Write me this book!

My intensive google research has revealed that there is no biography of Fredi Washington. I demand that one of you get off your arse and write one immediately! (Or use your better research skills to find me one.)

Who is Fredi Washington, you ask? Why, let me tell you:

Fredi Washington as Peola in Imitation of LifeFredi Washington was a light-skinned black actor and dancer. She largely starred in movies for the Jim Crow circuit and often with her skin darkened. She was such a compelling screen presence that the Hollywood bigwigs in the thirties offered to make her a big star if she’d pass as white. She told ’em all where to go. Yay, Fredi! (I also want to know if that’s actually true.)

Ironically, her one big role in white movies was playing the “tragic mulatto”, Peola, in the original Imitation of Life.1 She steals the movie. Everytime she’s on screen she’s where you’re looking.

I want to know more about her. I demand to know more about her! I want a big fat bio on the scale of the Tiptree one. I want it to be as thoroughly researched and as beautifully written and I want it right this minute.

On your bikes, people!

  1. I totally recommend watching the two Imitations of Life back to back. The 1934 one followed by the 1959 Juanita Moore one. Fascinating to see the shifts in representations of race relations. Though in both, Peola/Sara Jane’s decision to pass as white seems inexplicable.

    If you were an alien watching the movies you’d be scratching your head trying to figure out what was so very terrible about being a black person. Other than the only other black people being servants, but there are so few of them you’d think maybe they’re off enjoying cool jobs elsewhere. In neither film are there any cafes with signs saying “Whites Only”. The black characters never have to sit at the back of the bus.

    There is one horrible scene of racism in the 1959 version, but it plays out like racism is just that particular person’s problem, not anything systemic. The most you get in the 1935 version are the kids at school looking shocked when they discover that Peola is passing. Their reaction shot lasts less than five seconds. []


  1. Pauline Dickinson on #

    Did you know the papers (1925-79)of Fredi Washington are held in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Collection? There’s also a downloadable article (from Amazon) called ‘”New Negro” performance in art and life: Fredi Washington and the theatrical columns of The People’s Voice, 1943-47’ by Cheryl Black (from Theatre History Studies 24, June 2004: p57+). Or maybe you can still get access to the online version through Sydney Uni’s catalogue? I think I’ll keep looking.

  2. Justine on #

    Heya, Pauline. Thanks. When I googled I saw that some of her papers are in the New York Public Library. It’s grand to know there’s even more in Washington.

    I can only access Sydney Uni’s online stuff when I’m in Sydney, alas.

    So, see, potential biographer—there’s lots of excellent primary resources for you! What’s holding you back?

  3. Lewis on #

    Have you thought of doing the research and writing the biography
    yourself? You have the skills and scholarly background to do this.

  4. Justine on #

    No, no, no, no, no! A book like this would require years of research—years and years. There’s so much to cover. I’ve already given several years of my life to one researched tome. I became a novelist to avoid hard work.

    My life is now devoted to lying around and reading magazines and occasionally making stuff up. A book like this would put a serious dent in my lifestyle.

    Someone else has to write it.

  5. Ray Davis on #

    Fredi Washington was completely electrifying in her movie debut, dancing herself to death for Duke Ellington in the mini-jazz-melodrama “Black and Tan Fantasy”. It’s on a great compilation DVD called “Hollywood Rhythm”. I’m surprised that there’s no biography. Maybe her life wasn’t tragic enough — Dorothy Dandridge got one.

    I’d be pretty damn surprised if anyone in Hollywood would’ve let her play white roles, at least once the production code got its teeth and claws. The Breen office took it upon themselves to try to keep the Jim Crow South as happy as possible.

  6. Kim on #

    I completed my master’s thesis on Fredi Washington. I would say that my work is the most thouroughly researched biogaphical type that exist. Doing a biography on Fredi Washington would be a difficult task for anyone. There is just simply not enough information to complete a full biography. She could be incorporated into a work that focuses on the popular/cultural front, black female entertainers and a number of other broad topics. The biography would likely be riddled with obvious gaps.

  7. sara on #

    Hi Kim,

    I would love to read your thesis. If you would contact me maybe we can discuss.



Comments are closed.