My Mother’s favorite film is Imitation of Life. The 1959 version is the one I grew up re-watching, but my Mother, the well-rounded, nondiscriminatory woman that she is, also had us watch the 1934 version. Both versions are equally heartbreaking. We could debate about the merits of the in-color ‘59 version v.s. the black-in-white ‘34 version. Either way, something is very haunting about a film on colorism filmed in black-in-white AND then filmed in-color.
Adapted from the 1933 book of the same name, Imitation of Life is a film about colorism, survival, and acceptance. Lora Tuner, a single white mom, meets Annie Johnson, a single Black widower and mother, on a beach. The two hit it off and Annie moves in with Lora to take care of her house and raise her daughter, Suzie. Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane, easily become friends with Suzie. But conflict rises when light-enough-to-pass Sarah Jane grows up and realizes the cost of her color. She is angry with her mother for making her Black. Luckily by then, Sarah Jane realizes white people are too stupid to tell that she’s Black, and that’s when she realizes she has a choice. Choice number 1: claim her Blackness and remain in relationship with her mother and the Black community. Choice number 2: choose to be white and easily fit with her white friends. From the jump, it’s obvious the choice she’s gonna make. I mean, as ridiculous and disturbing the idea of passing is, it makes total sense. I wouldn’t wish racism on anybody. Like, imagine if you could escape racism, and then you found out you could? Would you take the out or nah?
Sarah Jane’s choice also makes sense in the context of her community. Disowning her mother, is also disowning Black community, but Sarah Jane doesn’t have Black community other than her mother. All Sarah Jane’s people are white. And, the only person who knows she’s Black is her white best friend who she grew up with. If the movie wanted to take a thriller plot twist, it wouldn’t even be that exciting ‘cause the only people Sarah Jane would have to kill to keep her secret safe is Suzie. Especially because neither Annie or Lora would rat her out. But why doesn’t Annie, though devastated by Sarah Jane’s out Sarah Jane? It’s because she too gets it. Annie is the Aunt Jemima Mammy character in the movie-- she’s darker than the ocean floor. So imagine, if Annie was told she could escape racism and then she found out she could, what would she do?
As a child, this whole scenario really disturbed me. Though I grew up mostly in community with homeschooled white christian kids, my skin is too dark to benefit from any kind of white privilege. Also, I have always been close to my maternal family, so even in the event that I did come out a light bright, choosing white would irreparably disconnect me from the bonds I have with my Black family. Sure, I had white friends. And sure, Black kids teased me cuz I “talked white,” I ate “white foods,” I listened to “white music,” etc… But I have never and will never be white. But, as a child, Sarah Jane’s passing is not what disturbed me. What disturbs me is her ability to so easily slip into white character that’s really chilling. It’s like one moment she’s a little Black girl playing with dolls-- and sure, she’s kind of snot-- but then next thing you know, she’s a grown white woman disowning her mother in front of a mediocre white boy. It’s like, did that woman not raise you? How did you become so entitled and privileged? How do you know how to white so well?
But that’s the thing about life, it’s all imitation. Nothing is worth doing well if you’re not going to obsess over every past iteration. A child learns to speak by imitating speech. In linguistic,s we call it babbling. At work, I learned to make popcorn by watching my co-workers make popcorn. In movies, the light skinned Black girl learns how to be white by imitating the white fragility around her. Imitation is not only necessary for speech, popcorn, and color. Imitation is necessary for producing good art.
People who aren’t artists, let’s call them Bankers, think artists like Basquiat just woke up one opioid filled morning and viola, The Radiant Child was born. Sure, Bankers might think the dude practiced drawing in his grade school notebooks, but the idea of him being obsessive in his studies probably doesn’t occur to Bankers. This is to say that a lot of Bankers think artists are born geniuses. No, not at all. The only way to get good at something is to be obsessively studying it. And the only way to study something is to imitate it.
Imitation is often stigmatized as copying, or worse, stealing, work. I mean, when it comes to crab meat imitation is an obvious no no. But other than imitation crab meat, imitation mixed with innovation, is genius.
Dear Bankers, art geniuses aren’t born, they’re nerds. Think about it this way, Bankers, imagine if you spend your whole life looking at art but never pick up a pencil. And if you do pick up a pencil and imitate a piece of art, but never look at or imitate any other art, you might become an artist, but you will never be, like the French say, an artiste, or a Basquiat. Bankers, art doesn’t care if you were born drawing straight lines. And art doesn’t care if you were born with perfect pitch. Art cares if you can reproduce her.
Studying through imitation affords a writer many things, but let’s just look at two. 1. It allows the writer an understanding of what it feels like to create something that’s worth reading 2. It allows the writer to see the gaps in what’s popular, and thus, innovate.
1. I try to read at least an hour before I write anything. So I know what it feels like to write something that’s worth being read. Why is worth reading? Because it sounds like something Murakami wrote. Or Lucille Clifton wrote. Because it sounded like Tupac. Either way, now I know how it feels to say what I mean in my own tongue but in the cadence of a literary mentor.
2. Genius comes when the intersection of Talent Ave and Study Way cross the boulevard of Innovation. The Radiant Child’s work is genius because Basquiat was innovative as hell. Because he was deep in study, he knew what was popular. AND he knew what wasn’t. Because of these two things he was able to innovate and create a new genre.
The website, whosampled.com is great because it’s basically, whostudiedwho.com. Plug in any pre-kardashian Kanye hit and you’ll get a bevy of old heads Kanye was studying, and thus sampled from, to make his musical masterpeices. In the same way, all legends imitate. Aretha Franklin studied Clara Ward and Mahalia Jackson and Rev. James Cleveland and then synthesized their work. Tracy Chapman studied Joan Armatrading. Ralph Ellison studied Richard Wright. T.S. Elliot studied Yeats and Shakespeare.
My entire work is imitation. I have never done anything original. It’s creative,sure. It’s innovate, yeah. But original? Lol what. I have been stealing structure, registers, perspectives from June Jordan and Rita Dove, and other Black women poets since I was 14.
Sarah Jane had beeeeeen studying, aka imitating, white culture. That’s why she was able to imitate it so well. And the 10% that is talent was really the pure luck of being born with the potential to pass.
Talent is potential. It’s not necessary or mandatory. And it’s not innate. It’s cultivated. If Sarah Jane had been cultivated intellectually around Black people, she would have identified with being Black in a positive way. Rather, being surrounded by white wealth, white beauty, white home, made her associate white with right and Black with spite.
And that’s how she treats her mother, like she’s spiteful trash. And that’s how she treats her Black self and how others treat her when they find out she’s Black. So Sarah Jane takes her potential, her talent, imitates whiteness, and then innovates it. She takes what she’s studied and applies it. And there, you see her art. There is no other white girl quite like her, but she’s just like the other white girls. Now, that’s true artistic genius.