Black is an invisible colour

I used to say I like every kind of music except Country. That was until my good friend Steve Abel made me sit down and listen to ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’, recorded live at the infamous prison. I was an instant fan.

So when “Walk the Line”, the Johnny Cash biopic, was released in 2005 I was eager to see it. I thought it was a great movie, with some brilliant scenes, like the one where Ma and Pa Carter see off Cash’s dealer with shotguns as he quits cold turkey. They seemed to epitomise the best of White Southern Christian Decency, in contrast to the usual treatment we see of Southern hypocrisy, malice and racist cruelty.

The romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter was of course the main thread of the movie. It winds around his protracted wooing of her and ends with a caption celebrating their 35 year partnership on and off stage after she finally agrees to marry him. His first wife Vivian is portrayed as a woman just never suited to be his wife and who drove him away with her bitterness, jealousy and resentment. I remember idly wondering what she was really like, and whether this was a fair portrayal of her character, as the story moved back to his great love for June.

Watching the movie for a second time the other day I was again swept up in what a nasty, bitter woman Vivian was, even as another part of my mind again questioned the representation. In the garden with my wife the following day, we began deconstructing the movie as we worked. As we talked through different elements of the plot, I began to feel more and more uneasy. Later I decided to google Vivian Cash. I found a review of her book ‘I Walked the Line’, written after the film came out. Not surprisingly it gave a very different story to the film, suggesting that their marriage had been very happy until June stole John away. What WAS surprising, though, was when I looked at photos of Vivian. Turns out that she was a black woman.

john and vivian cash 1jonny and vivian cash 3

You’d never know from reading any of the articles about her.

You’d certainly never know from watching the movie, where she is played by Ginnifer Goodwin.

ginnifer goodwin

In fact the only thing I found in my admittedly brief search that referenced her ethnicity was a newspaper headline from when he was busted for drugs that says “ARREST EXPOSES JOHNNY CASH’S NEGRO WIFE”. Presumably exposes her for the sin of being black in the USA.

Interestingly, in contrast to the newspaper article from the time, the film shows him leaving court alone and coming home to her censorious displeasure. It is shortly after this arrest that the chronology of the film shows them separating.

johhnycash

I’d noticed before that there are almost no black people in the film. Two shoe shiners are the sum total are far as I remember. I imagine the director, James Mangold, justifies this by saying that there are no black characters who are important to the story. That is if you don’t include his first wife.

Suddenly the treatment of Vivian makes complete sense. In the world of American Country music, of course the black woman is the villain of the story – even when her husband leaves her and her four daughters for another woman. June and John are considered one of the most iconic couples in country music history, and no black woman is going to undermine that narrative. Her character has to be destroyed. But even that is not enough. Her very identity is robbed from her, made invisible by whitewash.

They say that black is not a colour, it is the absence of light. That certainly seems to be true in Hollywood.

EDIT: I have been asked in some of the comments to withdraw my post because Vivian’s birth certificate and recorded genealogy state that she is white. I will not do so, for two reasons:
1. Regardless of what was written on her documents, it is apparent to many of us (especially those of us of mixed ancestry ourselves) that she is black / mixed (there must be a better word for that). This is an opinion based on every single photo of her to be found. There is a one photo from later in life which some say shows that she is white. I guess if you don’t have elderly multiracial friends or family (and ignore every other photo of her) you might think so but it is not convincing. There are numerous possible explanations for the discrepancy between her official papers and her appearance, many of them outlined in the comments.
2. Given the effort made in the movie to try to cast actors who resembled their characters, casting Ginnifer Goodwin for someone who is at the very least ethnically ambiguous is still whitewashing. Her ethnicity was important to their story, as evidenced by the attacks upon them both.
Ethnicity and racism are very touchy subjects to be sure. I have never had such interest in a post, and almost exclusively from North America. Why? Perhaps the USA needs some kind of national reconciliation process to help it deal with the trauma and shame of its past.
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As of 13 May 2020 I am closing the comments because a growing number of posters from the USA are getting increasingly abusive of each other.

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550 thoughts on “Black is an invisible colour

  1. Katharine Eichacker says:

    Vivian herself insisted she was Italian. She looks black or mixed to me, as well.

  2. Yvonne Newman says:

    She was Italian not black therefore her portrayal in the movie racial wise was correct. As to her demeanour, I’m not sure they got that right.

  3. Fatima says:

    She is ITALIAN! Get it right.

  4. Ashley says:

    My guess was that she was Sicilian because she looks a lot like my great grandmother. Sicilians usually some have north African as part of their ethnic mix but so far back that it would not be accurate to classify her as mixed race. In the Jim Crow South many Sicilians were subjected to race laws but nowadays they would classify themselves as white. For what it’s worth I think your heart is in the right place but she is not conventionally mixed race.

  5. Empy says:

    Supposedly she’s Sicilian, which is near Northern Africa, but either way the majority of mulattoes, mestizos, Creoles KNOW OUR people. I was talking to a man the other day, ginger, bright blue eyes that had recently found out his great grandfather was African. He had NO “ethnic” features. He said his mother hid it from them and told them they were Scottish. Upon the discovery, he said his racist sister said “Don’t tell anyone we’re black.” And it was only about 10% from a DNA test. Vivian is visibly NOT ONLY Sicilian. I think people forget that Africans explored the seas PRIOR to the slave trade. They were everywhere in other countries and on other continents. Just a note nationality and ethnicity are different. Her nationality can be Sicilian but her ethnic makeup can be African/mixed. Nationality is about your geographic ancestry. If I was born in Germany, I would be German, however people would view me as a “Black” woman or German of African descent. And I will say this, Johnny Cash new that she wasn’t just Italian. Especially back in those days! Please! He liked a little flavor. And if his wife had never filed for divorce, they’d probably still be married and the 2nd wife would be the mistress. I actually thought her appearance was that of a Creole woman. Questions: Where was she born and what did her parents and grandparents look like? That will solve the mystery right there. And for those saying that she can’t be “black” because of how her daughters look, what does that have to do with anything? Their father is white and their mother is light skinned, of course they are not going to be dark skinned. And for those saying it was done because of the KKK or whatever, clearly if she were blonde haired and blued eyed, it would not be a problem, but because she CLEARLY has ethnic features, it was something that stuck in the media. And lastly, the only people that have an issue with her being labeled as a person of color are those that are not OR are trying to hide the past. Either way, she is freaking GORGEOUS and way prettier than his other wife.

  6. Yvette says:

    I agree with everything you stated. I am now watching Darling Vivian on Amazon Prime and very surprised that her own children aren’t admitting that she was black. Throughout the documentary it shows photos of her parents being of Italian decent, but her mother could have been bi- racial easily and no one wants to admit this.

    • Umberto Caltri says:

      Oh please! Do you know how many Italians look “bi racial”? Lol

      Vivian, her children and her grand children are all White. White comes in as many shades as Black once you throw off the shackles of Black twitter.lol

  7. Roberto Calitri says:

    It’s so tragic that Black and/or mixed race people are so heavily invested in robbing Vivian of her Italian heritage. How dare you!

    YOU are the new KKK.

  8. Kevin says:

    Vivian Libreto’s father was a verified first generation Sicilian Italian American and her grandparents are verified full blooded Sicilian/Italians from Palermo, Sicily. HALF of her ancestry and her entire paternal line was Italian.

    She was Italian American through her entire paternal line.

    Her Mother Doris Robinson was of predominantly European ancestry with some unverified (but probable) “Mulatto” aka mixed race ancestry through her father/Vivian’s maternal grandfather. Vivian Liberto’s maternal grandmother was all verified European/White.

    Johnny Cash’s first wife was NOT BLACK nor did she “pass” or ““deny her heritage.” She was legally and culturally White her entire life. She not a unique subject either. You want to turn her into this thing to beat on and disrespect as “other” just like the KKK did only it’s with blogging.

    She was an Italian/European American with a small amount of Black ancestry.

    To try to reassign her racially or create theoretical narratives doesn’t ““restore history” it only feeds into colorism and white supremacy. Respect her and her families wishes to be who they are. You don’t “uplift Blackness” by forcing her into a box by gathering all these one drop trolls.

    Leaving this post up only proves your own internalized self hatred not her small amount of none white ancestry you’re so obsessed with.

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