Monday, December 28, 2009

Mantan Moreland

Comes the new decade, as we progress further into the 21st Century, and I get to thinking about subjects like. . . Mantan Moreland. Michael H. Price is without peer on the subject of movie history. (Beyond that, he is also one of the world’s few “moving picture archaeologists,” digging into volatile nitrite-film-stock canisters.) This was my introduction to his 2006 book, Mantan the Funnyman (The Life and Times of Mantan Moreland), Midnight Marquee Press:

This land be my land
This land be your land
From the Lena Horne lands
To the Mantan Morelands
From the old slave quarters
To the Muddy Waters
This land be made for you and me

--After Woody Guthrie

It’s been shown that somewhere around the world, there’s a new book on Shakespeare released every day. I’ve heard there have been upwards of 14,000 books published on Lincoln. (The latest revisionist tome ponders whether the Great Emancipator was a faggot.) So why would anyone want to write the 14,001st biography of Lincoln—when they could cover some of the same terrain by writing the first biography of Mantan Moreland. Moreland was funnier than Lincoln—or Elvis for that matter (3,000 books).

This is where my favorite scholar, Michael H. Price, comes in. He is the first to shine light on stubborn pockets of our big, disenfranchised culture that demand attention, but don’t receive it. He rights wrongs when he writes. Price is Right. Just take a glance at his “Also By” credits at the front of this book. He is a credit to his race.

While today’s hip-hoppers hark back and hover so close to the minstrel show, you anticipate their eyes to bug out and their hair to frazzle upon seeing a ghost. Mantan Moreland was never considered “a credit to his race,” like Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson. But he didn’t seem to lose sleep over it. Whether he ever ate ribs, Negro a Negro, with Paul Robeson, Dr. Ralph Bunche or W.E.B. Dubois, I don’t know (though Price probably does). Pigmeat Markham he knew, and the utterly fascinating forgotten world of Negro vaudeville, a criminally overlooked subject.

How might race relations be different if Mantan Moreland had not been born? I’ll tell you. The answer is, Why can’t a great performer just be a great performer, without having to inspire his whole goddamn race. Mantan was as true to low-brow comedy as Marion Anderson was to opera, even though he didn’t cross the color line for commedia dell’arte. Can’t a career in Low Comedy be more honorable than, say, Urology? It takes more training and heartbreaking dedication, and the dues comedians pay surpass any urologist’s, or proctologist’s for that matter, med school tuition.

Mantan be made for you and me.

Josh Alan Friedman
Stovall Plantation, 2006

© 2006, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman


  1. I was just telling Mike Edison how we need to write a new Christmas song, "O, Mantannenbaum," about our love of Mr. Moreland. I was just at his gravesite the other day.

  2. I only recently enjoyed Mantan Moreland's sensitive role as the bug-eyed Negro counterman in Melvin van Peebles' 1970 film The Watermelon Man, starring Godfrey Cambridge.

    Looked him up on imdb, and noted the reference to Michael H. Price's biography -- which I most likely will never, ever read.