MAXWELL:  The famous speak on race

8/24/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


After writing two recent columns about race relations in the United States, I find myself in the eye of a storm of resentment.

My mailboxes at work and at home have been stuffed almost daily. My e-mail baskets at work and at home have become vials for electronic vitriol. My telephone message services at work and at home have become echo chambers for the angry and the illogical.

Well, I have decided to funnel some of the venom away from me by letting readers know what others think about race. Since most of us have “goo-goo eyes” for celebrities, I culled my library for the race-related comments of nine popular Hollywood personalities. The list, presented alphabetically, includes the names of moviemakers, stars, directors and producers.

I chose celebrities because they have no need to dissemble. After all, they have achieved what most of the rest of us spend our lives seeking: wealth, fame, love, the adulation of others.

The rich and famous, moreover, experience raw encounters with the power of race and ethnicity in ways that determine levels of professional success or failure in a highly public, cutthroat industry:

“I had to change my name from Segal to Benson because of anti-Semitism. When I was 10 or 11, I went up for an audition and they said: “That ugly little Jewish kid.’ So I wasn’t getting any work. I changed my name and started doing okay.”

Robby Benson

Playgirl, August 1979

“My comedy comes from the feeling that, as a Jew, and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.”

Mel Brooks

Newsweek, Feb. 17, 1975

“Actors have no color. That is the art form. They ask me all the time: “Well, what would you really like to do, Whoopi?’ I say, “I wanna do A Lion In Winter.’ They say: “But-but-but-but _ Eleanor of Aquitaine was . . . Y’know. . . .’ And I say: “Thin? Old?’ “No, Whoopi, you are . . . black!’ I say: “No!’ As if I didn’t know.”

Whoopi Goldberg

September 1986

“It was a hot day in 1957, when I was 11. I walked over to the public water fountains. One was marked WHITE, the other COLORED. Who wants colored water, I thought, as I headed to the WHITE fountain. I want the white, clear water. Instantly, about eight guys from the show grabbed me. Nothing was said. But at that moment, I understood something new: Colored meant me.”

Gregory Hines

Playboy, September 1986

“The biggest lie is that if you’re American it doesn’t matter what race, creed, nationality you are _ the color of your skin doesn’t matter, it’s the person that you are and if you do a good job, you can succeed. Bull__! Race has everything to do with everything.”

Spike Lee

Paris Passion, 1989

“I use racial slurs but I don’t hate anybody.”

Eddie Murphy

Rolling Stone,April 12, 1984

“I hate to think my avenues of artistic expression were circumscribed by color.”

Sidney Poitier

Showtime, 1967

“A lot of Italians have played Indians. Well, someday, I’d like to play an Italian.”

Creek Indian actor

Will Sampson (1934-87)

“One lady told me that before she saw Sounder, she didn’t believe black people could love each other, have deep relationships in the same way as white people.”

Cicely Tyson

Daily Mail, Feb. 23, 1973

Sadly, unlike the celebs cited above, very few of my letter writers, e-mailers and callers seem able to comprehend the simple truth about race and racism. Instead, most of my detractors hide behind cloaks of denial, defensiveness, rationalization, feigned ignorance and, of course, recrimination. Even President Clinton is confused. He wants the nation to “debate” the issues of race or have a dialogue on them.

Debate? Dialogue?

Should we debate who is responsible? How about a dialogue on the remedies staring us in the face?

In our heart of hearts, we Americans know the truth but refuse to synthesize it and act on it.

We have let race become that 800-pound gorilla sprawled in the middle of the living room that we walk around or try to ignore _ the familiar, stubborn creature that mocks us and dares us to confront it.

Let us end with the words of yet another famous American, the 1938 Nobel Prize winner for literature, who possessed the distinction of being an unerring seeker of the truth on race:

“Race prejudice is not only a shadow over the colored _ it is a shadow over all of us, and the shadow is darkest over those who feel it least and allow its evil effects to go on.”

Pearl S. Buck (1992-1973)

What America Means to Me, 1943