Helen Bond is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at Howard University in Washington DC. She is also a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar to India, liaison to the Center for African Studies, and faculty member in the Center for Women, Gender, and Global Leadership. With a PhD in Human Development, her research focuses on anti-racist education. She coauthored In the Red: The US Failure to Deliver on a Promise of Racial Equality, which empirically describes the connection between racial equality and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the United States.
Fredi Washington: The Imitation of Race
Fredi Washington was born in 1903 as Fredericka Carolyn Washington to a postal worker and homemaker in Savannah, Georgia. As an actress and performance artist, her light skin and green eyes often made her not Black enough for some roles, and not White enough for others. Her story epitomizes how we see and process race as a set of defined physical characteristics, such as skin color and facial features. The process of racialization involves grouping people into boxes or racial categories that have assigned meanings and expectations, often informed by history. The life of Fredi Washington demonstrates how multifaceted these categories are and how they shaped her life and legacy as an advocate for Blacks in the entertainment industry.
The fictional story of Peola Johnson, played by Fredi Washington, in the Universal film Imitation of Life (1934) also shows how arbitrary and fluid racial categories are in the process of racialization: Peola is portrayed as Black in some scenes and White in others. The process of racialization is dynamic, meaning the expectations and assumptions assigned to these racialized categories evolve over time and take on new meanings. As a contemporary illustration, the multiracial population in the United States accounted for most of the overall changes in the 2020 U.S. Census. Art often imitates life, making Washington’s experience on and off screen a fitting example of the dynamism and complexity of racialization in the United States.
Washington played Peola in a story that echoed the actress’s own experiences of racialization. In the film, mixed-race Peola abandons her grief-stricken mother, who is Black, to live her life as a White woman. Her mother dies of a broken heart with her weeping daughter by her side, begging for forgiveness for disowning her family to enjoy the benefits of Whiteness in a racially segregated society (Black, 2004). Director John M. Stahl adapted the story of the tragic mulatto (mixed-race person) from Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel, Imitation of Life.
The film shows how processes of racialization can occur through multiple lenses, such as race, class, gender, and mixed race. In other words, the boxes or categories that people are placed in can have multiple sizes, shapes, and dimensions. Peola’s story could not be more multidimensional, except for the original book’s ending, which includes the portrayal of a near lynching. Universal discarded the book’s conclusion for the more socially acceptable ending of the prodigal daughter returning to her roots. Peola—the White woman—accuses a Black man of flirting with her, and he is condemned to hang. As the gallows are readied, she cries out, “Don’t, don’t do it, I’m a … too” (Lew, 2018, p. 109). Both endings—the lynching and reunification scenes—serve the same purpose of punishing Peola for daring to defy the racial order by passing for White. The reunification scene at the funeral places the blame on Peola, whereas the lynching scene reveals the conditions that underlie the reasons for Peola’s passing for White in the first place. Notably, and unlike Peola, Fredi did not deny her Black heritage, and emphasized that her role in the film did not reflect her off-screen life.
Racialization also involves maintaining a strict racial order. This order is enforced by certain codes and expectations for those placed in a racial category or box. Thinking (and being) outside the box is not allowed. In the production of “The Emperor Jones,” in which Fredi co-starred with the Black actor, Paul Robeson, Fredi’s skin was darkened so she would not appear to be a White woman and ruffle the sensibilities of White audiences. The racialization process has a strict code of behavior that requires people that have Black ancestry to identify as Black. This self-identification is critical for White people to maintain their status, power, and associated privilege as the dominant group. Children born of Black and White unions challenge the Black/White notion of race. The ‘one drop rule’ that originated in slavery in the United States requires that anyone with Black ancestory to identify as Black (Saperstein, 2013). This rule is a tool of racialization to enforce who can identify as White.
Racialization is not just about race or maintaining strict racial boundaries and categories. Racialization is also about a set of expectations or meanings applied to those categories. For example, in the Imitation of Life, Aunt Jemima-like images of Peola’s mother affirmed for White viewers their stereotypes of Black women (Schudson, n.d.). The lynching scene was eliminated for a scene of reunion between mother and her repentant daughter, in the hope that it would deter race-mixing, which was then considered sexual misconduct. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and ranked among “The 25 Most Important Films on Race” by Time magazine in 2007, recognizing the legacy and artistry of Black Americans and the battles they waged on and off the screen (Corliss, 2008).
Racialization is the process of being assigned a race with all of its subtle and not so subtle meanings, expectations, and assumptions. The process changes over time and can take different pathways. It can take place through societal institutions such as laws, culture, and practices that are normalized in everyday life (Hochman, 2019). Fredi Washington was an actress deemed too light-skinned to play certain roles and too dark-skinned for others, and appeared on screen as a tragic, mixed-race person, due to the strict racial codes of the day that would not allow her more complex roles. The character she portrayed, Peola Johnson, abandons her darker-skinned mother for the advantages of Whiteness for a season. These trajectories demonstrate the different paths that racialization can take.
At the same time,racially constructed categories and their socially constructed meanings are notoriously unstable (Omi & Winant 1986, p. 199). Some American immigrants, like the Irish and Italians, were initially considered nonwhite and faced discrimination in the United States. Meanwhile, Fredi Washington resisted the impositions of racialization, becoming one of the founders of the Negro Actors Guild in 1937. She used her voice as a theatrical columnist in the People’s Voice—a Black newspaper that called on the film industry and Hollywood to take a stand against racism and discrimination. To the very end, Fredi resisted, urging actors and actresses everywhere to use their unique agency to combat injustice in the arts.
- This illustration of racialization uses the example of Fredi Washington and the film Imitation of Life. What are some other films or television shows that have made contributions (either negative or positive) to the discussion of race?
- Racialization is not just about race; it involves identity as well. What role has racialization played in the development of your identity?
Watch an extract of Imitation of Life on YouTube. Then, as a group, discuss the merits of Time magazine’s ranking of the film as one of “The 25 Most Important Films on Race” in 2007. Why do you think it was included? Does the film merit such inclusion?
As a group, discuss the ending of the film Imitation of Life. On your own, or in groups, draft a revised ending to the script, so that it gives voice to Peola and her mother and their different experiences as Black women.
Black, C. (2004). “New Negro” performance in art and life: Fredi Washington and the theatrical columns of The People’s Voice, 1943-47. Theater History Studies, 24, 57.
Boyd, H. (2018, September 20). Fredi Washington, a talented actress and devoted activist. New York Amsterdam News, 109(38), 28.
Corliss, R. (2008, February 6). Top 25 Important Movies On Race. https://entertainment.time.com/2008/02/04/the-25-most-important-films-on-race/
Hochman, A. (2019). Racialization: a defense of the concept. Ethnic & Racial Studies, 42(8), 1245–1262.
Department of Afro-American Research Arts Culture. (1934). Imitation of Life [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5XUOtYk3Fk
Lew Kirsten M. (2018). From Social Problem to Maternal Melodrama: The Lost Lynching Scene in John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life. Film History, 30(4), 107–126.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1986. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.
Rodriquez-Estrada, A. (2007, February 12). Fredi Washington (1903-1994). BlackPast.org. https://www.Blackpast.org/african-american-history/washington-fredi-1903-1994/
Saperstein, A., Penner, A., & Light, R. (2013). Racial Formation in Perspective: Connecting Individuals, Institutions, and Power Relations. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 359-378.
Schudson, A. (n.d.) Imitation of Life. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-film-preservation-board/documents/imitation_life.pdf