Passing as White in the Twenties

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I came across this last year and saved it because I believe I can use the information. One of my characters passes as white, and I’m basing him on Jeffries.  

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Herb Jeffries, who sang with Duke Ellington and starred in early black westerns as a singing cowboy known as “the Bronze Buckaroo” — a nickname that evoked his malleable racial identity — died on Sunday in West Hills, Calif. He was believed to be 100. The cause was heart failure, said Raymond Strait, who worked on Jeffries’s autobiography. Over the course of his century, Jeffries changed his name, altered his age, married five women and stretched his vocal range from near falsetto to something closer to a Bing Crosby baritone. He shifted from jazz to country and back again. Jeffries’s racial and ethnic identity was itself something of a performance. He told some people that his father was African-American, others that he was mixed race and still others that he was Ethiopian or Sicilian. He told people he chose to be black — to the extent that a mixed-race person had a choice at the time. “He told me he had to make this decision about whether he should try to pass as white,” the jazz critic Gary Giddins recalled. “He said: ‘I just knew that my life would be more interesting as a black guy. If I’d chosen to live my life passing as white, I’d have never been able to sing with Duke Ellington.’ ”

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According to the L.A. Times, his movies “had titles such as “Harlem Rides the Range” and “The Bronze Buckaroo” and featured the tall, handsome, wavy-haired singer with a Gable-esque mustache as a dashing, white-hatted good guy in a black western outfit and riding a white horse named Stardusk. The idea to make movie westerns with all-black casts was Jeffries’.

“Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of color — had no heroes in the movies,” he told The Times in 1998. “I was so glad to give them something to identify with.”

He was born Umberto Valentino in Detroit on Sept. 24, 1913. “My mother was Irish, my father was Sicilian, and one of my great-grandparents was Ethiopian,” Jeffries, who took his stepfather’s last name, told the Oklahoman in 2004. “So I’m an Italian-looking mongrel with a percentage of Ethiopian blood, which enabled me to get work with black orchestras.” . . . But finding an African American who could ride, sing, and act was difficult — until the tall, broad-shouldered Jeffries, who learned to ride on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Michigan, nominated himself.

“No way. They’ll never buy you; you’re not black enough,” the light-skinned Jeffries remembered Buell saying. Jeffries said Buell finally agreed to let him play the part but insisted that Jeffries wear makeup to darken his skin.

“Harlem on the Prairie,” billed as “the first all-Negro musical western,” was released in 1937. Among the all-black cast members were Spencer Williams, who later portrayed Andy on “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on television, and comedian Mantan Moreland, who provided comic relief. Jeffries earned $5,000 for the film, which was shot at a dude ranch near Victorville in five days. Each of the films that followed were produced just as fast. In later years, Jeffries would jokingly refer to them as “C-movies.” But he took great pride in them.

“To say I was the first black singing cowboy on the face of this earth is a great satisfaction,” he told American Visions in 1997.

In an era when black actors typically played subservient roles on screen, Jeffries stood out. “Herb was a sex symbol,” New York University film professor Donald Bogle, author of “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks,” a history of black films, told The Times in 2003. “With his wavy hair and Clark Gable mustache, he might have been a different kind of star had America been a different kind of place.”

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Published in: on March 22, 2015 at 1:07 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting! I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard of this guy until now. Have you seen any of his films?

    • No, I haven’t, but that’s a GREAT idea. I just found it listed on Netflix and ordered Harlem on the Prairie doesn’t exist but I found Harlem Rides the Range and ordered it. It falls outside my novels’ time period (these movies are in the 1930s), but it will be fun to watch.

      • Awesome! Let us know how it is! Sounds like it’d be fun. Might be interesting to compare it to “Blazing Saddles” too, in a way, seeing as Mel Brooks deliberately cast a black man as his lead as a send-up of the all-white casts common in Westerns…


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