All About Books: Kwakiutl Dreher
Kwakiutl Dreher is an Associate Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at UNL. She regularly contributes movie reviews for NET Radio’s Friday Live program.
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Houses, Histories, and Los Angeles in Walter Mosley’s
Devil in a Blue Dress
New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.
I first learned of two places where the sun showed her face practically every day of the year in elementary school: Florida and California! Oh, how I longed to be in a place where winter had no place to hang around. When I read in a magazine that all of the beautiful stars and celebrities lived Los Angeles, California, Florida became a blur. So, in 1996, when the scholarship came by way of the University of California-Riverside, I quit my well-paying job, packed my bags, and headed west to begin my graduate studies. I lived in Riverside, only an hour away from Los Angeles -- well … that depended on which stretch of the freeway you travelled and … well … what time you left to travel on that freeway. In any event, the city of my dreams, Los Angeles, California was just around the corner.
Los Angeles is everything it markets itself to be, and the sprawling city showed off its pretty people, palm trees, beaches, Rodeo Drive, the film studios, and all of the usual suspects of sights and monuments peculiar to that city. It wasn’t until I read Devil in a Blue Dress by murder mystery writer Walter Mosley, however, that Los Angeles began to have a deeper broader meaning for me in terms of the history of African Americans and migration. Not just Los Angeles, but Watts, South Central, and Central Avenue—the Black Los Angeles. These are the places that housed Black Hollywood. Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Mammy, Gone with the Wind in 1940; also entertainer Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American to be nominated for Best Actress in 1954, for her portrayal of Carmen Jones in the film of the same name. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the Nicholas Brothers, tap dancers extraordinaire, and Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by his stage name Stepin’ Fetchit graced the sidewalks of Black Los Angeles as well.
This is the world Mosley’s main character Easy Rawlins lived, and African Americans who migrated from the south to California during the great migration of the 1930s and 40s were his neighbors. Prior to Devil in a Blue Dress, my knowledge of this great migration largely centered to the migration of African Americans from the agrarian south to the industrial north. Several 20th Century African American fiction writers created stories around this social current, and uncovered the raucous and chaotic world of the concrete jungles of Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Harlem, New York, long considered to be the Black Manhattan, to name a few. Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, for example, explored the day-to-day life of African Americans who migrated to Harlem, New York; Richard Wright drew upon the plight of the family of Bigger Thomas on the south side of Chicago in his critically acclaimed novel Native Son; and, Ann Petry, in her novel The Street delved into the life of Lutie Johnson, a single mother trying to make her way through the streets of Harlem in a world dominated by men. In her novel, Jazz, Toni Morrison continues this trend when she sets her novel Jazz in the jazz scene of Harlem, taking us into the lives of families who migrated from the south.
Walter Mosley illuminated for me the migration of African Americans from the south to the west. In Devil in a Blue Dress Mosley brings to relief the nuances old Los Angeles and all of its beauty and dangers wrapped up in love and murder and dirty politics, and most interesting the issue of passing for white during a time when the country segregated by law its population. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first installment of the Easy Rawlins series. Easy, a native of Houston, Texas, moves to Watts after his service in World War II, and discovers racism on home shores still prevails as he is laid off from his job as an aircraft factory for no reason. He is hard-pressed to find employment, until his friend Joppy, a boxer during the war refers him to DeWitt Albright, a shady white private detective who employs Easy to find a young woman by the name of Daphne Monet or the Devil in the Blue Dress.
Now, I want to pause here to make mention to something else the novel did for me: Devil in a Blue Dress facilitated my understanding of what house and home and the caretaker of them meant to my parents. Easy decides to take the job offer from DeWitt Albright because he needs the money to pay the mortgage on his house, and his house serves as his sanctuary from a hard and cruel world.
Home ownership! That I understood all too well! When I told my mother that I had put down a deposit on an apartment when I landed a good paying job, she squinted her eyes and then unleashed her story of she and dad worked hard to purchase a home. It was the 1940s—the time of Mosley’s story. Fresh out of high school, dad had earned his certificate as a brick mason, and he immediately helped one of his buddies launch a very lucrative construction business. After he and mom married, mom would travel with him to different parts of the country when he received a contract to work with other construction companies. When they returned home to South Carolina, they immediately purchased a home. “We were not going to rent! No. Never!” she exclaimed. I stood there dumbfounded, and my pride was hurt but she didn’t care. She continued on, “I wanted a house—not a wood house—but one made of brick with a front porch and lots of rooms so the children could run around freely! Paying rent? Pshaw! It’s like giving money away, and for what?”
Easy Rawlins would have agreed with my mother, and in one patch of dialogue, my mother’s voice resounded through my mind as well as visions of my father’s own sense of home maintenance: Easy ruminates on his home after he takes the job offer from DeWitt Albright. He says,
“I drove back to my house thinking about money and how much I needed to have some. I loved going home. Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper’s farm or that I never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home. There was an apple tree and an avocado in the front yard, surrounded by thick St. Augustine grass. At the side of the house I had a pomegranate tree that bore than thirty fruit every season and a banana tree that never produced a thing. There were dahlias and wild roses in beds around the fence and African Violets that I kept in a big jar on the front porch.
“The house itself was small. Just a living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. The bathroom didn’t even have a shower and the back yard was no larger than a child’s rubber pool. But that house meant more to me than any woman I ever knew. I loved her and I was jealous of her and if the bank sent the county marshal to take her from me I might have come at him with a rifle rather than to give her up.”
Pride in the home. I knew that all too well. My father felt he had made well on his duty as a husband and a father with the purchase of that house, and he intended to make sure she was presentable to those who saw her. At dusk, Dad changed into his casual clothes to water the azaleas he and mom planted in the front yard; the evergreens mom planted in the backyard; and the zinnias with which she lined the sides of the driveway. “You never water plants when the sun is up; otherwise the sun will suck up the water. Plants need water at dusk so their roots can soak up the water and be fed to grow.”
Yes, Devil in a Blue Dress gave me greater understanding if not a reverence for a nimiety of histories and images. Though alluded to in the novel, Black Hollywood was alive and well in Mosley’s setting in the bustling Central Avenue of the 1940s and 1950s. Central Avenue was the hub of Los Angeles Black Culture, and Black celebrities contributed to the vitality and joie de vivre of that place. And though Mosley moves Easy Rawlins through the multi-ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, south Central, Watts, and the hustle bustle of Central Avenue were the worlds where Easy Rawlins lived. He cherished his little humble abode, and Easy tells the reader that houses are more than just shelters; they are the holy temples that provide refuge and safe havens from the whirlwind of life; and, when we love them, we will go to great lengths to protect them.
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A Supreme Reading Experience
Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross
Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme. New York: Cooper Square P, 1999.
At St. Martin de Porres, my elementary catholic school in Columbia, SC, the playground served as a venue for a myriad of activities. Tucked in the corner, away from the noise of the playground, is an assembly of young girls. With the right foot forward, one hand on the hip and the other stretched out in front of them, they demanded that somebody stop in the name of love. All the while in another little corner is a group singing about love and an unreachable scratch that keeps itchin’ the heart! As hips swing and heads bob, the nuns glide silently by. Lip-synching was the one activity they did not interrupt or keep in check. Their silence seemingly was a sign that they understood the itchin’ of the heart and heartbreak. I imagine now that perhaps in the quietness of their hours, they secretly watched The Supremes on Hullaballoo, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Red Skelton Show, Mike Douglas, or The Tonight Show, pledging to say 10 Hail Marys and Our Fathers afterwards. Whatever, the reason, The Supremes and their music captivated everyone, after all it was the 1960s.
In the 1970s, word spread about an impending break-up of The Supremes and Ross’s alleged ruthless campaign to become the lead singer of the sterling group before that. Soon, that group would be introduced as Diana Ross and The Supremes. Fast forward to 1986. Mary Wilson’s autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme hit bookstores, and, needless to say, I ate up every printed word like a bear coming out of hibernation. Wilson does not hold back in her writing about the alleged affair between Diana Ross and Motown Mogul Berry Gordy. Gossip about the House of Motown plays itself out within the text in every sordid detail along with stories of jealousies, and apparent career sabotage. Oh it was a joy!
Mary Wilson’s story of three Black teenagers from the Brewster Projects in Detroit, Michigan gave me an up-close-and-personal relationship with three Supreme women who exemplified ladyhood, fashion, and, most important, talent! Each young woman had a body type every teenager could identify with to boot. I leaned towards Diana Ross because she, like I, was no wider than a no.2 pencil. My sister luv’d Florence Ballard because she was voluptuous; and Mary Wilson was in between!
A closer look at Dreamgirl, however, revealed a curious twist. Carefully interwoven in Wilson’s autobiography are two threads of mini-biographies of the original Supremes: Diana Ross and the late Florence Ballard, and it is Ballard’s mini-bio that distressed me the most. To read how Ballard tried her best make The Supremes an equal partnership and that of her efforts were undermined by Gordy and Ross brought home for me that entertainers really have little, if any, control over their artistic expression. I still idolize The Supremes, but when I hear or read Diana Ross and The Supremes, I feel sorrow because Wilson’s autobiography makes known the back-handed truth behind that name change. The story also scared me since here were two best friends—Mary and Flo—who, after a talent contest decided to go for that Star together; but when Diane Ross entered the picture—to read Wilson tell it--that dream became compromised when Ross and Gordy align themselves with each other. Oh, the intense personal pain and suffering Mary and Flo experienced.
When I began to include autobiographies of celebrities in my book Dancing on the White Page: Black Women Entertainers Writing Autobiography, Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl was at the top of that list. This autobiography, for sure, removed the scales from my eyes about entertainers and made me more knowledgeable about the entertainment corporate structure the moguls who run it. What’s more, Dreamgirl outlined a history of Motown, Hitsville, USA—a house that just about every African American girl and teenager dreamed of entering one day! Looking back as an adult, I see that Wilson’s Dreamgirl was a caution: some houses are dysfunctional even though they appear healthy and normal.