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Mona Z. Smith. Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee.

Mona Z. Smith. Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004. 409 pp. $27.00.

Born into a wealthy and successful West Indian family (St. Croix) of doctors and businessmen, Lionel Cornelius Canegata, "Canada Lee," never got past the eighth grade. Yet he did become as successful, if not more so, than formally educated members of his family. For many, Canada Lee is best remembered for his acting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood. Lee was the first man ever to play Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas in the first production of Native Son, the second black actor (after Paul Robeson) to portray a classical character on Broadway, the first black actor to play a white character in a classic drama (Lee did it in whiteface). As the narrator of Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm, one of the first network showcases for an all-black ensemble, Lee was also the "first black announcer employed by a major network." His credentials go on and on. Lee, whose illustrious career included working alongside Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, J. Rosamund Johnson ("Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"), Orson Welles, Fredi Washington, Ed Sullivan, and Butterfly McQueen, was a man who broke down racial barriers and battled stereotyped roles in radio, theater, film, and television. In addition to being an actor and political activist, Lee, however, had also been a violinist, a jockey, a pro-boxer, restaurateur, and a bandleader. He frequently succeeded in "white only" arenas. So, how did such a man--a man who had broken down racial barriers in numerous arenas--end up virtually forgotten and ignored in American history and culture?

Mona Z. Smith's biography of Canada Lee, Becoming Something, begs this question. What happened to Canada Lee? Unfairly labeled a Communist as many politically conscious and active entertainers were during the Red Scare, Lee's career was done irreparable damage by the House Un-American Activities Committee's (HUAC) blacklist and terror tactics of the anti-communist movement and McCarthyism. Lee died in 1952 at age 45, penniless and blacklisted, his name and contributions virtually obliterated from American culture.

To read Smith's biography of Canada Lee is not only to recover a lost light in early 20th-century American culture and uncover the combination of political and racial intolerance that rendered one man invisible and obscure, but it is to also follow the plight of an American who broke racial barriers in more than one field, and whose positions and roles helped foster and create positive images of African Americans during a conflicted time of racial segregation, political repression, and American conformity.

Smith unerringly compares Lee's life and career to Robeson's. Not only were both men athletes, actors, and activists who fought for Civil Rights in the US and who championed the cause of self-rule and autonomy of African nations, men whose careers suffered from Red Scare propaganda, McCarthyism, and the anticommunist movement, but they were close friends and at one time neighbors. Yet, as Smith points out, Robeson's contributions to the arts and to civil rights have not been ignored, forgotten, or erased. Rather they have been "reclaimed and celebrated" (and his face has even appeared on a US postal stamp). Yet Canada Lee's history and contributions have disappeared from the records. Her comparison, however, is not to argue that Lee is more deserving, but that Robeson's case is the exception. To date, little has been written about the many African American actors, entertainers, activists, artists, and labor leaders of color who were blacklisted and watched by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Smith's research on Canada Lee opens the door for further investigation into a heretofore relatively untapped arena.

Smith argues that although the Red Scare and McCarthyism ruined the lives of many black and white Americans, none has been as thoroughly erased as Canada Lee. Her mission is dearly to call attention to the erasure of Canada Lee and make his forgotten story memorable once more. In doing so, she retains an objectivity frequently missing in recent biographies, neither worshipping nor condemning Canada Lee. She presents Lee's worthwhile accomplishments in shining terms but also devotes time to discuss his womanizing, his sexism, and his spendthrift nature. She makes Canada Lee neither a hero nor the villain that McCarthyism depicted. While bringing one man back to life, Smith calls to question the practices and occurrences that made it possible and necessary to silence Canada Lee. She argues that anti-communism and racism were largely what killed Lee; his outspoken social critiques called attention to him. In critiquing the Red Scare practices and the political repression that interpreted Lee's freedom of expression and right to dissent as disloyalty and Un-American behavior, she draws frightening parallels to contemporary US society in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Although Smith's biography is more focused on Lee's career as activist and actor, she devotes individual chapters to each of Lee's previous careers, allowing the reader not only to see Lee as a "Renaissance man" but also showing the connections between Lee's careers and current times. Smith has the ability to pull all of the strands of Lee's life artfully together into one moving thread. Had Lee's life had a happy ending, his story would have resembled a Horatio Alger novel. Lee's self-determination, desire for upward mobility, and refusal to bow to stereotypes led him into careers that would seem incompatible at a first glance and imply flightiness. Smith, however, is able to make connections between the interests and careers that reveal Lee's characteristics and desires. Thus, she is able to represent Lee as he was, as a man on a journey towards "becoming something."

Smith's readability and painstaking research make Becoming Something a jewel for scholars and aficionados alike of American culture and studies, Civil Rights, Cold War history, drama, film, McCarthyism, sports history, television and theater history. At the onset of Smith's book, she refers to Canada Lee as an "unsung hero." By the biography's end, this reader has to not only agree and also lament the deplorable circumstances that stilled Lee's voice and activism, but to celebrate the labor of love undertaken to bring Lee back to his public. Mona Smith's book does the cultural work of restoring one of American society's prominent people to his rightful place in our consciousness.

Reviewed by

Amina Gautier

St. Joseph's University
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Author:Gautier, Amina
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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