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THERE WAS NOTHING PRISSY ABOUT BUTTERFLY McQUEEN

From racism in Atlanta to the war in Vietnam, Butterfly McQueen didn't hesitate to express her opinion when I interviewed her for The New York Times in 1968. --GUY FLATLEY

Who could ever forget Prissy, that sweet, simpering servant girl who caused Scarlett O’Hara to lose her cool and Melanie to nearly lose her baby? Well, Prissy – or Butterfly McQueen, as she is properly known – has alighted again. You can catch her in the movies in the current revival of "Gone With the Wind," or you can catch her on the stage at the Bert Wheeler Theater in "Curley McDimple," a mash note to the Hollywood musicals of the thirties. In the role of a lovable but lamebrained cook, a role that has recently – and shrewdly – been written into that show, Miss McQueen more than justifies the star billing the producers have given her. She sings a bit, shuffles a bit, brags a bit, bows a bit, and, finally, faints a bit. In short, she does the Prissy bit. And she does it with apologies to no one.

Many people today view the Prissy character as an offensive stereotype, an invention of the white man designed to keep the black man "in his place." But Miss McQueen, who was born poor 57 years ago in the Deep South, doesn’t see it that way. After a recent performance, the actress sat primly in a drab Hotel Dixie room and defended her most famous role as an all-too-valid picture of a particular type of Negro – one for whom she feels a certain pity.

"There are plenty of Prissys in the world today. You can see them standing in the doorways down South. They don’t even want to be educated. In the South, the Negroes have been beasts of burden. Our heads are made of cotton in the South. We work all week and get dressed up on Sunday in pretty dresses to go to church."

Miss McQueen, however, has never been a Prissy kind of Negro. She has always been determined to beat the system that inflicted such great pain upon her people.

"In Atlanta, they can say the words ‘black nigger’ so that it cuts you across here," she said, putting her hand to her heart. "Of course, there is just as much prejudice in the North, but it is hidden."

She clasped her hands together and reflected for a moment. When she spoke, it was in her familiar high-pitched, childlike voice, recalling her departure from the South, her Broadway debut in "Brown Sugar," a 1937 George Abbott show, and her arrival in Hollywood to play Prissy.

"I found it disappointing when I began working with white people," she said. "There was no hunger for perfection, no hunger for elegance that you find in so many Negroes. And I discovered that white people had what I call their three B’s: the bar, the bed, and the battlefield. You can sum up the war in Vietnam in two words: white supremacy. But, of course, everyone in ‘Gone with the Wind’ was wonderful. Olivia made us laugh and laugh. There she’d be, lying on her bed in labor, screaming ‘Scarlett! Scarlett!’ and as soon as the scene was over, she’d jump up and start telling us all jokes. And Clark Gable was such a considerate gentleman. Did you know that he was a boy scout leader?"

Despite good reviews for her performance in the 1939 epic, meaty roles were as rare as boy scout leaders and Miss McQueen’s Hollywood career never rose above the level of "Who dat say who dat when you say dat," a line which, to her lasting humiliation, she was reduced to uttering in "Affectionately Yours," an otherwise forgettable 1941 movie in which she played Merle Oberon's maid.

"I never thought I would have to say a line like that. I had imagined that since I was an intelligent woman, I could play any kind of role."

But when even the "who dat" roles gave out in the mid-forties, she returned to the stage, where the parts turned out to be no better than the bits that had been doled out in Hollywood. There were occasional gigs on television, followed, in 1957, by a traumatic return to the South, where she looked around and "made a study of my race."

And then came the leanest years of all, back in New York, struggling as a factory worker, a waitress, and a dishwasher. "I won’t even say the name of the restaurant I worked in in Harlem," she said, shaking her head. "It was so dirty."

Suddenly the picture has brightened with "Curley McDimple," and with her career on the mend, Miss McQueen is now considering a giant step in her personal life. Maybe – for the first time – marriage.

"I will probably marry in Africa," she said in her little-girl voice. "I like my own men. But I’ll always return to America. There’s so much to be done here. And so much is being done. Already there’s going to be a Harlem supermarket owned and operated by Negroes. Then maybe we can have our own houses and factories. After all," she added with a wry smile, "we don’t want to be the white man’s burden all our lives."