Associated Press

Film / TVRace

carol channing: “best genes in show business”

January 16, 2019
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If there was a mascot to perfectly embody the euphoria-laced, dumpster-fire that the last few years has been, it has to be the complicated public-figure. Identity in its various manifestations breeds a complicated breeding ground of self, interacting with others within a greater society. In the age of Instagram and the rampant imposter syndrome it feeds through a new manifestation of “keeping up with the Joneses”, things get more complicated. People get more complicated. Who we are who we’re “supposed to be” seem to grow farther and farther apart, leaving us all disillusioned. Someone I honestly didn’t expect to be complicated was the woman who made Holly Dolly! a household name, Carol Channing. CNN reported that Channing had recently passed at the age of 97 and in all the well-wishes and remembrance, the fact that her father was biracial came up, making her, Black.

Channing was the platinum-wigged, starry-eyed, raspy-voiced powerhouse that also played the diamond-loving showgirl Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) before taking the mantle of  Dolly in Hello Dolly! (1964), which launched her already-secured Broadway stardom into the stratosphere. With a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination under her belt for movie musical Thoroughly Modern Mellie (1967), Channing was a veritable heavyweight in Hollywood.

Race dynamics in the United States gave rise to the ‘one-drop rule’ or the ‘one ancestor rule’ that considered anyone Black if they had a traceable Black ancestor. Carol’s father George Channing was born to a Black mother and an American German father. He was described as a “great orator” with “two of the biggest brown eyes” and it’s apparent that his featured allowed him to “pass” for white as it was only revealed to his daughter Carol that he was biracial when she was 16. “Passing” for white was a survival tactic employed by many light-skinned African Americans as a means of trying to escape the bottom of a racial caste system Black Americans were forced into. It was most prevalent during Jim Crow, compelling Channing’s mother to tell her at 16 that she was “part Negro” all because her mother wanted to warn her, as she was going off to college, that she might birth a Negro child — an unrelenting fear shared by those who managed to “pass” into white spaces.

As we continue to unwind and detangle the archaic structures of race, we understand more and more that those ideas of race and identity are simplistic at best but it’s worth it to interrogate Channing’s non-consistent acknowledgment of her racial heritage. For instance, the retelling of the revelation seems positive in the sense that she maintains nothing but pride for her heritage but her language reveals a deeper, more stunted story. Take for instance an interview she did on Larry King Live in 2002:

KING: Lets start early in that truth. Your father was Black. 

CHANNING: No, he was not Black. I wish I had his picture. He was — he was a — his skin was the color of mine. I don’t know maybe. Yes, it’s all right. Well any, no. My father — you read the tabloids, don’t you? 

KING: No, it says in my notes your beloved father, George Channing, a newspaper editor, renowned Christian Science lecturer listed as colored on his birth certificate.

CHANNING: Yes, and the place burned down, but nobody ever knew that. But I know it. Every time I start to sing or dance, I know it, and I’m proud of it.

KING: So he was Black?

CHANNING: No, He had in — there was a picture in our family album and my grandmother said — I never saw them. My grandfather was Nordic German and my grandmother was in the dark. And they said no that was — she was — and I’m so proud of it I can’t tell you. When our champion gave me that last third (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on “Hello Dolly!” Again. No white woman can do it like I did.

KING: So you’re proud of your mixed heritage?

CHANNING: Very, when I found out. I was 16-years-old and my mother told me. And you know, only the reaction on me was, Gee, I got the greatest genes in show business.

“Best genes in the business” but she couldn’t even say outright where she got them from. Also, her associating her Blackness to nothing more than inherited genes speaks volumes to the various levels of character assassination it endured — one facet being the racist pseudo-science that fabricated a link between ability and race. Considering that Carol was 16 years of age in 1937, it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge that she grew up in those times — a time that would force George Channing’s mother to move him and his sister from their birthplace of Augusta, Georgia to Providence, RI, Richmond in hopes that their “full features” wouldn’t be realized. Who could blame her when Blackness was a death sentence in the Jim Crow South. The closer you are to it, the more danger you were subjected to – so much so, Carol Channing’s paternal grandmother didn’t raise her children because she “didn’t want anyone to see her around her children” deduced the Broadway star.

Channing’s introduction to Blackness was through a father that concealed it and a mother that distanced herself from her children to protect them from her own. It was her own personal grenade with the power to blow up her career – in a good and bad way. That being said, is she to be embraced because she is proud of a heritage she can’t name? Do we leave her where she is?

KING: You don’t say it.

CHANNING: You don’t say it. There’s a lot of it down South.

KING: People are ashamed of it.

CHANNING: I’m proud of it.

KING: I’m glad to hear it. 

CHANNING: I really am. I mean look, what makes you, you? You don’t know. None of us knows our heritage. Not in the United States. 

KING: We’re all immigrants. 

CHANNING: Exactly, this is the changing face of America. I’m part of it. Isn’t it wonderful? 

KING: You damn right. 

CHANNING: I’m young again.