On the Blackness of Little Women

Utibe Gautt Ate

“She unlatches the door to one house, and . . .  all find it is their own house which they enter,” friend and fellow transcendentalist Cyrus Bartol said of American author Louisa May Alcott. I felt his words last month. I was visiting Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, the setting of Alcott’s novel Little Women. As I explored Orchard House I had the sense of being somewhere I had ventured a thousand times before, which mirrored how I felt each time I read the book.

Photo courtesy of boston.com

I walked to Walden Pond as Alcott and her sisters did over a hundred years ago, stood above the water, touched it, and in its reflection I saw myself as a black child in Los Angeles in 1994. I was eight and sat on the pink leather couch my mother inherited from her mother. There I first read Little Women. Growing up Christian with a single mom and three older siblings, I related to the struggling family of four sisters and their mother. For me, the strength of Alcott’s autobiographical tale was that it reflected the shared human need for family, love, and the will to overcome adversity. I saw my mom’s strength in Marmee’s and myself in Jo, who aspired to be a writer. I resonated with their financial challenges, their transcendental goals of charity and self-correction and the ways they found to more than manage without a father at home. Through the author, an early feminist, I saw that a woman could find fulfillment in her own achievements, without a man.

In June 2011 I revisited the novel, after gang members shot my childhood neighbor and friend, Alan, at a park in LA. I happened to be at my mother’s house and drove his family to meet him at the hospital, where he died one day before his high school graduation. Like Beth, he was nineteen. I found solace and healing in how she approached death. “It’s like the tide, Jo, when it turns,—it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped,” she said months before she passed. I admired her quiet acceptance and understanding of the cycle of life. She gave me the courage to feel every emotion: confusion, anger, fear, hurt, distrust, and envy that Alan was somewhere better. He was free from it—gun violence, the world and city which murdered him. “With tears, and prayers, and tender hands,” Beth’s final days taught me how to be present with his family, who were undocumented Mexican immigrants. I later helped them apply for green cards posthumously through Alan, who was an American citizen.

Inside Orchard House, I walked through the living room, where a painting of Alcott’s father hung on the wall. I imagined the sisters sat together on the couch below it. They read their father’s letter in the book’s opening chapter, a scene that had a profound affect on me at eight. “I know they will remember all I said . . . be loving . . . do their duty…that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever . . . ” wrote Mr. March from his Civil War post miles away. I stood near the hearth and remembered that that year my Nigerian father left LA for Africa. As a child I saw my father’s absence in theirs. Though I couldn’t understand why he left, through that letter I understood somehow I’d be okay. That with my siblings and mother around me, we were connected and my well-being was safe in spite of his departure.

When I was a child, it was the Winona Ryder film version of Little Women which first led me to the book. When I heard that PBS and BBC’s Masterpiece series planned to re-adapt it, I was excited—although I knew that historically its adaptations excluded people of color. If we existed, we were peripheral, props that pushed the central characters’ story forward, as in popular dramas like Victoria, Downton Abbey, Grantchester, and Sherlock. After three well-known modern renditions—Katherine Hepburn’s turn as Jo in 1933, June Allyson’s in 1949, and Ryder’s in 1997—against logic, I hoped this year’s March sisters would finally resemble me.

Photo courtesy of time.com

The network disappointed, but I noted three persons of color, in three brief scenes. There is a dying Union soldier, a French-speaking barber, and a passenger on a coach. All three are black. The former two roles feel problematic because they exist within the narrative only as connections to the war. The soldier dies with Mr. March’s white face above him, thus perpetuating the white savior complex. As for the barber, we don’t see him cut Jo’s hair, which I think may have been interesting—a black man with razor sharp scissors entrusted to cut a white woman’s long hair, in the 1800s—the visual impact of such an image could have been complex. Instead several scenes later, Jo’s hair is suddenly short. Rather than feeling genuine, these depictions felt like a network and filmmakers filling a quota, with their three token characters of color.

It was especially unfortunate that the soldier and barber’s positions lacked depth, in light of Alcott’s real life, which I researched each time I reread her fiction. I revered her upon discovering she was a Civil War nurse and that her prior home, Hillside, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The action in Little Women sprung from her years at Hillside. Through her words, I felt a part of an unapologetic, female legacy. Masterpiece’s new adaptation allows another generation of little white girls to see themselves within that legacy. I want brown and black girls, Asian American and indigenous girls, to see themselves within it, too.

In my dream remake, Jo resembles my niece. Actresses with the spirit and command of Asian women like Constance Wu and Mindy Kaling, biracial Yara Shahidi, and the First Nations’s Jessica Matten portray Marmee and the sisters. I imagine a cast like the 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella picture. It starred black singer Brandy Norwood, Whoopi Goldberg as the queen, white Victor Garber as the king, and Filipino actor Paolo Montalban as their son, the Prince. There was no explanation needed. At eleven, this movie showed me that I existed, I mattered, and I was a part of our literary heritage. It was an empowering re-imagination of classic children’s literature, one that reflected America—and is one I believe Alcott would prefer.

To accurately reflect society, both our past and present, moviemakers must use diverse characters. When they ignore the simple fact that black and brown actors can inhabit any role, they underestimate the imaginative capacity of audiences and reveal themselves as inadequate storytellers. They also contribute to a hypocritical industry that has historically had no qualms substituting white actors for any race—as blacks in blackface film and minstrels, as Asians (remember Mickey Rooney’s portrayal as Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?) and as Natives (notably, Warner Brothers whitewashed Tiger Lilly in 2015’s Pan)—the list is unapologetic and endless.In search of solidarity, if not hope, I recently asked my mother—my Marmee—if she agreed that actors of color should claim equal opportunities to play any character. Unsurprisingly, she did. But when I asked her why, I was taken aback. Her response was so obvious, it hadn’t occurred to me. “They’re people,” Mom said. And that is reason enough.

Utibe Gautt Ate is a Black Cherokee and Nigerian writer and artist. Her background is in postcolonialism and race, as well as photography. Utibe’s writing and artwork have been exhibited in Paris and Los Angeles. Currently, she is writing a memoir about family, spanning three generations and two continents.