Living a White Life -- for a While
By Ellen Holly
New York Times
August 10, 1969
In September of last year I was approached to try out for a part on a brand new ABC soap opera called ONE LIFE TO LIVE; the part was a black girl who passes for white. I didn't give it much thought. If you're black you don't get white parts either. But what most people don't realize is that even when there's a part for a "black who looks white," it never goes to a black person but to a white one. Follow? I know . . . I know . . . it's hard for me, too.
Some years ago I was interviewed for the film I Passed For White and the part went to the white Sandra Wilde. Some years later I was seen about the remake of Imitation of Life. Ross Hunter cooed over me, told me I looked like Loretta Young, and gave the part to the white Susan Kohner. I had dim memories of Jeanne Crain in Pinky, Ben Aliza in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Mel Ferrer & Co. as the family in Lost Boundaries and numerous other whites masquerading as blacks masquerading as whites which, as far as I am concerned, cancels out the whole point much in the manner of a double negative. So I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from ONE LIFE TO LIVE.
At the interview with the producer, Doris Quinlan, I smiled and did my best to look amiable, talented and 20 (which was what the part called for and which Ihad seen for a goodly while), but in the back of my head I was already bracing for the inevitable turndown. She smiled a lovely smile back and said that they were being polite about things and look at all the white girls the agents were sending them but that she didn't really see the slightest point to the whole thing if the girl wasn't the genuine article. It sounded revolutionary enough to report her to the H.U.A.C. They tested me. A couple of days later I had the part. I couldn't believe it.
Then I began to worry. I have such a personal distaste for blacks who pass for white that I wondered how the story line was going to be handled. If an actor's at all squeamish or apprehensive about the part he's playing, a soap poses a rather special problem for him. In a play or a film you know the whole story before you contract to do it, but in a soap the story is open-ended. New writing is a constant and you don't know from one moment to the next what words are going to be put into your mouth. If you're dealing with dense writers you can end playing a ventriloquist's dummy Uncle Tom or quitting the job to avoid it.
On the other hand, in terms of the particular story line, I felt that the unique format of a soap would enable people to examine their prejudices in a way no other format possibly could. In a play or film the audience would relate to the character as white only briefly and then discover she was black perhaps an hour later, but the soap audience would relate to her as white for months ... months in which she would become part of their daily lives ... for some, virtually a member of their family. The emotional investment they made in her as a human being would be infinitely greater, and when the switch came, their involvement would be real rather than superficial. A lot of whites who think they aren't prejudiced - are. It seemed like a marvelous opportunity to help them confront their own prejudices. When the switch came, those who would radically alter their response to the character would surely demonstrate to themselves that they don't dislike black people because they are dirty or lazy or stupid, but just because they are black - i.e., they would have a chance to isolate not only the existence of their own prejudice but, also, its lack of logical base.
My character, Carla Benari, was introduced last October. For four months, thereafter I was presented as a white girl, a struggling actress engaged to a white doctor but gravitating - against her will - toward a gorgeous black one. Ironically, for the first time in my life, I had to "cool" being black, lest I tip the plot. I had to forgot an appearance on another ABC show called LIKE IT IS that deals with the black scene, and patiently wait for an issue of Look in which I appeared properly labeled as a black actress to disappear from the stands. Even though the situation was temporary, I found it much more destructive to my psyche than I had dreamed and I prayed for the switch to come soon so that I could quite the unpleasant charade and get back to being myself.
A month went by, and we got to an important turn in the plot. I kissed Peter De Anda, who plays the gorgeous doctor, and confessed my love for him. Immediately the switchboard was flooded with calls from irate white men defending my supposedly Caucasian virtue (later, after the switch, I'm' sure they felt like a bunch of idiots) and the show was dropped like a hot potato by a station in Texas. Most producers would have blanched and dropped the story line; Doris Quinlan had been prepared to lose more. The reaction from white women was different. They wrote in (people who are angry seem to call at once to relieve their feeling; people who are pleased seem to write at their leisure) and said, "Well, it's about time."
A few people thought they smelled a rat. A black man voiced the opinion that I was probably going to turn out to be black, because he noticed that once I had kissed Peter "they" started making me up darker and taking the sheen out of my hair. This was absolute nonsense, because I did my own hair and make-up and always did it the same way. A white student wrote in to say that she was afraid I was going to turn out to be black as a "cop-out" on the part of the producers unwilling to actually take the risk of an interracial story line. I wrote back and told her that even though whites always view the race problem in terms of their most obsessive fear - i.e., "Would you want your daughter to marry one?" - blacks couldn't care less about such things and had other problems on their minds, such as problems of self-identity, which was what the soap was going to deal with. (One of the distortions of the communications media, because they are white-controlled, is that they always deal with the race problem in terms of their obsession with miscegenation and let the other thousand facets of the problem go hang.) I told her that yes, indeed, I was going to turn out to be black, but not as a "cop-out"; that we just happened to be telling a different tale from the one she had been conditioned by white media to anticipate.
Finally, we got to the switch. In an ingenious script whose parallel cutting was almost as well done as Hitchcock's tennis game sequence in "Strangers on a Train," I met up with the black mother I had abandoned nine years before (a major character, who had already been well established in the story line long before I was, and played by Lillian Hayman of "Hallelujah, Baby" fame). People were genuinely surprised. Most found it absorbing. Others were fascinated by the way all the pieces fit. There were, of course, the inevitable ones who found it hard to take. Now that I was revealed to be black, in retrospect they found it O.K. that I had kissed the black doctor, but intolerable that I had kissed and been engaged to the white one.
It is now several months since the switch. Presumably, people would have made emotional adjustments they felt necessary and settled down. Still, there are those who call the show from time to time to check and make sure that a black actress rather than a white one is playing the part. Whether it's a black person checking to make sure that a soul sister wasn't done out of a job, or a white person checking to make sure a white actress isn't playing opposite a black actor, is never clear. What is clear is that it's going to be a great day when America ceases to be obsessed with color. Its paranoia about the subject borders on ridiculous.
I love my job. Jack Wood and Dan Wallace direct the show with a special care of things. The actors are some of the best around. The writer, Agnes Nixon, is more sensitive to the vibrations of prejudice than almost any white I've ever met and I think three of four of the episodes have been more relevant to life and real concerns that any I ever dealt with during a decade in theater. The tedious but necessary aspects of soap opera are definitely present - exposition to help newcomers catch up on the plot lines, dull stretches, repetition. But within the framework of the genre surprisingly much has gotten said - among other things, that blacks pass for white not because they value whiteness per se, but rather they value the special rights and privileges that unfairly accrue to whiteness; that prejudice works any number of ways and a light-skinned black will often cross the line, not in a flight toward whiteness, but in a flight away from the constant, sometimes brutal rejections by his own. All true. What is more, these things are not said in message terms that bore, but in human terms that compel attention. New as it is, ONE LIFE TO LIVE has one of the highest ratings of any soap on the air. Not only because of this story line, but because of several things equally well done, including the major one about some swanky goings on on the Philadelphia Main Line.
I love the job, but I have one major regret. An actress on a soap is identified with the character she plays more closely than in any other format. After a lifetime of living as black even though it meant constant insult and instances of risking actual physical danger in the South, I find it ironic that my first national exposure as an actress is as a black girl who made things easier for herself by passing for white. Most of all, I regret living in a world where I have to have that kind of a concern. I have been militantly black all my life, because my country's paranoia about the subject of color forces one to stand up and be counted one way or another. But I look forward to the day when America believes that the relevant thing about me is not that I am black but that I am Ellen.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Agnes Nixon first saw Ellen Holly when Holly wrote into The New York Times the year before after an African American actor was criticized for not playing his role as a "real Negro." Nixon read the story, saw Holly's philosophy and facial features, and knew immediately that she was perfect to play the role of Carla.