Donyale Luna | Race & Tragedy
“If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.”—Donyale Luna, New York Times, May 19,1968
If you’ve ever googled Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, you’ve read those words. She uttered them in response to interviewer Judith Stone when Stone asked her if she thought that being cast in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo would open up more movie roles for “Negro women.”
Donyale’s answer kindles passions in Blacks to this day. A future post will run some of the fiery comments on Luna blogs more than 40 years later.
She initially responded to Stone’s question with an icy, “I don’t think about that.” How long had she been telling the media she was of mixed heritage? Wasn’t Stone listening to her?
Then Donyale’s fiancé, German actor Georg Willing, piped up, “She’s white, didn’t you know?” I’ve disliked Willing ever since I read that remark: what a sarcastic clod! And I can see I’m doing the same thing as people who castigate Luna for her reply to Stone. Willing may have been merely showing support and it came out wrong.
“But then,” writes Stone, “Luna reconsidered for a moment. ‘If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less’.”
Read the first sentence. Donyale, living the role of “Donyale Luna,” probably, as she said, “didn’t think about that.” Now she thought about it and it sounded good. Had she stopped there, she had said the right thing and also made her point that her blood was not pure Negro but mixed.
But would her landing the role actually bring down the barriers? Offhand, she didn’t know: “It could be good, it could be bad.”
Then out tumbled the Four Fateful Words: “I couldn’t care less.”
Why on earth did she add them? The more I ponder it, the more I think they were an unfortunate rhetorical fillip, words to fit the rhythm of a conclusion, spoken in haste by an uncertain woman all of 21 or 22 years old, beating a hasty retreat from a subject that could trigger a lot of pain and confusion inside her back into the role of diva.
This was before Donyale and Salvador Dali had become buddies, when she would take a page from his book of tricks and make up an outlandish response for the press, not a lie so much as an imaginative creation to further her public image. At this point she didn’t have the tools to handle a savvy journalist like Stone.
Stone’s portrait of Donyale is actually the most sympathetic and perceptive I’ve read. An unkind editor ignored Luna’s first two sentences and wrote the photo caption: “Will her job open up movie roles for Negro women? ‘I couldn’t care less’.” Later, Wikipedia’s account also accentuated the Four Fateful Words and suggested that Donyale renounced her race. A hefty percentage of Net profiles copied Wikipedia.
But it simply wasn’t true that Donyale couldn’t care less.
Ex-beau Sanders Bryant tells of a time Donyale and he visited a museum of slavery artifacts in Dresden, Canada one day when she still lived in Detroit. “When Donyale saw those artifacts and the slave conditions,” recalls Bryant, “she broke down in tears.”
Remember, this was “Donyale Luna,” who was going to be happy only, who had banished tears from her life.
Early articles about Luna portrayed her as the new top Negro model. “She never denied that,” says Bryant. “But she had that other side….To Donyale, denying any part of that was like denying herself.”
Donyale’s remarks to Detroit Free Press reporter Colleen O’Brien in 1966 show careful wording about her ethnicity: “Most of my publicity has been because I’m dark-skinned. But I think the reaction would have been the same if I were white because of my features.” Note two things here:
1. She said she wasn’t white.
2. She described herself as “dark-skinned” as opposed to “Negro” or even “colored.” (And she wasn’t even that dark-skinned.)
When asked whether she thought her success was due to her color, she also told O’Brien, “I never think of myself as a brown-skinned girl.”
While Donyale was tuned into the racial struggle, Bryant says, “she felt that she should be above the fray.” She was a seeker. She adorned her third eye with bindis. She took psychedelics. She saw the Big Picture, where racism was resolved. There she dwelt—by herself, if necessary, until the struggle and fighting was over.
Not a position that gains you points in history, but understandable for an artist who chose to live her life at the mythic level. Three years later, sounding weary of the subject, she told Free Press reporter George Kirvay, “I honestly don’t know what I am. I’ve been described as being both a white person and a Negro. Whatever people want to think…they can.”
I’m not exonerating Donyale from the charge that she denied her heritage. At age 15 she told Sanders Bryant she was Hawaiian. At age 17 or 18 she told me she was Polynesian. She was honing a story that eventually included a Mexican father and a veritable but unverifiable smorgasbord of colorful ancestors.
But as was usually the case with Donyale’s fabrications, this one had some truth mixed in: her mother was half Irish and that entire side of her family, according to Sanders Bryant, “could have been more ‘Hawaiian’ than she was.”
Donyale was a scared little girl playing diva, the only role in life large enough for her to make her qualities virtues, not flaws. As such, she wasn’t tapped into the world of ordinary reality so much as a deeper, more powerful truth. She was descended from Nefertiti, from goddesses and mermaids. Her ancestry was part of her mythic life.
Many if not most of us, black and white alike, while being primarily of one ethnicity, have mixed heritage. Negroes were much more second-class citizens 45 years ago than now, and it was common for those who could pass for white or mixed to do so.
The mythic part of Donyale loved her skin. She was proud of it. The little girl part felt ashamed of it and afraid in the world. She passed; or at least she tried to. What a heady game to play when you’re front and center on the world stage!
From that location, every foible, every shortcoming becomes magnified in people’s minds. Donyale was no trailblazer, no Muhammad Ali. Neither are most of us, but we live with our other pedestrian fellows quietly and no one thinks badly of us.
Sometimes the times turn some of us into trailblazers. Donyale lived in one of those times, an extraordinary time. If she failed to pick up the machete, how does that make her worthy of anyone’s derision? It merely shows that in this arena she was ordinary. Rather than anger or blame, we might choose to feel compassion for her. What would you or I have done for our primary race in her shoes (when she wore them)?
How many of us can handle the limelight? Especially a limelight so dazzling, so sudden, so early in life, with no one to guide us through its blinding brilliance? When I first learned of Donyale’s rise to glory in 1966, after I had moved to California., I thought: “Of all the people I knew in Detroit, Donyale is the last one I would have wished fame upon.” (Incredibly, when I was seeing her, I didn’t even know she was seeking it.)
Be careful of what you wish for, the adage goes, lest your wish comes true. Donyale Luna’s wish came true and she paid the price: this subject of race that so pained and tormented her, this issue that she fled halfway across the globe to escape, was thrust in her face wherever she went.
Sanders Bryant, conversation, Nov. 2009
George Kirvay, Detroit Free Press, 1969
Colleen O’Brien, Detroit Free Press, 1966
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, 5/19/68
wikipedia, Donyale Luna