My old pal and movie mentor, bellotoot, and I have been exchanging comments about King Vidor's Hallelujah!, the all-black musical we both enjoyed starring Nina Mae McKinney as a jazz-singing temptress. In fact, bellotoot enjoyed Hallelujah! so much, he dug up this 1932 short, Pie, Pie Blackbird, one of the twenty movies McKinney made in her film career. It co-stars Eubie Blake and his orchestra as well as the tap dancing team, the Nicholas Brothers.
That Hollywood could ignore this much talent while stuffing musicals of the time full of non-entities like Charles King (see The Broadway Melody) only underscores the self-defeating nature of racism ...
Forewarned is forearmed: In setting the scene, McKinney uses a word (pickaninny) that has long been considered offensive. McKinney's use of the word is so casual, however, it prompted me to do some research on the word's origin and evolution. It is believed to have been derived from the Portuguese word "pequenino," an affectionate diminutive of the word "pequeno," which means "little," and was used in the American South prior to the Civil War to refer to African-American children. Later, the word became associated with particularly grotesque stereotypes which I will not pass along here, yet remained in general usage (see, e.g., Scott Joplin's "I Am Thinking Of My Pickaninny Days for clarinet," The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, etc.) at least until the 1940s. By the late 1950s, however, it had fallen strictly into the category of offensive and anybody using the term in the 21st century would rightly be considered a racist buffoon.
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