux to follow in their footsteps making history as the most recognizable Black filmmaker of the early 1900s. Lack of funding and plain old racism prevented these companies and directors from continuing on, but imagine— just for a few seconds— how great it could have been had all these pieces fallen into enlightenment. Perhaps Aida would be arm in arm with Williams in the publicity stills for Lime Kiln Field Day. Perhaps her success and clout could have helped float the Black film companies of the time. Maybe America could have seen proper representation of Black women earlier than Hollywood allowed. It’s a silly fantasy, but as a classic film lover it’s one I’ll revisit for years to come.

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Now let’s talk about Clara, shall we? An actress that blessed the screen during the 1920s and 30s, Clara Bow possesses perhaps the most tragic tale of an attempt to break into the business as well the most inspirational story of how hope and determination can grant anyone the power to change their own destiny. Clara wasn’t supposed to be a star. She knew that and everyone around her knew it. She was a mealy little tomboy from Brooklyn who felt more comfortable hopping trains and playing baseball in the streets with the boys in her neighborhood. By her own accord, she never fit in and the girls at her school reminded her of this on a consistent basis. Clara grew up in a household with a mentally unstable mother, a father who worked relentlessly with bad luck on his side, and a house filled with painful memories and death. Clara found solace in the moving pictures which rustled a deep awakening in her soul that made her feel destined to be on the screen.

Doors tend to open when you’re determined and desire something. It’s up to you to walk through them when they do. Clara walked through, only to have subsequent doors repeatedly slammed in her face but she clung to the dream of being on the big screen to provide the hope for someone else that way the movies did for her. At 16, she heard of a contest for a bit part in a movie. She jumped at the opportunity although everyone made sure she knew what little faith they had in her attempts. By this point she was virtual outcast. Puberty had made her a young woman and to her despair all the boys she once called friends now treated her differently seeing her as a sexual object. She was regularly made to feel like the punchline of a perfect job by peers. Even when her own father attempted to defend her decision to go into acting to Clara’s mother, he told shat she may not be pretty but she was different.

Still, Clara tried. She won the contest and landed a role in a film. But life didn’t make anything for easy for Ms. Bow. Her part was cut when the film made its way to theaters. She dropped out of school having already missed multiple days commuting for the film. She spent the next 3 or so years hanging around studios and taking scrap parts. In that time, her mother attempted to murder her, had a nervous breakdown, then eventually died which sent Clara into depression. But just when her lips met the grainy refuge of rock-bottom she was offered a lead part. Her ambition and hard work was paying off and she continued receiving bigger roles but worked for hours on ends while her selfish agent manipulated her into thinking her career would fold at any moment.

The insiders of Hollywood kept the talented actress at arm’s length finding her tomboyish nature and honest candor off putting. Although she had become a huge star and a box office success by the late 1920s, she was struggling to stay sane as rumors about her private life clouded her reputation. She was made more of an outcast after baring her soul to the public through a short autobiography printed in Photoplay Magazine. The Hollywood elite recoiled at her brazen honesty. They steered clear of the tomboy from Brooklyn who was their equal. They excluded her from their inner circle as the press continued to hound her and fabricate atrocious stories about her life.

Bow was successful well into the Talkie Age and her talent continued to stay prevalent but her renegade personality left her on the fringes of what has been deemed worthy to be written about the same way the Hollywood elite scoffed at her in her heyday. With every inch of success that Clara achieved, scandal and hard times rocked her world. Before long the silver screen beauty with the expressive eyes and girlish charms retired from the business at 33 then spiraled into mental instability. After spending time in a sanitorium where she was given electric shock therapy on a regular basis, she left her husband and two children opting to live with a nurse until she died at 60. History attempted to erase Clara and many “authorities” on classic cinema history left her out of serious conversations on the silent era.

Bow’s initial treatment and Aida’s erasure from the conversation of important Black figures in history are examples and symptoms of a society that doesn’t value women or people of color. Thankfully, our cultural fabric is currently ripping at the seams and going through a massive shift. Thought most Americans aren’t aware how to respond to it, our status quo is changing and it’s for the best. Maybe now we can see prolonged peace and prosperity for those who’ve been given the short end of the stick for centuries thanks to racial inequality, gender bias, ableism, socio-economic discrimination, and ageism among the few. The unbalanced scales that have barely held us together as country are finally being recognized. To equalize the playing field and ensure we end the age of gender discrimination and white supremacy, we must first recognize the humanity in one another and respect each other’s history. We must stop treating the achievements of minorities as if they are one off, rare exceptions and instead properly give credit where it is due.

Perhaps it’s because the internet has made us impervious to ignoring our history. Perhaps we’ve just hit that inevitable point in the spiral where progressive tendencies are reaching out before conservatism makes its return. Either way the tides are changing and the struggles endured by minorities who fought to make a difference deserve their time in the spotlight so that we can all begin to empathize. If Aida and Clara’s own struggles taught me nothing else, it’s resilience in the face of resistance. It’s self-assuredness in spaces where others are unsure of you. It’s listening to that crackling fire within that drives you to believe in something more than yourself. I didn’t have to walk these women’s paths to understand their struggle. All I had to do was listen to their stories, validate their experiences, and promise myself that I will do what needs to be done to correct the problems they endured rather than contribute to it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2017 2:49 PM

    Excellent.

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