That Old Feeling

I awakened one morning with the name “Dorothy Dandridge” floating, it seemed, above me.

I knew the name but had no idea why. My mother, the woman of glamour who reserved a sneer only for me, admired Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and later, when I was older, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson. I do not recall her ever mentioning or even listening to Dorothy Dandridge. So the weekend after the name sounded out over my head that early morning, I forgot about the Nashville heat and read “Everything and Nothing,” her purported autobiography, and Donald Bogle’s biography. The latter still sits on my desk with a photo of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

Men disagree with me. The men I’ve asked. And there’ve been a few. I know why she would discomfit them: her strength, and when she sings “You Do Something to Me,” in one video especially, her gutsy sensuality spares no one any illusion of sweet bimbo acquiescence or coy allure. Dandridge performs just how love gets to your gut, as desire creeps down slowly from her head to her toes. Taking you right there, straight on, as ravishing as she is, she also ravishes you.

So Dorothy Dandridge scared people. Too black and too white, or neither black nor white, she fit nowhere. She made viewers think, even when singing about sex. Knowing in her bones how race hatred, ever inventive, traveled from the South to Hollywood, though under cover as entertainment—perhaps even more pernicious and long lasting because of that—she threatened. Her rendition of “You Do Something to Me” is a call to arms. She literally blasts through her guise of demureness and hesitation, with the dare in her eyes, what she does with her hands. And then when she parts the frontal split in her long dress before she strides forward among a phalanx of men, it’s a severance as fierce as the parting of the Red Sea, and at the same time, somehow fantastically, it is also the consummate seduction. Even in her early 3-minute “soundies” in the early ’40s, she played her femininity to the hilt, even as she crushed it under foot. Whom was she fighting? What did she fight against?

At a time when blackface was common, jungle movies scintillated, and a black woman could expect to play only maids or mammies, she was the first African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award playing opposite Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones (the year of Brown vs. Board of Education); the first to break the color barrier at the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria; the first to appear on the cover of Time and Life, although the article in Time reduced her compelling talent and promise to the “wriggling” of a “caterpillar on a hot rock.”

When thinking about the tragedy of her life, it’s both easy and strategic to blame it on inner demons, a mean, aloof mother, or a penchant for abusive men. But it is instructive and urgent now to understand what her story tells us about a particular history of the United States. Its peculiar and long-lived brand of racism depends for its sustenance on an intricately contrived practice of subjugation that succeeds most when its object is most celebrated and apparently indomitable.

The more Dandridge surpassed the expectations of a white world, the less she was expected to do. At the height of her fame and glory, she could not find a role here, though she persisted in breaking the color codes of the Flamingo in Las Vegas, as she made sure her band could enter the front doors as she had; introducing Martin Luther King at a rally in 1963; and, in one story, after she put her toe in the pool at another hotel in Las Vegas, it was promptly drained.

Though it’s tempting to present Dandridge as a victim, I prefer to take her story as an example of astonishing resilience with a forgotten legacy. Why is one of the most beautiful and alluring actresses of the century so unknown that when Halle Barry played her in HBO’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” it was just that: an introduction. There is more to this story of oblivion than her private drama. What remains unsettling and keeps her down even in death is the erasure specific to this country and its take on strong women—especially when black. (Perhaps especially at a time when a certain senator named Kamala Harris who alone properly questioned Jeff Sessions is vilified, hounded, and threatened.)

Dandridge remains with me still when I walk down the street or stand in front of a class. If I put on lipstick, I think about her lips; and when I run my fingers through my thick hair, I no longer want to make it straight. I’m delighted by the wayward curls that never look sleek. And, for the first time, I know viscerally how awe becomes utterly down-to-earth, a feeling both extraordinary and commonplace. That is the threat she works through and manipulates, a temptation that is also an affront; a come-on that is also a warning, a ritual that will not quit. How she entices. She touches herself, runs her hands through her hair, moves as if in ecstasy, and through it all there’s this sense of restraint. Ambivalence, the uncomfortable sense of both/and, and an enticement to sink with her into the depths she’s courting. All this was and remains too much for people who just want to have fun or escape into a world of make-believe.

Dandridge performs an ambivalent obsession. Both hateful and adoring, it’s the feeling that bedevils white America when it gets a peek into the forbidden now revealed by the taboo made flesh and blood. To expose the virulent hypocrisy of such a response, she offers herself on the altar of blackness as it is both fantasized and feared by whites. And at a time when Hollywood directors were most vexed by codes and censors, here came an actress who threw a wrench into their empty tokenism. She was more than they bargained for, and they knew it.

Colin Dayan