Feb. 29, 2012

Class Picture, 1954

by Billy Collins

I am the third one
from the left in the third row.

The girl I have been in love with
since the 5th grade is just behind me
to the right, the one with the bangs.

The boy who pushes me down
in the playground
is the last one on the left in the top row.

And my friend Paul is the second one
in the second row, the one
with his collar sticking out, next to the teacher.

But that's not all—
if you look carefully you can see
our house in the background

with its porch and its brick chimney
and up in the clouds
you can see the faces of my parents,

and over there, off to the side,
Superman is balancing
a green car over his head with one hand.

"Class Picture, 1954" by Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry. © Random House, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Leap Day. Once every four years, we tack on an extra day at the end of February to calibrate our human-made calendar to the natural world — the Earth does not orbit the sun in an even 365 days, but rather in 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds.

This extra day has given rise to several traditions and superstitions over the years, especially in the Middle Ages. In many European countries, women were allowed to propose to men on Leap Day. In Greece, it's bad luck to marry in a Leap Year at all, let alone on Leap Day itself. In Scotland, it's considered unlucky to be born on Leap Day, and it was once believed that Leap Day babies, or "leaplings," as they were called, were sickly and hard to raise. If you are born on February 29, you're eligible to join the Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies.

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Give me a laundry-list and I'll set it to music": composer Gioachino Rossini, born in Pesaro, Italy (1792). His father was a trumpet player, and his mother was a singer; young Rossini was a lazy student but a natural musician. He composed his first opera when he was only 14. In all, he composed some 39 operas, and the most famous of these is The Barber of Seville (1816); he also wrote Cinderella (1817), Moses in Egypt (1818), and William Tell (1829).

It's the birthday of Dorris Alexander "Dee" Brown (1908) (books by this author), born in a logging camp near Alberta, Louisiana. His father, a timber man, was killed when Brown was five, and his mother supported the four children by working as a store clerk in Ouachita County, Arkansas. He started a neighborhood tabloid newspaper when he was 15, cranking it out on a hand press. After high school, he worked for a while as a printer and a reporter, then went to Arkansas State Teachers College, majoring in history. He worked as a librarian for most of his life, writing books after his children were in bed. The American West fascinated him; his great-grandfather had known Davy Crockett, and his grandmother often told him stories about the legendary frontiersman.

He wrote 29 books of fiction and nonfiction; his most famous is Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), a less Eurocentric version of the conflict between Native Americans and the United States Army in the latter half of the 19th century.

Today is the birthday of Howard Nemerov (books by this author), born in New York City (1920). Best known as a poet, he was also a novelist, essayist, critic, playwright, and editor. His Collected Poems (1977) won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1963 and 1964, and poet laureate of the United States from 1988 to 1990.

He wrote, about writer's block: "The only way out is the way through, just as you cannot escape from death except by dying. Being unable to write, you must examine in writing this being unable, which becomes the present — henceforth? — the subject to which you are condemned."

On this date in 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. White Hollywood had not been a welcoming place for black actors; in the early 1900s, when silent film was still in its infancy, most African-American parts had been played by white actors in blackface. And even when black actors were cast, the roles were full of negative racial stereotypes. The trade unions were closed to African-American directors, writers, cinematographers, and editors. There were black filmmakers working in the movies, but they worked in separate production companies, producing what were called "race pictures": movies with an all-black cast and crew.

Occasionally, an established and respected African-American actor could find a role on a studio picture, but only as a maid, cook, nanny, or butler. They were expected to speak in "Negro dialect," and if they didn't know how, a white dialogue coach was brought in to teach them. In the 1920s, the first black actor to establish himself in white cinema was the former vaudevillian and tap dancer "Stepin Fetchit," whose real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. Stepin Fetchit played into the most deeply entrenched stereotypes of the black American as simple-minded, lazy, and ingratiating. He was the first black actor to receive screen credit, and the first black actor to become a millionaire, but the African-American community had mixed feelings about his success.

And so Hattie McDaniel, the first black women to sing on American radio, a talented comedian and actor capable of playing a wide range of roles, was cast in the role of Scarlett O'Hara's kerchief-wearing "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind (1939). She had already been typecast as a sassy black servant, and many members of the black community in the 1930s criticized her for continuing to take the roles, but she responded by saying she'd rather play a maid than be one. She first worked with Clark Gable in 1935's China Seas and they became friends. He recommended her for the role of Mammy, and when she was prohibited from attending the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind because of Georgia's segregation laws, Gable angrily threatened to boycott the premiere as well. And at the Academy Awards ceremony, McDaniel and her escort were seated far from her castmates at a segregated table.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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