My brother and I go down to Alex’s health food store on Broadway. It’s the first health food store in Washington Heights. There’s a rope of bells on the door that jingles when you open the door.
Inside, it’s bare, with wood shelves holding canisters of soy protein, sacks of brown rice, jars of peanut butter.
I am 12 years old, and my brother is 22, and we go in almost every day and talk to Alex.
Alex offers us paper cups of carrot juice. The first time he offers, Alex has to explain to me how you can get juice out of a carrot, shows me how you drop the carrots into the juicer, how you push them down with a metal plug. The machine whirs. The brightly coloured juice falls into a cup. Alex hands it to me, and I accept it with suspicion.
It is 1975. Health food stores – they’re all downtown. People who buy their food in these places are called health food nuts.
One day, we walk in, and I hear a voice – helium high and sing-song. A little girl, cajoling: “Alex, why don’t you come back to Harlem? We’re good to you there.”
But there is no little girl. The voice is coming from an old lady – tiny, in a long flowing skirt, her grey- flecked hair peeking out from underneath an old-fashioned kerchief.
Alex shrugs her off: silence, then a smile, and then: no he won’t be coming back after what happened.
The old lady alarms me. How does she know Alex? Why is she trying to get him to move away? And why is she speaking like a little girl?
She puts her packages into a shopping cart, turns to go, and opens the door. The rope of bells plays, and she’s gone.
My brother asks Alex, with astonishment, “Was that Butterfly McQueen?”
Alex grins and says, “That’s Butterfly.”
My brother explains to me, “Butterfly McQueen! From Gone with the Wind.”
Gone with the Wind, I understand, at this age, is a bad movie. Because Gone with the Wind is racist. But there you are: it’s on TV all the time. My parents cannot prevent me from watching Gone with the Wind. So they remind me, frequently: it is a racist movie.
Butterfly McQueen played the slave Prissy in Gone with the Wind, a character described in the film as “a simple minded darky.” When Prissy’s owner, the pretty and imperious Scarlet, demands that Prissy help her when another woman goes into labour, Prissy, in her childlike voice, confesses her helplessness: “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!”
Who was it who wrote in the 1980s: “It was preposterous: What young woman raised a slave could have grown up without knowing anything about ‘birthin’ babies’?”
Alex drops carrots into the big metal juicer, a big and lanky man wearing a flannel shirt, a short Afro — the first black man I have ever seen running a health food store. Who comes in here? A few health food nuts living uptown, Alex’s old customers from Harlem.
Butterfly McQueen got her start as a dancer; she danced with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. She took the name Butterfly after dancing the Butterfly Ballet in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was born with the name Thelma, in Tampa, Florida. Every winter after she moved to New York City, she would return to the South by bus, making her way to Georgia to wait out the winter.
These are the films and TV shows that Butterfly McQueen appeared in: The Women, Affectionately Yours, Cabin in the Sky, I Dood It, Flame of Barbary Coast, Mildred Pierce, Duel in the Sun, Killer Diller, Studio One, Beulah, Lux Video Theatre , The Green Pastures, The Phynx, Amazing Grace, The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody, The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Mosquito Coast, and Polly.
Malcolm X wrote that, when he watched Gone with the Wind and saw Butterfly McQueen doing her Prissy routine, he felt humiliated, “like crawling under a rug.”
The first four roles Butterfly McQueen accepted after Gone with the Wind were maid’s roles, she said; then she stopped accepting maid’s roles. Years went by. In The Seven Wishes films, ABC Afterschool Specials made in the 1970s, she played a fairy godmother referred to as Aunt Thelma. And, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – the version made for TV in 1981 – her character was referred to in the credits as Blind Negress.
Butterfly McQueen lived on Sugar Hill. Sugar Hill was where the best known residents of Harlem lived – Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, and W. E. B. Du Bois all once lived there. In 1980, Butterfly McQueen was quoted in the Palm Beach Post as saying she was mainly interested in America’s black areas. That was to say: she was not interested in the white areas. She recounted her early days touring, how she was forbidden from staying in some of the hotels her troupe visited because she was black.
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel, who plays the slave Mammy in Gone with the Wind, wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. — the first African-American to win an Oscar. She appears at the ceremony in a long-sleeved floor-length gown, a gardenia in her hair and garland of flowers on her shoulder. Her voice quivers while she makes her acceptance speech. Then, she takes her award and returns to the segregated table where she sits, in the back, apart from the film’s white cast members.
Hattie McDaniel is criticised for playing maid after maid, smiling mammy after smiling mammy, until her death in 1952.
These are the jobs that Butterfly McQueen takes during the two decades when she is unable to find an acceptable role in a film or TV show: waitress, taxi dispatcher, sales clerk, and paid companion. In Georgia, she gives music lessons, hosts a radio show, and works at the Stone Mountain Memorial Museum of Confederate Times.
Alex stands next to the carrot juicer.
Was that Butterfly McQueen?
In 1980, People Magazine reports on a lawsuit that Greyhound Bus Lines has settled with Butterfly McQueen after its security guards injured her in a Washington D. C. bus station. The security guards had accused her of being a pickpocket and wrestled her to the ground. This, the article pointed out, happened in spite of the fact that she carried pictures of the stars of Gone with the Wind – Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh – with her at all times. The never-married 69-year-old was a volunteer at her neighbourhood school in Harlem, it was noted, and “into health food these days (grains, nuts, yogurt).”
The bells jingle, and the door swings shut.
“Was that Butterfly McQueen?” my brother asks.
Butterfly McQueen is in the news again in 1989. It’s the 50th Anniversary of the release of Gone with the Wind, and Butterfly McQueen appears at some of the anniversary celebrations. On stage, in front of adoring audiences, she tells what it was like to appear in the film; one of the only surviving cast members.
And Butterfly McQueen recites her most famous line, knowingly: “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.”
Butterfly McQueen dies from injuries sustained in a fire in 1995.
In her one bedroom cottage outside Augusta, a kerosene heater has erupted. She is 84 years old.
A helium high voice asks: “Alex, why don’t you come back to Harlem?”
The lady in the long skirt turns to leave. The bells on the door play. She wheels her shopping cart outside.
The door swings shut.
“Was that Butterfly McQueen?” my brother asks.
Alex glimpses out the door and says: “That’s Butterfly.”
About the Contributor
Linda Mannheim is the author of the novel Risk (Penguin SA), the short story collection Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press) and the Kindle Single, Noir.
Linda Mannheim spent the first seventeen years of her life in New York City and lives in London. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines in the United States, Canada, and South Africa, including Nimrod International Journal, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and New York Stories. She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Prose Writing, an exchange fellow at Kunstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf in Germany, and a journalism intern in Nicaragua under the Sandinista government.
The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem
Lethem's novel about growing up in pre-gentrification Boerum Hill, the Brooklyn neighbourhood that used to be known as Gowanus, identified so many areas of loss that were familiar to me and that I had never seen identified in a work of fiction before. Dylan, whose family is one of the few white families in a primarily African-American neighbourhood, is growing up in New York during a time when everything is falling apart -- the 1970s, when city was on the verge of bankruptcy. When Dylan takes off for the West Coast, he loses not only the relationships he had in his childhood home, but also the world he lived in. By the time he returns, real estate speculation has destroyed one part of the place he knew, crack addiction the other. The past is as unsalvageable as the battered old comic books Dylan has tried to preserve with his friend's pen and ink doodles overlaid on frames of that other icon of loss -- Superman in exile from the Krypton.
More from Issue Five:
- Exotic Fish Subscription Service by David Mortimer
- Friday by R.E McAuliffe
- The Pulmonary Embolism by Marija Smits
- Food for Thought by Mohammad Shafiqul Islam
- Clinica Xalapa / Visiting Hours by Alan Chazaro
- The Time Of Suspense And The Time Of Suspension by Imogen Reid
- Editors’ Note: LossLit Turns Three by Kit and Aki (Editors)
- Cock by Len Lukowski
- Stolen by Roberta Gould
- A Box of Opal Fish by Sarah Wallis
- An End to Balancing by Jason Jackson