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More than ‘Mammy’: ReShonda Tate honors Hattie McDaniel in new book

ReShonda Tate, center, looks over her shoulder and smiles at the camera. She is in front of a crowd at a book signing, where members of the crowd are smiling and holding up their copies of the book.
Courtesy of ReShonda Tate
Tate, a University of Texas Austin alumna, was inducted into the Texas Authors Hall of Fame in 2021.

When Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar in 1939, she thought it was going to launch her career. She was the first Black person ever to win an Academy Award, winning Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Though McDaniel was best known for her appearance in this film, she went on to appear in over 300 films — only receiving on-screen credit for 83. Her community service to the Black community was lesser known. Author ReShonda Tate aims to rectify that.

Tate, who is also a screenwriter and movie producer, was a guest on In Black America, where she discussed her book The Queen of Sugar Hill, a historic-fictional account of McDaniel’s life. When she wrote the novel, Tate expanded on McDaniel’s lifelong activism fighting racial discrimination in and out of Hollywood.

She and John L. Hanson Jr., host and producer of In Black America, talked about how writing about McDaniel inspired her, McDaniel’s upbringing, and how her work to combat housing discrimination dubbed her the titular queen of Sugar Hill. An excerpt of the conversation between Tate and Hanson Jr. can be found below.

Hattie McDaniel smiles in a black and white headshot.
Author Unknown
Public Domain
McDaniel was born in 1893 in Wichita, Kansas, to formerly enslaved parents. Her mother sang gospel music and her father fought in the Civil War with the 122nd United States Colored Troops.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

On McDaniel’s career before her role in Gone With the Wind

A lot of people didn't know that Hattie McDaniel was the first Black woman to ever have music on the radio … she had a thriving career in Denver. She moved [to Los Angeles] and she actually was in 70 uncredited movies before Gone With the Wind.

She was good friends with Louise Beavers and Lillian Randolph from Imitation of Life and It's a Wonderful Life. And really, those were her just ride or die girlfriends at the time because she needed that. All three of them were similar actresses and they [experienced] similar hate. And so they bonded over that, along with Ruby Dandridge, who was Dorothy Dandridge’s mother. And it was that core group of friends that helped her navigate the fact that her career didn't take off after the Oscars. She was also good friends with Clark Gable, Bette Davis. She had a solid foundation of friends that helped her through the good and the bad times in Los Angeles.

The Queen of Sugar Hill: A Novel of Hattie McDaniel by ReShonda Tate
Courtesy of ReShonda Tate
The Queen of Sugar Hill is Tate's first venture into historical fiction.

On McDaniel’s fight against housing discrimination in Sugar Hill 

Sugar Hill used to be called the West Adams District. And when Hattie McDaniel moved in, she was one of the first Blacks in the area. And she was excited about her place. This is a mansion. It's her dream home, she paid $10,000 above asking price. A lot of people don't know there was a little-known law at the time called restrictive covenants, which meant you could not sell your home to anyone who was not of European descent. And so Hattie's neighbors sued her and her other Black neighbors to try and get her out of there.

Hattie had not been involved in the [lawsuit] because she had been so busy. And then when she came on board, she became the face of the lawsuit. And they actually went to court and they won the case, which was something no one thought would happen. And that case became the catalyst for the Supreme Court case that struck down restrictive covenants. So people don't even realize we live where we want now because of Hattie McDaniel.

On choosing to write historical fiction to chronicle McDaniel’s life

This was the best of both worlds for me because I'm a journalist by trade. This allowed me to use that journalism background to research, to lay the foundation. And then the novelist side of me was able to come in and fill in the blanks.

For example, we know Hattie McDaniel and the entire Gone With the Wind crew went to a club after the Academy Awards. The club did not allow Hattie McDaniel in. That's the fact that we know. We don't know exactly what the security guard said to her. So that's where my imagination comes in. And that's the fiction part. But everything else is the facts. And I tried to be clear in sticking to the facts.

On what she hopes readers learn from The Queen of Sugar Hill

Hattie McDaniel’s story deserves to live on. I would hate for her to just kind of disappear from history, which she has slowly been doing. When Mo'Nique won Academy Award, she mentioned her, but that's all that people knew her for — that one Academy Award. And there's so much more to her. And as she said, she hopes that people will remember that she was more than Mammy.

John L. Hanson is the producer and host of the nationally syndicated radio series In Black America. It’s heard on home station KUT at 10 p.m. Tuesdays and 6:30 a.m. Sundays — and weekly on close to 20 stations across the country. The weekly podcast of IBA, the only nationally broadcast Black-oriented public affairs radio program, is one of KUT’s most popular podcasts.
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