Beloved and best-selling author, ReShonda Tate’s latest book, The Queen of Sugar Hill, reads like a tantalizing tell all! The historical fiction novel is about actress Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award. Tate has written more than 50 books including Let the Church Say Amen, which was adapted into a film directed by Regina King.
From the publisher, HarperCollins:
It was supposed to be the highlight of her career, the pinnacle for which she’d worked all her life. And as Hattie McDaniel took the stage in 1940 to claim an honor that would make her the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award, she tearfully took her place in history. Between personal triumphs and tragedies, heartbreaking losses, and severe setbacks, this historic night of winning best supporting actress for her role as the sassy Mammy in the controversial movie Gone With the Wind was going to be life-changing. Or so she thought.
Months after winning the award, not only did the Oscar curse set in where Hattie couldn’t find work, but she found herself thrust in the middle of two worlds—Black and White—and not being welcomed in either. Whites only saw her as Mammy and Blacks detested the demeaning portrayal. As the NAACP waged an all-out war against Hattie and actors like her, the emotionally conflicted actor found herself struggling daily.
Through it all, Hattie continued her fight to pave a path for other Negro actors, while focusing on war efforts, fighting housing discrimination, and navigating four failed marriages. Luckily, she had a core group of friends to help her out—from Clark Gable to Louise Beavers to Ruby Berkley Goodwin and Dorothy Dandridge.
The Queen of Sugar Hill brings to life the powerful story of one woman who was driven by many passions—ambition, love, sex, family, friendship, and equality.
ReShonda Tate tells us more about this fascinating novel:
What interested you about Hattie McDaniel?
Like so many, the first time I saw Mammy in “Gone With The Wind,” I was disgusted. I was watching with my grandmother and she asked me why I had so much disdain. I told her because Hattie McDaniel was playing a maid. My grandmother's reply was, “I'm a maid and I give you a good life by being a maid. Hattie McDaniel is an actor playing the only roles she’s allowed to play.” Her words resonated with me. I began researching more about Hattie. And I realized Black people are the only people who aren't allowed to “be” without it being a reflection of the entire race. There are white slapstick comedians, there are white actors who play unsavory roles, and they're not judged by the totality of the whole race. In fact, that was one of Hattie's arguments – why couldn’t she be allowed to simply be a comedian without being vilified as “shucking and jiving.” Because Black people have historically had such limited opportunities, everything is judged from a microscopic view, which is unfair to artists like Hattie, especially considering she wanted to do more than she had been allowed. She infamously said she would love to sit on Cary Grant's lap and play his love interest. But there was no one that would ever hire her for something like that. So she basically played the hand that life had dealt her.
Why was it important to tell her story?
When I took off my 21st-century lens and looked at Hattie McDaniel in the time in which she lived, I was able to get a better understanding. I was also fascinated by all I didn't know. I didn't know about the restrictive covenants. I didn't know that she was the first Black woman to sing on the radio. I didn't know about her wartime efforts, and I didn't know about her struggle to find a seat at the table - both the Black table and the white table. And now that I do know, I hope to help others discover more about this fabulous woman.
McDaniel’s participation in Gone With The Wind resulted in a variety of attacks. Can you talk about why?
At the time, Black people were in a war for better representation. In the late 30s and 40s, the NAACP led the fight to have Hollywood see Black actors as more than servants and slaves. Unfortunately, their fight came at the expense of actors like Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Ruby Dandridge, and other actors who had accepted the only roles they were allowed to play.
Hattie had emerged from abject poverty and simply wanted to build a nice life for her, her family and the thousands of people she helped. But the NAACP, along with many in the Black press, wanted her to turn down the roles she had been offered. They blasted Hattie and actors like her, for not taking a stance. Hattie once wrote, “I’d rather play a maid for $700, than be a maid for $7.” She would have loved to play different roles….but it was the 1940s, there were no other roles for heavyset, brown-skinned actors. There was a jaw-dropping moment at the NAACP convention in 1942 where Hattie was humiliated. Executives with the organization were well-meaning, but their quest came at the expense of Hattie. Those types of real-life moments are at the foundation of this story. The fiction comes in when it comes to writing the feelings, emotions and reactions of Hattie. As a journalist and a novelist, it’s a perfect blending of both worlds.
How did McDaniel obtain the nickname, “the Queen of Sugar Hill?”
Hattie earned the nickname because of her efforts in fighting restrictive covenants, which was a tool of discrimination used by white homeowners to prevent the migration of people of color into their neighborhoods. When Hattie moved into the exclusive and expensive West Adams neighborhood, several homeowners sued her and other Black neighbors, citing the restrictive covenants. Hattie’s neighbors were initially involved in trying to fight the lawsuit, but it wasn't getting any traction because they were all fighting individual cases. Hattie took up the mantle, brought all the suits together and then took the case to court. Because of her efforts, the historic case was won, and restrictive covenants were struck down - something no one saw coming.
What is McDaniel’s Hollywood legacy?
It's simple. It's the words she uttered on the night she accepted her Academy Award - she wanted to be a credit to her race. I think that she fulfilled her legacy – even if people didn’t appreciate it at the time - and it is my hope that I can open eyes and initiate dialogue so that her legacy will live on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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