Thursday, February 9, 2017

The First Black Superstar: Ethel Waters

An autobiography of Ethel Waters, His Eye Is On The Sparrow was published in 1951 when Waters was staring in Member of the Wedding. The book was a best seller.

I found a ragged and yellowed 1951 copy of the book on a free shelf at a library used book sale several years ago. I did not really know anything about Ethel Waters. Photographs from her stage plays inside the cover showed scenes from Mamba's Daughters, Pinky, The Member of the Wedding, and As Thousands Cheer. I brought the book home with me, willing to learn more about this African American entertainer.

What I discovered was a heart-wrenching, raw story that one wishes was pure fiction. Ethel's voice is strong in some places, while at times Samuels' voice puts her emotions into beautiful, if unauthentic, words. As an 'ofay' reading the book I felt my otherness. Ethel's black pride was fierce. It took many years before she would trust the white theater and movie establishment. She disdained whites as boring and ingenuine. Yet she also spoke to our common humanity.

"I never was a child. I was never coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. I never felt I belonged. I was always an outsider...Nobody brought me up." 
Ethel thought her 'mixed blood' may have explained her 'badness' as a child. Her great-grandfather Albert Harris was from India; he bought the freedom of her 'fair' great-grandmother. Albert had to protect his children during the Fugitive Slave Law years when Southerners kidnapped free African American children to be sold into slave states.

Their daughter Sarah Harris, Ethel's grandmother, went into service with a Pennsylvania family. First they educated her so she could pass the law stating that 'persons of Negro blood' could not be taken from Maryland unless 'competent and intelligent'.  At age 13 she married Louis Anderson, who had been a child drum major in the Civil War and came from a Germantown, PA family. He became an alcoholic, and Sally left him taking their children Viola, Charlie, and Louise. A proud woman, Sally was a hard worker whose jobs working live-in for white families left the children alone.

Louise wanted to be an evangelist while her siblings Vi and Charles were wild. When John Waters asked Vi if Louise was 'broke in yet' Vi told him when to come to the house. At age twelve, Louise was raped. John's mother, who passed as white and was well off, denied her son would do such a thing. Waters was a pianist who died a few years later.

Ethel was born in 1900 in Chester, PA. Her mother Sallie was a thirteen-year-old child with an unwanted baby who looked like the man who raped her. Sallie's beloved church cast her out. She left Ethel in her mother's care and went to work.

Ethel called her grandmother Sally 'Mom' and her mother Louise 'Momweeze.' Ethel's grandmother Mom had to leave her in the care of her aunts and uncle while she worked, but they were busy themselves, working days and partying at night. Ethel was shuffled about 'like a series of one-night stands' from Camden, NJ to Philadelphia to Chester. Ethel tells about battles with bedbugs and rats, being given whiskey to put her to sleep before her aunts went out at night, sleeping on the street, living in Philadelphia's red-light district and running errands for 'the whores', playing with the children of thieves and pimps, surrounded by junkies. She became 'the best child thief' in the Bloody Eighth Ward.

"My vile tongue was my shield, my toughness, my armor."

Watching her aunts drunkenness and watching the death of a teenage relative from syphilis were object lessons to Ethel. She avoided drink, smoking, and prostitution but was a hardened, street-wise survivor.

Ethel was big for her age, tall and thin, passing for being older. She began singing and 'shimming' on Negro vaudeville stages in Philly. At age seventeen, billed as Sweet Mama Stringbean, she appeared in Baltimore. She had a 'sweet, bell-like voice' and had 'developed into a really agile shimmy shaker' who 'knew how to roll and quiver, and my hips would become whirling dervishes.' She teamed with the Hill Sisters and was the first woman to perform the St. Louis Blues. They went on a cross-country tour, joining a carnival when stranded.

She was shocked by the Jim Crow South.

"I have the soundest of reasons for being proud of my people. We Negroes have always had such a tough time that our very survival in this white world with the dice always loaded against us is the greatest possible testimonial to our strength, our courage, and our immunity to adversity."
"I am not bitter and angry at white people. I say in all sincerity that I am sorry for them. What could be more pitiful than to live in such nightmarish terror of another race that you have to punch them, push them off sidewalks, and never be able to relax your venomous hatred for one moment? As I see it, it is these people, the Ku-Kluxers, the White Supremacists, and the other fire-spitting neurotics who are in the deep trouble."

One of the pivotal moment in Ethel's experiences in the South was befriending the family of a boy who was lynched for talking back to a white man. She later took that grief and turned it into art when singing Super Time in As Thousands Cheer on Broadway.

a young Ethel Waters
Ethel became a musical star in Harlem, in revues, on stage, in night clubs, and the movies. She explains that her art was drawn from her life experiences. Her hit song Stormy Weather offered her emotional release.

"When I got out there in the middle of the Cotton Club floor I was telling the things I couldn't frame in words. I was singing the story of my misery and confusion, of the misunderstandings in my life I couldn't straighten out, the story of the wrongs and outrages done to my by people I had loved and trusted. Your imagination can carry you just so far. Only those who have been hurt deeply can understand what pain is, or humiliation."

"I sang Stormy Weather from the depths of a private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated." 
In Mamba's Daughters Ethel was able to play her mother's story through the character Hagar. She felt it was the pinnacle of her career, for she was not 'acting' but sharing her feeling about "what it is to be a colored woman, dumb, ignorant, all boxed up and feeling everything with such intenseness that she is half crazy." She believed she was expressing the things her mother had felt, and wanted, and sought.

The book traces her career and her salary, her men and friends, her maternal love that took in children, and her deep faith and charitable gifts. She had her ups and her downs, years when she seemed forgotten to be followed by greater success. She achieved many 'firsts' including developing 'scat' before it was 'scat.'

The book ends in 1950 but Ethel lived another 27 years. She was on a television series, Beulah, and appeared as a guest singer on other shows. In 1959 her religious faith found focus and she toured with the Billy Graham Crusade for fifteen years.

The book has been criticized for it's faults, such as the insistence on including her salary for every job. And yet those 'boring' monetary figures would have been of great importance to a self-made woman. It is only from the position of privilege that we can dismiss this aspect of her life as superfluous.

I am glad I picked up this homeless book. I found myself gong online to learn about the Black Bottom, the shimmy, the songs (like Shake That Thing) that made Ethel famous. I learned much.

His Eye is on the Sparrow an Autobiography by Ethel Waters and Charles Samuels
Doubleday & Company, Inc
1951