Tag Archives: racism

Written in Stone

Yesterday in Glendale, Elizabeth Taylor, who altered America’s cultural landscape, became the latest luminary to make the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery her permanent home.

Housed in the same building a few corridors away, one of her new neighbors made his mark by altering America’s physical landscape.

Gutzon Borglum was born to Danish immigrants in Idaho on this date in 1867. He showed artistic promise early and as a young man studied sculpture in Paris, where he was influenced by the creator of The Thinker, French sculptor Auguste Rodin. 

Back in America in 1908, Borglum was commissioned to create the statue of Union Gen. Philip Sheridan for Sheridan Square in Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt judged it “first rate,” which may have influenced Borglum’s later decision to include TR on the face of Mount Rushmore (proving yet again that “nice matters”).

Borglum was given an opportunity to create his first massive sculpture by carving the heroes of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. He was chosen for this commission partly based on his xenophobic and racist political beliefs, since the KKK was one of the major sponsors of the monument, and Borglum was a powerful member in the organization.

Borglum learned a great deal about creating large sculptures at Stone Mountain before leaving Georgia behind after clashing with the backers of the project.

His next assignment called for him to transform a mountain in South Dakota’s Black Hills into an American cultural landmark.

For fourteen years until his death, just over 70 years ago in 1941, Borglum and his son Lincoln supervised the carving of the 60-foot likenesses of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, a mountain known as Six Grandfathers to the native Sioux in the area.

The carving, while unquestionably majestic, still evokes controversy generations after its completion.

Many Native American groups consider the monument to be a glorification of the government-endorsed policy of greed known as “Manifest Destiny.” Some see the decision to place the statue on Indian land acquired through broken treaties, as a celebration of conquest, rather than of liberty.

Some critics view the sculpture as a defacement of the mountain’s natural beauty, while others decry the choice of commissioning a racist to create a national icon.

The example of Elizabeth Taylor and Gutzon Borglum proves that neighbors in death, as in life, can have nothing in common.



Pity the Clown

Yesterday I wrote about Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which began the process of freeing the slaves. But as history continues to point out, 145 years of legal freedom doesn’t always translate into equal opportunity for many African-Americans.

This has certainly been the case for most of Hollywood’s history.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched a schlocky “horror” film from 1932 called The Monster Walks, about a killer ape. (Blame insomnia.) There was nothing memorable about the movie except for a curious entry in the credits which listed the person playing the character “Exodus” as someone named “Sleep n’ Eat.”

Just as I feared, Sleep n’ Eat turned out to be an African-American man playing a stereotypically lazy, dim-witted chauffeur who jumps at everything that goes bump in the night.

The man who was relegated to these roles was actually named Willie Best, who was born in 1916 in Sunflower, Mississippi (a town I’m sure was nowhere near as delightful as its name suggests). Best was discovered on stage by a talent scout and came to Hollywood in 1930. He eventually appeared in over 100 films, including High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. He had great comic timing, but was never able to rise above the role of the ‘comic-relief’ servant. It’s a real shame too, because Bob Hope and Hal Roach, two men who certainly knew comedy, considered him to be one of the greats.

Best appeared on some long-running early television series, but by the latter period of his career, his work was increasingly vilified by civil rights activists who viewed his work as representative of a racist era in Hollywood. It didn’t seem to matter that he was just earning a living at the time, and was better than his material.

Like many of his contemporaries, Best ended up trapped between eras in Hollywood, and was underappreciated by both. As his Wiki-bio points out, “Best was alternately loved as a great clown, then reviled, then pitied, finally virtually forgotten.”

The story of Willie Best makes me wonder how many great Denzel Washington-caliber careers of the past were lost due to prejudice. Which goes to show that when opportunity isn’t equally shared … everyone suffers.

Willie Best's grave in Burbank's Valhalla Cemetery.

A New Birth of Freedom

There are some ugly realities littering American history that I just can’t wrap my mind around – one being that less than 100 years before I was born, certain people could legally own other people.

That’s why I find it curious that September 22 isn’t a national holiday, because it was on this day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that began the official process of freeing America’s four million slaves.

When the nation was founded roughly “four-score and seven years” earlier, the Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal,” but the economic and prejudicial forces of the time kept these words from applying to the African-Americans that were toiling in forced servitude in the country. The Civil War came about in the 1860s largely to decide whether or not slavery would remain on the North American continent.

The Executive Order that Lincoln signed on this date was more symbolic than binding, as it only freed slaves in areas outside of Federal control. The wording of the document gave the Confederacy a way to re-enter the Union without losing their “peculiar institution.” It was a shrewd move for Lincoln, because he knew the South would never go for it, and by their refusal, he could change the purpose of the war in the eyes of the world. It also set the framework for the official proclamation that was signed by Lincoln 100 days later on January 1, 1863.

The proclamation was largely unpopular in the North where most soldiers were fighting to restore the Union rather than to end the practice of slavery. But internationally, the move doomed the Confederacy’s chance to gain badly needed international recognition.

The advancing Union armies freed more and more slaves after the Proclamation was put into effect, and 200,000 former slaves eventually served in the Union forces.

The shameful practice of slavery was officially ended in America with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, which came seven months after Lincoln’s assassination.