The black celebrity from Hollywood’s Golden Age who revealed the complexities of passing for white

Nina Renata Aron | Timeline

When African American actress Fredi Washington played a black girl passing for white in the 1934 film Imitation of Life, she was accused by critics of denying her own heritage. In fact, Washington never hid her roots, and went on to become an activist for African Americans in the performing arts. As she later told Hue magazine, “I’m honest and…you don’t have to be white to be good.”

The young, black starlet posed a challenge for a Hollywood used to seeing in black and white. Washington was so light-skinned that she reportedly had to wear makeup to play black characters. According to Washington’s friend Jean-Claude Baker, a restaurateur and author, many who saw her thought she was white and she was able to frequent whites-only establishments all her life without problems. “She did pass for white when she was traveling in the South with Duke Ellington,” Baker is quoted as saying in Washington’s New York Times 1994 obituary. “They could not go into ice-cream parlors, so she would go in and buy the ice cream, then go outside and give it to Ellington and the band. Whites screamed at her, ‘Nigger lover!’”

At the height of her career, Washington was cast as a number of mixed-race characters. Even though she was representing a reality as American as apple pie, Washington was also bringing to the fore the gnarled predicament of race and the many shadows it casts on everyday life. For some audiences and critics of the era, that reckoning was simply too uncomfortable. One review summed it up curtly, saying the film suggested simply “that the sensitive daughter of a Negro woman is bound to be unhappy if she happens to be able to pass for white.”

Fredericka Carolyn Washington was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1903, the second of five children. When she was 11, her mother died, so Fredi and was sent to school in Pennsylvania. The family, meanwhile, moved north as part of the Great Migration, settling in Harlem, a place teeming with culture that would come to be known as the pounding heart of black America.

Washington was a dancer before she became an actress. Her first role was as a chorus girl alongside Josephine Baker in Shuffle Along, a popular 1921 Broadway revue, and she toured with the show for five years. (She also danced with Baker in an ensemble called the Happy Honeysuckles.) In 1926, when cast opposite Paul Robeson in the play Black Boy on Broadway, she took the stage name Edith Warren. She played Irene, the mixed-race mistress of Robeson’s character, who passed as white but is found out for being “actually” black, earning the sympathy of the main character. As University of North Carolina Professor Charlene B. Regester writes in African-American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900–1960, “The duplicity of Irene’s masquerade in Black Boy exemplifies how the mulatto character was problematized on the American stage…It was a world of absolutes with regard to black and white, a world where there was no middle ground.”

But in a way, Washington did represent a middle ground. Her very being highlighted the absurdity and hypocrisy of the “one-drop rule,” the futility of believing that people could be neatly categorized based on their physical appearance. Washington was turned down for many black roles — they were woefully few to begin with — and was often forced, by virtue of her light skin, to play out the drama of the mixed-race individual on stage and screen.

In 1929, Washington made her screen debut in Black & Tan, a film about an artist couple during the Harlem Renaissance. She played the dancer wife of a struggling musician (played by Duke Ellington) who literally dances herself to death to Ellington’s “Cotton Club Stomp.” According to Washington’s sister Isabel and other friends, Ellington was the real love of Washington’s life. The two dated for a time, but when Ellington proved noncommittal, Washington took up with the trombonist in his band, Lawrence Brown. She married Brown, but the two eventually divorced.

But Washington is best known for her role in the 1934 tear-jerker Imitation of Life. The film starred Claudette Colbert as Bea Pullman, a widow and maple syrup saleswoman with a penchant for pancakes. She lives with her daughter Jessie, her black servant, Delilah, and the servant’s daughter, Peola, played by Washington. Though Bea ultimately starts a company to sell pancake flour (using Delilah as her product mascot, an obvious echo of Aunt Jemima), Peola spends her life concealing her black roots in order to reap the advantages of whiteness. When Delilah and Bea show up in the whites-only restaurant where Peola works, the constructed reality and livelihood are threatened. Peola decides to leave town and sever ties with her mother. Delilah experiences her daughter’s rejection,mand her choice to pass as white, as a profound betrayal, and — spoiler alert — dies of a broken heart, while the other black servants of the Pullman house sing a spiritual. Peola appears at Delilah’s funeral, stricken by the impact of her choices, and begging for forgiveness from her mother, even though it’s too late.

Imitation of Life was a commercial success and was nominated for three Academy Awards, although some critics found it a bit saccharine. Of the 1959 remake, a New York Times critic wrote that it “contains the sort of bathos that invariably stimulates the hearts of patrons, especially women, whose emotional resistance is low.” Some critics also attacked the film for its oversimplification of passing, which is represented as a straightforward disavowal of blackness rather than a complex and often vital negotiation in a bigoted, segregated society.

Though Washington had a very successful early career, she ultimately grew frustrated with the lack of interesting roles and support for black actors. In 1937 she became a founding member of the Negro Actor’s Guild, also serving as the organization’s executive secretary for its first year. She appeared in a radio series called Heroines in Bronze, a National Urban League tribute to black women, in 1943. And as a pillar of the black performance community, Washington wrote a column and served as entertainment editor for People’s Voice, an African American newspaper founded by the pastor, and later Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was Washington’s brother-in-law. She became active in the NAACP and, later, in the Civil Rights movement.

Though Washington was cast as a mixed race character more than once, she identified strongly as a black woman, and was outspoken in renouncing racism. In 1945, she told the Chicago Defender that she was a “mighty proud gal” and couldn’t imagine why anyone would suggest she’d lie about her heritage. “Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy,” Washington said, “and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro…would be agreeing that to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.”

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