The above should have been the title to Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel “an Imitation of Life“. The book was later adapted into two successful motion pictures, one in 1934 and a remake in 1959. Because my life intertwines with the 1959 period, I will spend more time discussing the remake rather than on the earlier film which I will later tie into my conclusion.
The 1959 remake starts with the black mother(Annie Johnson), played by Juanita Moore, making a found child report with the police identifying a white girl(Susie), later portrayed by Sandra Dee, on the crowded New York beach where Juanita and her daughter(Sarah Jane), played by Susan Kohler, were spending the afternoon. Juanita reports that Susie had informed them that she and her mother had become separated in the crowd, causing Susie to now be lost. The police accompanied Juanita, Susie and Sarah Jane back to their original location, where Susie sees her mother(Lora Meredith), played by Lana Turner, who was then looking for Susie. After a brief initial investigation clarified the whole incident, the two mothers gratefully thank the police and immediately learn that the girls had very quickly formed an extremely close bond. Although the evening was growing late, the two girls begged their mothers to allow them to play together a little longer. It is important here to observe that Annie is obviously black , but Sarah Jane is an extremely fair skinned girl who could easily be mistaken for white, which is exactly what Lora had done when she asked Annie: “how long have you taken care of Sarah Jane?” Annie truthfully answers: “her whole life.” Lora told Susie that it was time to leave and they slowly begin to walk away when Sarah Jane informed Annie that she wished they had a home to go to. Lora overhears this statement and asks Annie where she lived. Annie explained that she was looking for a place where she and her child could live peacefully. Annie advised that she would like to work for Lora, would accept low wages and: eats like a bird. Lora, mistakenly, asked Annie how she could leave employment where she took care of such a lovely child like Sarah Jane? Juanita immediately injected: “my baby would go with me to live wherever I do.” Lora, clearly embarrassed by her misunderstanding of Annie’s and Sarah Jane’s true relationship, but emboldened by the very close relationship between their daughters, invited Annie and Sarah Jane to live with them.
Both movies were made with the prevailing racial attitudes still apparent throughout and those attitudes continued to reflect one reason why the civil war was fought-racial disparity. This reason continued to cause segregation and problems between the races as well as individually within both races. For example, after Sarah Jayne’s boyfriend beat her when he learned that Annie was black; Annie told Sarah Jane to accept her race and quit fighting it. Yet, Sarah Jane remained determined to be accepted as white although her mother was obviously black, which ignored the one drop of black blood rule that governed most of America throughout this period. Yet, Lora and Susie continued awkwardly trying to accept Sarah Jane and Annie as “family” within their own white family living in a segregated society. Is Sarah Jane’s racial attitude compatible with her desire and their lifestyle?
Hurst, the Jewish woman, who wrote “an imitation of life” was deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance, or the new negro movement that emerged in the early 20th century and in some ways ushered in the civil rights movement of the late 1940s and early 1950’s. This movement combined (c. 1918-37) American culture, particularly in the creative arts which allowed the most influential movements where participants sought to separate the forms of black art as reflecting their heritage that separated them from the Victorian moral values and bourgeois stereotypes as seen by whites to reinforce racist beliefs. The movement had an enormous impact on subsequent black literature and consciousness worldwide, including Africa and the Caribbean. Although the movement was not confined to the Harlem district of New York City, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent and served as the symbolic capital of this cultural awakening.
W.E.B. DuBois advocated a similar position to define an American culture distinct from that of Europe, one that would be characterized by ethnic pluralism as well as a democratic ethos. The idea was to develop cultures side by side in harmony rather than two cultures “melted” together or ranked on a scale of an evolving civilization. DuBois advocated his position in the The souls of Black Folk (1903). Similarly, DuBois and his NAACP Collogue James Weldon Johnson asserted that the only “uniquely American expressive” traditions had been developed by African Americans. This judgement began to spread thru African American music, especially the blues and jazz, which became a worldwide sensation throughout the jazz age. The revolution continued to spread throughout other black art forms such as poetry, art, etc.
The movement caused new publishing houses such as Alfred A. Knopf, Harcourt Brace, and, and Boni & Liverlight, who were breaking away from the emphasis on British tradition, to open their doors to black authors. The New Negro; An Interpretation, (1925) edited by Alain Locke sold well and garnered positive critical attention in addition to inspiring black leaders and would-be-authors to grow with the changing attitudes brought alive by the renaissance. When Locke attempted to direct the “movement” he announced in The New Negro to turn away from social protest and embrace self expression or ‘folk values” like the Irish literary renaissance had recently done. Some disagreed with this idea, but the movement pushed forward anyway. Inspired by Southern folk songs and Jazz, Jean Toomer experimented with lyrical modifications of prose in his book Cane (1923) which to many appeared to change how writers wrote about black life. During this period black drama showed a steady improvement in content, direction and substance. Yet black actors gained unprecedented opportunities during a period that included black face and was still limited by racisim, to develop before all white, mixed and all black audiences.
These brief illustrations reflect how the changing times caused by the Harlem Renaissance and associating with few of the people involved affected the depth of Fannie Hurst’s novel above the dry mundane writing of stereotypical writers. For example, in the imitation of life, Annie spent most of her life following Sarah Jane thru bars while Sarah continued her pursuit of being accepted as a white person. After several rejections, Sarah Jane finally realized that Annie could never be a part of any life with Sarah Jane as her mother. So, she left the home Lora, Annie and Susie had built as their incomes grew in direct proportion to Lora’s income as a successful Broadway actress. Annie was therefore forced to accept Sarah Janes wishes to live her own life, her way; but she decided to maintain a way for Sarah Jane to contact Lora and/or come home if the necessity should ever arise, or to attend Annie’s funeral, if Sarah Jane desired to come. In the final act, and after Annie’s death, Steve exercised this option by notifying Sarah Jane of Annie’s funeral. The last scene reveal Lora enforcing Annie’s final request that her funeral reflect joy rather than grief as she pulled Sarah Jane away from her mothers casket and stopping her emotional cries for Annie to forgive her…”I really loved you momma.” Lora firmly told Sarah Jane to stop, as she gently pulled her off of her mothers coffin and back into the family car with Steve, herself and Susie. The hearse drawn by four white horses gracefully fulfilled Annie’s remaining funeral desire.
Let me now make good on my promise to compare the 1934 ending. Bea Pullman, played by Claudette Colbert, is the white mother trying to care for her aging sick father. Pullman hires Delilah Johnson, played by Louise Beavers, as her maid. Delilah also happened to be a master waffle maker with an extremely light skinned infant daughter named Peola, played by Fredericka (Fredi) Washington. Bea Pullman’s daughter, Jessie, and Peola again grow-up together side by side and everyone swoons over Delilah’s waffles whenever she prepared them. Delilah tells the family that the recipe has been in her family for years. Bea Pullman finally gets Delilah to share the recipe and they eventually start a waffle house that they grow from a local favorite to an international success. Bea Pullman handles the managerial and business growth while Delilah maintains quality control over the waffles and receives “some” of the financial proceeds. Peola, in this version again desires to pass for white and moves to Seattle while attempting to succeed with her goal. Eventually, Peola eventually severs all ties and moves with her white husband to Bolivia where she permanently passes for white. Delilah dies of a broken heart soon thereafter. Meanwhile, Bea decides to sell the business and marries their business manager Frank Flake. Jessie moves home to live with her mother and she also falls in love with Flake causing a nasty love triangle to develop in the end.
In both movies neither daughter nor the white mother knew how to either love or express love. In the 1959 version, both Lana Turner and Sandra Dee loved the same man and when Annie tried to explain the true complexity involving who Susie loved, Lana wanted to know “how Steve could let it happen? ” Juanita explained that she did not believe Steve was even aware that Susie was in love with him. In fact when Lora later confronted Susie about her true feelings for Steve, she told Susie ” that she had learned about it from Annie” to which Susie replied “isn’t Annie where you learn everything about my true feelings?” While Annie was discussing her funeral plans with Lora, Steve and Annie’s preacher, Annie mentioned the friends that she wanted invited to her funeral and Lora responded “I did not know you had friends. You never invited them by or discussed them.” Annie listed the organizations she belonged to and described her involvement… “You never asked my about my friends” Miss Lora, Juanita responded. In the old race movies the black characters always played the lone, loyal devoted slave to their white family or white family figure. Then movies had to sale in the South to be profitable. Similarly, major studios were not going to put money into producing a movie that did not appear that it would turn a profit. Thus, the racial slights were necessary to gain the additional profit offered by Southern audiences in vaudeville, movies or stage shows. Thus, blackface, racial jokes and other such slights were viewed as necessary to profit.
There are many speculations concerning whether the imitation of life was based on truth or whether it was purely fiction. One belief was that the story was based on observations made by Fannie Hurst and a close mutual black friend, who prospered through the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston during a trip to Canada. Zora was a native of the rural South and extremely familiar with black folklore, mannerisms and their true relationships with whites. So, Zora could have collaborated with Fannie to add spice to the sauce already simmered by the revolution. On the other hand, during a TCM interview prior to an airing of the 1959 version of the movie, Juanita Moore supposedly shared that American Blacks were so repulsed by Louis Beaver’s portrayal of Delilah Johnson in the 1934 version, that they allegedly demanded “that a more modern Millie” to be created. However, the movie still had to sell in the South which was the main concern for the movie moguls. Thus, the 1959 version was changed to improve Annie Johnson’s image over Delilah Johnson’s supposedly for this reason. Looking at how movies now portray black American’s being themselves rather than acting out the old “race roles” have sored monetarily, reflects how much has changed.
I sincerely hope that you enjoyed my first blog post and I promise that the background effects on the mental changes to the main characters will continue throughout my legal or law enforcement discussions. Likewise, I promise more surprises, with your help, in the future. Please contact me via the method provided at the end of this blog to share your much desired thoughts. Each new post will be published the Saturday following the prior post.