Monday, August 31, 2009

Nina Mae McKinney And The 1932 Short, "Pie, Pie Blackbird"

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.


mister muleboy said...

anybody using the term in the 21st century would rightly be considered a racist buffoon.

any chance we might qualify for provocateur, agitator, or contrarian?

I enoyed the etymology. It had to be Portugese -- for the Spaniards to do it, they would have had to show an uncharacteristic willingness to bend two related words into a goofy contraction [pequeño niño into pequeñiño]. Just not going to happen with those linguistically-tight Spaniards [as opposed to yer drunken-spanish-and-french=portugese types].

I shan't ask from whence deriveth [edited]. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Well, if by "provocateur," you mean general pain in the backside, you've probably got that down already.

I kid.

I think if one wants to be perceived as a provocateur or agitator, one would have to have some sort of goal in mind, a goal, that is, other than just making people uncomfortable, and your audience would have to be aware of the goal. Even to be perceived as a contrarian, your audience would have to know you well enough to understand your motivations.

I myself know you like to toss bombs into polite conversation just to watch things fly, and I would think by now most of your audience understands that. I'm not sure all of my audience understands that, though ...

mister muleboy said...

Hmmm; I guess I disagree about the provocateur needing a goal beyond provoking a reaction. But I'll take the point that generally agitators are "agitating" for something -- even though, strictly speaking, I'd say that "agitation" is just shaking things up, [with the benefit of "watch[ing] things fly". And I have no such goal.

As for our respective audiences, well, that is the joy of the monitored comment. But then you have to be a monitorer of comments.

[and yes, to mistermuleboy, I know that it's "monitor". . . . ]

[oh, wait; it's me complaining about me].

Out of respect for your audience, and for you as my friend, I will dispense with any thought o' pickaninny.

Jig and boy are right out too.

As they of course should be.

Unless one Bruces. Brucing it might justify the word.

the newly-coined verb to utter a word into submission a la Lenny Bruce [born Leonard Alfred Schneider].

hmmm -- verification word is strepit.

Like "strep it."

Like "get a sore throat and shut up already."

Mythical Monkey said...

No, you're probably right, a provocateur need only provoke and an agitator need only agitate. But to be perceived as a provocateur or agitator rather than a racist buffoon, I think you would have to make clear you were aware that the word was unacceptable and that you were using it with some goal in mind other than to humiliate or marginalize or objectify or dehumanize, etc.

Lenny Bruce standing on a stage, for example, would get wider latitude than a stranger on the street, because you assume he's up to something.

Even then, eventually there would have to be some payoff, I think, ala George Carlin berating us for hiding truths behind euphemisms ("Poor people used to live in slums; Now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities."). Otherwise, it's just Jack Black or Eddie Murphy doing fart jokes ...

Hate that word, the f-word, by the way. I am an over-sheltered fussbudget, when you get right down to it.

mister muleboy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mister muleboy said...

While we're at it, I may not be a fussbudget, but I really have little tuning for what words bother people v. what bothers me.

For instance, I always thought that "ass" was the polite casual way to describe a derriere, and I thought "b-tt" was vile and indefensible. I now learn that five-yr.-olds are taught to use "b^tt". Similarly, "tits" always seemed to me mildly risque, but certainly much less vulgar and ugly than "B^^b." Come to find out, "b^^b" was used on TV all the times, and again -- kids are taught to use it.

Go figure.

I, of course, prefer teats.

Or bosoms -- that's the greatest word of all times. . . .

Uncle Tom said...

"provocateur need only provoke and an agitator need only agitate"

into which category does pointing at your brother and asking "does this bother you?" over and over, fit? I'm guessing both to a degree. Though I guess throwing your nephew's toys on said brother in the dark on Christmas Eve would constitute a provocateur, while the aforementioned pointing, but not touching (that's important), would constitute agitating

I could be wrong

Mythical Monkey said...

I'd probably call it "payback" for that time when we were little kids and I convinced you to push the stop button on the escalators in Harveys department store ...

Lupner said...

'Ass' is a great word. Just sayin'.