It’s fascinating what the world of travel has to show you! Where you expect difference, you end up finding a similarity between people, whom you may have expected to do so, the least. Reality sets in and you realize that knowledge, travels. In this modern-day world of technology and internet, the click of a button permits an individual to immerse one’s presence into the world’s, culture, and herstory of another. And so, on March 1, 2019, such magic took place at the American Corner (in partnership with the US Embassy) in Cairo, Egypt.
March! It’s the month of Women’s Herstory Month and Women’s International Day! I had been volunteering with the Conversation Café for quite some time. Just so that you know, the Conversation Café is a weekly (and daily) meet-up, where volunteers work with Egyptian youth, children, adults, and professionals developing their skills within the English language. Of course, it comes through the art of, conversation. What makes things rather intriguing is the healing power of verbal exchange. Through the exchange of words, there is a level of intimacy, that is reached. People become familiar with the foreign, and distant cultures become more connected. They understand each other, more. They appreciate the humanity of each other, more.
A request had been made to me to give a presentation on one of the legendary Mother figures in Black American Her/History. Actress. Radio personality. Herstory maker. Barrier breaker. Businesswoman. LEGEND! Her name was HATTIE MCDANIEL! Of course, as a Black American woman, I already knew about this iconic figure in our herstory. Yet, imagine my smile when Mrs. Doha Mahboub (Program Coordinator of the American Corner) conveyed her being aware of Hattie McDaniel. There were many questions, erupting in my mind, regarding this knowledge. When did Madame Mahboub come to know about her? Had she watched her films? What inspired her to position the late Hattie McDaniel to serve as one of the featured persons for Women’s Her/History Month of that year?
There were so many thoughts, which continued to cross my mind. Nevertheless, a deeper awakening was at hand. For at that moment, while meeting Madame Doha in her office, I felt a sense of warmth. At that moment, there was an Egyptian, who not only knew a cultural Shero of my cultural heritage, but also recognized my own femininity, as a young maiden of this culture. Of course, throughout my activities in Cairo (and other parts of Egypt), I had connected with Egyptian women; all the while learning about famous writers, singers, intellectuals, actresses, and others of this land. Yet, prior to this experience I had never come across an Egyptian woman, who heard about Hattie McDaniel-until now.
My presentation on Hattie McDaniel, for the American Corner in Cairo, Egypt, is one of the most iconic presentations I have ever done. So often, the goal of coming out of conversation exchanges is to feel that attendees will have a greater understanding of the subject matter, while being immersed in the English language. Sometimes in a conversation session, a person will have more than 10 students. Other times, you have from 1-3. Nevertheless, the overall objective is to feel that you have poured in enough intellectual nutrition, that attendees leave the session having learned something, new. Misconceptions are erased, and you and they have established a bond, through the very practice of speaking together in the English language. It was the perfect teaching moment. So, we would go deeper into this silent, dark figure of Tom and Jerry.
Throughout the lecture, the humanity of Hattie McDaniel was highlighted. Her accomplishments, and other roles in film, proved that she was more than the stereotypical figure of “Mammy,” in the famous novel turned film, Gone With The Wind. Hattie McDaniel was more than a feminine image of mockery, by those yearning to “keep her in her place.” For she also played the role of a woman, who could be loved; dealing with the responsibilities, frustrations, and joys of having a man. Her role the legendary singer, Paul Robeson, proves this. McDaniel highlighted a different role in the 1943 film, Thank Your Lucky Stars, with the all-Black American performance of “Ice Cold Katie.” Her vocal performances detail themes of sorrow, love’s desire, and countless others. It was this other side of the actress, that I wanted attendees, to know. It was important that, they knew. For, the persistent imaged of being a maid were tired, inhumane, and a consistent attack on the womanhood of Hattie McDaniel. It was an honor to teach this side of her. Furthermore, I could see the spirit of enlightenment, by the attendees. McDaniel was more than a cartoon. She was a real-life person.
I’ll never forget one attendee, who had come. In her youthful innocence, what prompted her to attend the session is a similar, feminine image she had observed in one episode from the cartoon, Tom and Jerry. In my recollection of this childhood memory, I recall such a scene being comprised of a Black American woman, wearing a Western maid uniform. Her face is not shown. Yet, you see her hand and hear her voice. However, she received more than Tom and Journey. This particular Egyptian maiden was taken through the legacy of, Hattie McDaniel!
It was imperative to capture the holistic image of Hattie McDaniel. Images acknowledge humanity. Furthermore, they portray another story. So often, it’s the unknown side, which provides a wealth of knowledge, unknown to the masses. I was captured in such imagery, as so was Madame Doha, and another Egyptian maiden. At this moment, and in this space, Hattie McDaniel’s image had been re-born. Those, who attended the presentation would never leave the same. There was a higher ascension and understanding to that one face of the cartoon.
There was no large celebration for this occasion. Quite honestly, it happened in a higher plane. Within this ancient land, the face of one legend had been displayed. She was beautiful and the true nature of her humanity was placed on display. Sometimes you have to go far in order to see things a little more clearly. Sometimes, you have to travel far to get closer, and return home. Travel is more than an industry. It’s an art. It’s an aesthetics of healing. Through that very experience, a sisterhood with two Egyptian women bonded ever closer. There was an appreciation for the difference of, woman; an appreciation and recognition for her, Being. And when such a treasure is demonstrated, there is a healing in the Universality of the feminine. For her legacy, glowed, and her humanity was bestowed, to another part of the world. Now her Soul can truly rest; as through one of her cultural maidens, the elegance of her nature was, shown!