I photocopied this poem by Rita Dove out of the New Yorker a few years ago and I've had it tucked away ever since. I came across it again last weekend as I was cleaning my apartment and was inspired to read the entire collection, American Smooth. And of course, in the age of googling everybody and everything, I googled Rita Dove and found a few nice surprises: videos of the Pulitzer Prize winner doing the tango, the rhumba, the fox trot and other timeless dances with her husband and an audio link of her reciting this poem on The Poetry Archive.
Hattie McDaniel was, of course, the first African-American to win an Academy Award. But, like so many actors typecast into one role for an entire career she was so much more and I think this poem captures that beautifully.
Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove
late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair,
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.
It's the day that isn't, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year—
and the shittiest, too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew…what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?
Hi-Hat Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
The "little lady" from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia & Fidelia,
one half of the dark Barrymores—
dear Mammy, we can't help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with such arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what
we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat's rustle,
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas city, six years old.
The man who advised you, now
that you were famous to 'begin eliminating"
your more common acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): "That's a good idea.
I'll start right now by eliminating you."
Is she or isn't she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile – your trademark,
your curse. Not matter, Hattie: It's a long, beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait.