Staunch champions of Nell Dorr’s work and the lifestyle she espoused, two of Nell Dorr’s closest friends Lillian Gish and John Griffen became representatives of American racial tensions of their time.
Gish, then one of the most successful actors in Hollywood starred in D.W. Griffith’s film 1915 silent Birth of a Nation which followed the lives of two families on either side of the conflict in the Civil War. The film portrayed its Southern characters as victims of a Northern movement to promote Black American interest over those of Euro-Americans.
Using racist tropes to categorize Black Southern politicians the picture also played on long-held social fear of interracial relationships and portrayed a key biracial character as psychotic because of his mixed-race status. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is glorified as a counter to the events portrayed in the film. Originally entitled The Clansman the film portrayed the terrorist organization as noble avengers of racist Southern culture and is credited as one of the catalysts for the resurgence of the KKK which had been on the wane.
Called “the most controversial film ever made in the United States” by entertainment writer Athony Slide and “the most reprehensibly racist film in Hollywood history” by the Washington Post, the film met with wide criticism upon its release including by prominent social workers, rabbis and minister. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized protests in cities where the film was shown. Despite this Gish never repudiated her role in the film or director D.W. Griffith, leading Bowling Green State University in Kentucky to strip Gish’s name from its concert hall.
The move prompted protest from around the acting community—including from notable Black actors like James Earl Jones. Why? Because Gish’s story has another layer—in 1940 she publicly resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when the organization barred the world renowned Black American opera singer Marian Andersen from performing in its Constitution Hall in Washington DC.
The question of race in America was the mainstay of the work of Dorr’s other close friend John Howard Griffin, a Euro-American who disguised himself as a Black Man in the segregated South in 1959. He achieved this through drugs as skin darkening stain as well as shaving his head to hide his straight hair.
As he toured through the states Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia Griffin kept careful note of his treatment while posing as a Black American. His experiences—including noting the warm treatment he received from the same Whites in Montgomery, Alabama who had mistreated him once he dropped his disguise and re-entered White society without them having been any the wiser.
Griffin recounted his experiences in a book entitled Black Like Me which was made into a movie that same year. Widely lauded for his exposé about the conditions of African Americans in segregated areas of the country, modern critics note that simply taking on the appearance of another person does not offer entré into the nuances of cultural identity and a lifetime of experience.
Examination of Griffin’s writing exposes unconscious bias toward Black Americans even as he was working to expose the racism in the country. Recounting the moment he witnesses his “transformation” into a Black man he says of his reflection in the mirror “a fierce, bald, very dark Negro glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me … I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I had no kinship … I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin’s past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness.”
The stories of both Lillian Gish, friend and mentor to Nell Dorr, remind us that there are many layers in the accounts of historical figures. The stories of Lillian Gish and John H. Griffin in themselves offer a lesson to students of the humanities: to understand the past it’s important to study people and events in their full complexity and totality.