A Few Letters to Canada Lee
Dear Mr. Lee,
My name is Jean Weaver and I am a junior in high school. We were given an assignment in my Model U.N. class to write a letter to a person who had an impact on history. We should be interested in those individuals who fostered peace, invented something, stood up for the downtrodden. Folks not afraid of falling down or queasy about walks to the offering block. The assignment was supposed to talk about the times then and now; a dialogue in the void without all that formal stuff.
Letters written to the ‘other side’ are different. Especially to a person whom I never knew or heard laugh, played a hand of bid whist with or watched walk to the altar to pray. Only recently found out who you were. It was at that point of introduction that I decided my defense of you needed more of an understanding.
These February voyages really wear me out. I’m all for discovery and new adventures; but these little trips. Excursions that leave me empty, sometimes angry, sad and forced to forgive people (because it is impossible to pretend that it doesn’t matter) situations that usually nobody cares about anyway; and always in abbreviated form. I mean, how do you explain ‘The Chaneyville Incident’ or Charles Hamilton Houston, in just one page?
At first I was going to write to Fannie Lou Hamer. Then my dad got wind of it. The talk moved quickly from her and the SNCC voter registration in Mississippi to the Democratic Conventions in ’64 and ’68, to Lyndon and The Weather Underground before ending with Fred Hampton; whom he always talks about when the topic of beauty comes up. He even brought out a Gil-Scott Heron album. Green Day has done a tight remake of his song “3 Miles Down” that I really like.
My Dad. He is a little, well, in a fatherly kind of way, caught up in that race thing. My sister and brother and I get albatrossed with “You can’t make the same number of mistakes as your white, Mexican and Asian counterparts.” Or in public with an infused Jack Benny look, without a hand under his chin or Rochester. When we went overseas he would send us ahead, roll up a little later, watch the Italian shopkeeper’s eyes struggle to hoist the muscles up in his jaw. Smiles that confront the manager at Kroger when discussing this store’s reluctance to order any couscous, tabouli, pita bread, falafel, Mediterranean food, you know. “Not a thing but Arabian grits.” Can see some of the stuff he’s talking about, just doesn’t loom that large for me. And not all the time.
Anyway, the assignment could be played out over a series of letters or just one. Don’t think I need to write but one letter to you. Unlike you, never been one who needed to get things so resolved. Like you on that lifeboat, never really have been asked about the need of my involvement. That is until now.
I remember how Hitchcock had you placed then. Was still fuming about Kruella calling you “Charcoal.” From the kitchen, Jack Benny in brownface, “Girl, you about to win the fight of the century. Or lose and be the mulatta of the moment.” Much too heavy handed, I mean dramacital to the max.
Okay, so, we witness a discussion taking place about humanity, when up to that point, all the notions of yours had been played out. To be honest, don’t think I could watch anyone drown, U-boat captain or not. This even as C.J. Rittenhouse proclaimed his willingness to abide with the majority, for that was the American way. And there in the middle were Willie and Charcoal.
Real irony was that the Brits and “the cousins” were having a talk about justice in the face of uncertainty, possibly death and God was nowhere to be found. The nurse said that she just didn’t understand it, didn’t understand people hurting, killing each other. Apart from the main and yourself, you rested on that elevated portion of the lifeboat, looking back at civilization. That look, that sweet condescending smile that prefaced “You mean I get to vote? I think I’ll stay out of this one.” Can only imagine what you were thinking. What could you think? Flies in buttermilk always on the DL.
“All right little Mau Mau,” he said as he placed the bowl of popcorn on my lap, the back of his hand stroking my cheek, “it’s just a movie baby.”
And explain to me why they never searched Willie, especially after they found out he was Herr Captain of the U-boat? Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Hitchcock always had you juxtaposed with the German, blowing on that fife when they asked for a song. So how was he on the set? Cool? Stuck up? How did he react when you refused to read Steinbeck’s lines? Visual on that one my brother! Word!)
The confession that oozed from your face when Kovak cut the line that held Ms. Higgins’s body, I mean, straight Dietrich. Of course you had to be the only one who knew the 23rd Psalms, not the 46th or the 91st but the Lord is my Shepard….
And no sisters on this ship? I take it all the maids and hostesses were white. Hard to wrap my arms the around the idea of someone helping them into a lifeboat. What would have been really cool would have been if Ms. Higgins was Ms. Hightower. But hold up, then you would have had a black woman and her newborn…never mind, my bad!
Discovery of truth came to Mr. Garrett from the North Star, the realization of differences in the sexes from Ms. McKinsey and their sidereal conversation. SAT word I remember Ms. Zagmouth reviewed. Moment of truth, like Guru said, and the language of truth becomes English. Took your fife, jazz replaced with hauf brau sing-alongs.
Unearned part of the movie for me here. Willie is found out and they still sit there, do nothing. You had better not have said anything. Poor Gus. You were next, you know that, right Black? Since you had no part in his acceptance, Hitchcock makes sure you have no part in his expulsion. So what is it like to watch someone drown?
Rittenhouse’s ‘woe is me’ questioning. Camera dizzy with the truth. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. “We still got a motor.” Talk about heart! Pssssttt! Then Kruella read all of you. Of course, she was right, but it’s something about gin-swizzling madonnas dispensing the truth. Really!? Brown Jack is forever reminding us of the utility in temporary eunuchs and how re-equilibrium is piggybacked on survival.
Read how the NAACP boycotted the movie. Had issues with your “unsavory background.” Steinbeck wrote you in as a member of some Philharmonic Orchestra, a master flautist in fact. Hitchcock had to dirty you up a bit. He was right as rain you know. Most young and middle-aged kings really do get their heads plopped off. Can’t find you in any books that deal with great actors from the 40’sand 50’s. Footnoted like Clementis’ hat. Will be writing you back though. Googled your name and more movies popped up. TTYL.
Yesterday, not that it would matter to you, Sylvester Stallone got voted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. After your time, he is an actor who made famous a character that played on two Rockys you were familiar with; Marciano, and of course Graziano. He also played this character named Rambo my momma’s friends go nuts over. Wife-beater t-shirt wearer vigilante type mercenary, if you can picture that.
We have suspected for a while now that our Dad has a chemical imbalance when it comes to white people. No, really, we do. Not everyone mind you, but in certain situations he becomes wooden and despondent, kicking to the curb the openness that he preaches to us.
Since Lou Dobbs is no longer and FOX is banned on every day but Sunday, we have learned to selectively ask him to watch things on television. Lifetime and the Hallmark channels are pretty dicey. The thought of him joining us to look at the CMA’s brings up all this stuff about stealing and all black rodeos; how one in every three cowboys back in the day were black or Mexican. Good lord! So we have learned to return the favor when he wants us to look at those foreign movies of his. Care little about the coolness in Martin LaSalle’s eyes, the culture in Jose’s grandma’s pipe, the metaphor in Chillum’s boots; tired of reading all the time. That is everyone but Ali. Run Ali, run!
Check it, so you were a real boxer? Kills me these titles attached back then. Article I read said that you were at one time the Negro Welterweight Champion. Obviously there were Lithuanian and Turkish welterweight champions too, not to mention their counterparts in Samoa and Brazil.
I finished watching this other movie, Body and Soul. There you were getting the crap beat out of you, never backing down. Like your character was a sacrifice for Charlie. Find it too ironic that you and John Garfield died the same year, the same month, within 12 days of each other. He seemed like a cool guy, really cute, but a little too short for me. The whole thing with fighting to prove that you were a true American is crazzzzy!
At the library I found a copy of Red Channels and Garfield’s name was in it. Langston was there, of course, with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson (What are we gonna do now Moses!) as well as Alan Lomax, Aaron Copland, and Lee J. Cobb (ole rotten Johnny Friendly). Canada! Big Fellow, you didn’t even make the book! Some stripper by the name of Gypsy Rose held down the Lees. Come to think of it, big Paul’s name wasn’t in there either. So even in disgrace and slander, you guys were separate?
To be honest, I didn’t care much for this film. The sets were cheesy and it was too easy to figure out who was on the up and up, who the lowlifes were. Your character was way too one dimensional. Pinnoke, Pinnoke, what are you doing? Thought you wanted to be a real boy?
From what I’ve read, you would have been in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe one of the first Freedom Riders to purchase a ticket. Wonder what your reaction would have been to Katrina or Madoff’s Ponzi scheme? Your boy Belafonte is on every documentary it seems, railing about the evils of capitalism and the Bushes.
Need to finish up some homework. Waiting to see if my dad can get a copy of Cry, the Beloved Country. Read the book in 9th grade. Look forward to seeing you as Stephen Kumolo.
Wanted to let you know how crazy it is trying to find you in Cry, the Beloved Country. Can see James Earl and Richard Harris all day at Netflix. Wanted to see you and young Sid Vicious together. My granny loves her some Poitier. The only scene on YouTube shows you with a beard, which is very becoming on you, getting fleeced at a bus stop in Johannesburg.
I did get to read more about you though. Didn’t know that you played the violin and that you were jockey. I knew about the WPA but I didn’t know they helped to produce plays. Know about them through John Henry Faulk and the slave interviews. So you worked with Ethel Waters huh? I’ve seen footage of her; she was loud, very loud.
Banquo in Welles’ Macbeth? Bet that was tight! Why did most interpretation that were black in nature, back then, have to be saddled with “primitive” or “voodoo?” Didn’t matter with Big Orson, I’m sure. He was always about edge. So what was he like? You guys probably went drinking in Harlem huh? So were the sisters all over him? Probably you’re not talking, right?
Followed that up with his production of Native Son. Just can’t picture you in that role. The role I really would have liked to have seen you in was Caliban. I love me some Tempest. Only the 2nd brother to perform Shakespeare on Broadway after Robeson. That’s nuts! I wish you could have seen this actor named Laurence Fishburne play Othello. Was not Sir Laurence or James Earl, but real smooth, with a really clean tat on his dome.
Need to ask you something kind of personal. So after your first wife Juanita you never dated sisters again? And talk to me about the miscegenation laws they had in New York. In the NYC! Sneaking around Harlem with Caresse Crosby for all those years. Where did you guys meet? How stressful was that? Won’t even ask about your reception from the sisters. Sounds like a blues, “Dodging scimitars and meat cleavers”….lol.
Anyway, I need to get ready for my sister’s recital. Don’t need Rochester coming in here asking me why I’m not ready. Will be in touch.
Well, where do I start, or better than that, how do I? My friend, I am in trouble. Go well. Stay well. The church, the holy church. God bless the church.
Seen plenty of old movies, never anything like that, never. So many odd and gothic things to address. Black fear, first of all, like an angel in a Chagall painting, simple, powdered with a casual child-like assumption of knowing, until you remember that this being gets their marching orders directly from the almighty. Each time you looked at the elder Jarvis your whole being quivered that fact.
Do I discuss the train ride and the reworking of the hidden treasure parable? Or that John Kumolo was right only wrong in the way he went about saving his son. And who would not have done the same? Never heard Beethoven played at a funeral. Can’t imagine Absolam’s wife’s voice not being a voice-over. The tit-for-tat swap between Absalom and the child in Mary’s belly…is an ole story, I see.
Trying to understand why even in this film of which you were the star, that you were exed out. Sir Sidney and Alan Paton on the cover of the VHS jacket but not you. Equilibrium, must it always happen with just one fulcrum?
Back up the mountain to clear your head. Up past the lovely road from Ixopo and over into Carisbrooke down to the valley of Umzimkulu on its journey from Drakensberg. Can’t help but wondering about the walk down. Mad at the rocks, or excited like Fred Hampton about the hardships in the valley?
Garry Reece is a writer who lives in Houston with his wife, 3 kids, 8 cats and 1 dog. His work has appeared over the years in Muleteeth, American Short Fiction, Arts Houston, Extensions and Artlies. He is still at work on a novella involving the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.