When I think of America’s cultural stamp on the world, I think about actors like Charlie Chaplin or Edward G. Robinson. I think of iconic movies like Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart and based on the book by Dashiell Hammet. I remember Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront or 12 Angry Men (he also was the lead in Broadway’s version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.) and Zero Mostel in The Producers. (I also saw Zero Mostel on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof). I think of Ossie Davis acting alongside Sidney Potier in a radical 1950 film about racism called No Way Out. Then Roman Holiday, one of my all-time favorite movies, with screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (who also wrote the screenplay to Exodus and Spartacus). And another all-time favorite, Stormy Weather, starring the one and only Lena Horne. And why not include some TV memories, like Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt and Eddie Albert in Green Acres?
In the music world, I grew up watching Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, listened to Harry Belafonte singing Jamaica Farewell and Day Oh and had a record of Burl Ives singing the old classic folk songs (and also saw him as Big Daddy in the movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Later came Pete Seeger with his fabulous song If I Had a Hammer and later yet, the fabulous jazz clarinet of Artie Shaw and breathtaking piano of Hazel Scott. I came to know a bit about the blues artist Josh White and listened to the remarkable field recordings of other blues musicians and American folk musicians done by Alan Lomax. And speaking of American music and film, what can be more all-American than Judy Garland singing the words written by Yip Harburg in the song Over the Rainbow in the movie the Wizard of Oz?
Then there are authors like the witty Dorothy Parker and the prolific poet Langston Hughes.
Look at the list of names again. All of the folks in bold are part of the landscape of a unique American culture that has helped define us as distinct from France, Uganda, China, Australia or Brazil. They were recent immigrants or second or third generation, marginalized blacks and Jewish people excluded from country clubs, men and women, straights and gays. But besides all being fellow Americans, they also shared one other thing in common. Can you guess it?
Each of the above called up before the House on Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) led by Senator Joe McCarthy in the early 1950’s and either reprimanded or actually blacklisted, unable to easily pursue future work in their field for up to a decade later. All for exercising their right to look into and consider a different idea about government (communism) than the capitalist one that had caused (and still causes) so much damage to the world economically, environmentally, racially and beyond. Their “freedom” as Americans to think differently and express their thoughts was removed under the name of protecting “freedom.” In short, all these artists who helped define what it means to be an American were targeted as Un-American and a fascist like Senator Joe McCarthy and his sidekick Roy Cohn (who later helped create Donald Trump) were the model Americans.
Amongst all the other untold stories in American schools, I believe that this is worthy to tell the children, especially since the same intolerance that fueled McCarthy is still with us in new forms today.
But hey, that’s just my opinion. If you drag this Blog Post up before the court when the next incarnation of Joe McCarthy seizes power, I’ll plead the 5th.
PS There were over 300 actors, writers, musicians and others blacklisted during this time. And Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan were two of the Hollywood industry people encouraging McCarthy and naming names.