II. African-American stereotypes in Hollywood after The Birth of a Nation.
A. Classic stereotypes and African-American resistance.
Through Hollywood and the ever-growing number of films that were to be made after The Birth of a Nation, African-Americans would increasingly have to deal with the imagery of “blackness” that the mainstream movie industry would convey for decades. This imagery would more often than not be made of enduring stereotypes, most of which had been originally coined by The Birth of a Nation, such as slaves, servants, mammies, and bucks. But to those, would be added a long string of jazz singers and vaudeville characters, as will be seen next.
In the book White Screens, Black Images, James Snead argued that
“onscreen and off, the history that Westerner culture has made typically denies blacks and black skin of historical references, except as former slaves or savages. […] The problem is that, especially in film, stereotypes and codes insulate themselves from historical change, or actual counter-examples in the real world. Caricatures breed more caricatures, or metamorphose into others, but remain in place.”
In “Mammy Dearest”, Frank Diller commented on this assumption:
“The roles of slave or savage are socially acceptable to whites and so, they are reflected in the art that the majority produces. […] African-Americans were relegated to a limited number of roles in the culture of the early twentieth century. These depictions are not only representative of the social limitations of the minority but their adherence to such depictions actually enforces them. […] Snead believes the social acceptance of these African-American mythologies establishes the nature of these roles and makes them that much more difficult to change later.”
At this point indeed, and before a more careful analysis to be conducted further on, it is interesting to note that within the stereotyped roles performed by African-American actors in mainstream Hollywood films, lies a somewhat unsettling paradox, which shall be discussed throughout this essay. Even if the presence of actual African-American actors in movies of the period can be seen in retrospect as an advancement for the African-American community in general, it was not necessarily seen as such back then. African-American actors were not always well thought of in their own community. The fact that they agreed to be part of a white scheme that aimed at portraying black people only as former slaves or some other demeaning cliché, was seen as offensive by some amongst the African-American community. In the article “The Woman Who Was Mammy”, Dibri L. Beavers acknowledged that resentment:
“The NAACP had been at war with Hollywood almost since the organization’s inception, in 1909. It had protested D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation for its racist stereotypes, and had since then continually pressured the major studios to put more positive black images on the screen. But its harshest criticism was reserved for the black actors and actresses who played roles the organization considered demeaning.”
These actors and actresses played submissive roles, and yet they brought a new dignity to characters that had previously been portrayed by blackfaced actors, which had added ridicule to contempt. Their mere presence was a statement that seemed to shout “We Exist” to the face of a white society. Their work could be described as “work against the odds to claim the I”, in the words of Michelle Cliff. And yet, they were often criticized for endorsing and perpetuating stereotypes that would eventually take years to overcome. Of course, it would have been impossible for them to hope to work in Hollywood, had they not been ready to accept these types of roles. In her essay “Race, Gender, Psychoanalysis in Forties Film”, Michele Wallace expressed her awareness of this paradox:
“The question remains of how Black […] viewers regarded the
Butterfly McQueens and the Hattie McDaniels that occasionally and awkwardly (veritable flies in the buttermilk) appeared in these films. As a child, I suppose I rebelled against identification with McDaniel and McQueen, but as an adult I learned that [McQueen’s] career had been greatly diminished by her unwillingness to continue to play such roles as Prissy in Gone with the Wind. […]
Given the narrow restrictions on the roles that Black actresses could play, […] either maids or entertainers, McDaniel excelled at her craft. […] As an adult, as a woman, as a Black woman and a feminist, I [now] strongly identify with both the restrictions McDaniel and McQueen faced, and their efforts to surmount them.”
Furthermore, had they come accross a more realistic and less disparaging kind of roles, then the white community would in turn have been indignant and vindictive. “The authentic black actors were in roles of ignorant, and neutral people. In the first years of the Modern Age, black actors were often beaten and threatened if they assumed roles that suggested equality.” To put it in a nutshell, in mainstream Hollywood, African-American characters seemed forever destined to be portrayed as inferior to the White. They were devoid of any actual social depth. The fame that the actors who played them might receive could not be dreamt to compare with that of movie stars such as Lilian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks or Mary Pickford, who benefitted from the mere fact that they were white in a white Hollywood.
How then could African-American actors hope to find interesting, challenging and somewhat more lifelike roles? In order to conceive of the whole spectrum of movie-making and the place of African-Americans in the early 1920’s, and so to reach 1939 and the release of Gone with the Wind, a digression needs to be made here. In this paper, several times already have the expressions “mainstream Hollywood” or “mainstream movie industry” been used. The word “mainstream” here essentially refers to the fact that the vast majority of films made by the Hollywood studios, were mostly intended for the vast majority of their American audience, that is to say white people. However, and as was shown earlier here through the example of Charles Foster, a countercurrent was emerging in the form of a parallel movie circuit. The major steps towards a specifically African-American cinema arose out of a will to oppose such a demonstration of white chauvinism that a movie like The Birth of a Nation stood for. The overwhelming negative impact that the film had had on the African-American community had created a need for movies made by and mostly for African-Americans. And indeed, as early as 1915, there was the formation of the Independent African-American Filmakers who “sought their own financing in order to produce films with more positive images of Blacks.” For instance, on May 24, 1916, the first movie company controlled by African-American filmmakers was born. It was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. It had been created by African-American actor Noble Johnson and his brother George. The African-American Registry stated that:
“The first Lincoln production was a drama entitled The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition in 1916. The second Lincoln
production was entitled A Trooper of Troop K in 1917, which dealt with a massacre of black troops in the Army’s 10th Cavalry during the American operation against Mexican bandits and revolutionaries in 1916. Although the Johnson brothers wanted the films to play to wider audiences, they were mostly booked in special locations at churches and schools and the few ‘Colored Only’ theaters in America. By 1920 the Lincoln had completed five films including A Man’s Duty in 1919, but it proved to be a minor business operation. […] Lincoln productions accepted an offer for financial backing by a white investor, P. H. Updike, in Los Angeles. […] In October 1921, Lincoln began production of their film By Right of Birth. […] Although Blacks managed the Lincoln Film Company, Updike had doubts about By Right of Birth as a moneymaking proposition.”
In his overview of “African-Americans in Motion Pictures,” Professor Melvin R. Sylvester of the University of Long Island, wrote about By Right of Birth, that it “was another one of the ‘hope for success’ movies produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. It covered the portrayal of black life featuring successful middle-class African-Americans.” He also added that the Lincoln Motion Picture Company “wanted to produce movies which presented Blacks in [their] everyday life, a human being with human inclination and one of talent and intellect.” But however good the intentions of the Johnson brothers may have been, the film failed to be a real commercial success. Fortunately, not all independent ventures of African-American filmmakers turned out short-lived and forgotten. Movies made by and for African-Americans were called “race movies”. Phyllis C. Benton, a specialist in all-black cast and Race Movies, recalls: “Hundred of these ‘Race Movies’ were made in the silent period, mostly very low budget. But since they were free from the Hollywood system and rarely even noticed by the critics these films could explore cutting social and racial issues that the major studios would never touch. More importantly, they were the only films in which African-American audiences could see members of their race portrayed as intelligent and heroic rather than the crooks and lazy bums they were too often portrayed as.” In “Close Up in Black: African-American Film Posters” from the Smithonian Center for African-American History and Culture and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the exhibition details describe:
“During the industry’s infancy, pioneering African American film companies, such as Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Micheaux Film Corporation, proved the need for and viability of black cinema. These ‘race movies’ offered African Americans starring roles in westerns, comedies, musicals, mysteries, melodramas, and crime films. They conveyed messages of racial uplift, and let black audiences see themselves woven into popular American mythology. [These] films […] were a welcome reaction to the negative racial stereotypes permeating mainstream film at the time.”
As a conclusion to that short, yet necessary, digression on independent African-American filmmakers, one could say that for a period of time spreading roughly over thirty years, mainstream Hollywood movies co-existed with Race Movies. Nonetheless, it is essential to bear in mind that the large majority of Black-held roles that were actually seen by the widest audiences, that is to say white audiences, were still featured in “regular” movies, where stereotypes still prevailed. (For more on Race Movies, watch videos at the end of this post)
B. The 1920’s: the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, and the coming of sound films.
However, and to go back to the discussion on the place of African-Americans in 1920’s mainstream Hollywood, one can notice some changes taking place throughout the decade. Mostly, these changes did not concern the stereotypical use of African-American characters, which endured, but rather the importance of these roles, and the additions of new stereotypes. In his essay “Midnight Ramble: the Negro in Early Hollywood,” Michael Mills reported that from the late 1910’s until 1927, “there were about two dozen films with important black characters or scenes. None were as openly anti-Negro as The Birth of a Nation, but except for one or two, most adhered to the established stereotypes. The decade of the 1920’s did however, see a decline in the number of Blackface white actors that dominated the pre-talkies.” It can be remarked here that the 1920’s were the decade where three major factors of change coincided, which had repercussions over the history of African-Americans in the Arts in general, and in motion pictures especially. Those factors were the Harlem Renaissance literary movement and its influence on African-American creativity, the boldness of the Jazz Age, and the coming of sound films in 1927. An explanation of each of these factors needs to be given here, in order to grasp the effect that they had on the place and the image of African-Americans in Hollywood, and the consequences this image had on the future reactions to Gone with the Wind. First of all, the Harlem Renaissance was “a literary and cultural movement among black Americans which flourished from early 1920’s to early 1930’s. It was also called the ‘New Negro’ or ‘Black Renaissance’.
The movement put considerable emphasis on the African heritage of American blacks.” This element is interesting to help understand what caused the changes that occurred in the 1920’s. The audiences reached by the authors who were part of this movement, were much wider than what was generally true for any field of African-American art at the time. As a matter of fact:
“The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African American middle class and to the white book-buying public. […] The Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. In fact, a major accomplishment of the Renaissance was to push open the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, although the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy. While most African American critics strongly supported the relationship, Du Bois and others were sharply critical and accused Renaissance writers of reinforcing negative African American stereotypes. Langston Hughes spoke for most of the writers and artists when he wrote in his essay ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ (1926) that black artists intended to express themselves freely, no matter what the black public or white public thought.”
The fact that these African-American authors “appealed to a mixed audience”, somehow created a kind of precedent. Mainstream white publishing houses had found a financial interest in the publication of African-American writings. Well-read white audiences had found a new intellectual thrill, in the form of a new literature, which allowed them to penetrate the African-American soul. The crossing of the cultural color barriers enabled other African-American artists to achieve recognition and fame outside of their own community. “African-American musicians and other performers also played to mixed audiences. Harlem’s cabarets attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. Harlem’s famous Cotton Club carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. […] The more successful black musicians and entertainers […] appealed to a mainstream audience.” For instance, in 1921, Eubie “Little Hubie” Blake, an African-American pianist and composer, and his business partner Noble Sissle,
wrote, directed and produced the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. It was not the first Broadway musical starring an all-black cast, but it was nonetheless the first one ever to be created by African-Americans. Shuffle Along was the first all-black cast Broadway musical to reach the status of box-office hit. The link between the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement, and another form of art such as music, will be studied next. But it can be added here that writer Langston Hughes described Shuffle Along as a “scintillating” start to the Harlem Renaissance, directly pointing at the connection between these different expressions of African-American arts. Through black literature and black music, the 1920’s, which were to be called the Jazz Age by the emblematic author of the period Scott Fitzgerald, seemed to represent a time of new opportunities. The permeability between fields of the Arts led to an opening of horizons for African-American artists in general. Michael Moor noted that:
“Scott Fitzgerald called the 1920’s the ‘Jazz Age’ because jazz music captured the ‘spontaneity’ of the times. It was in many respects and in certain quarters a time of ‘bohemian’ pursuits; a time for questionning ‘Victorian’ values and a time of sexual liberation. There is little doubt that part of the appeal of jazz at this time was its underlying sexual content, references, and associations. […] In any case, jazz became the sound and feel of the 1920’s. The craze for jazz elevated the status of the black musician and dancer. Many found international fame (Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson to name a few).”
Jazz was not born in the 1920’s, but a newly-found, wider public interest allowed it to grow into an influential form of art. Jazz was the supreme form of African-American music. Yet, it had emerged from the blending of many different cultural and ethnographical musical genres. The fact that jazz had been born from mixed origins, was probably the reason why it had reached a large public recognition during the 1920’s. As was argued earlier, this decade was that of changes. Above all, the need for entertainment motivated the crowds that flocked to the Cotton Club in New York City
or to the many jazz clubs of Chicago. There was a clear desire for originality, on the part of the public. The decisive novelty of the 1920’s in the field of entertainment, however, would be a technical one. In 1927, the Warner Bros. Company released what was to be remembered as the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer. The introduction of the synchronized sound system called Vitaphone allowed the principal actor of the movie, Al Jolson, to perform songs and a few lines of dialogue. Here, it is necessary to emphasize two facts. First, it is essential to note that American cinema made its first steps into the sound era with a movie, in which the central theme was that of a white Jewish entertainer in Blackface makeup.
The “old ways” were still very evocative to movie audiences, despite the whole innovative atmosphere of the decade. As Professor Sylvester explained:
“The year of 1927 ushered in a new era in the motion picture industry. The use of sound films or the ‘talkies’ was the new technique connecting the silent staged scenes in movies to the voices of actors and the action of those scenes. The usage of blackface in sound films was still a carry over from the silent films when depicting African-Americans in movie roles. The old minstrel shows of entertainment by using exaggerated black characters was also a continued trend.
The popular rendition of Al Jolson as the Jazz Singer, produced in 1927, and two white sisters, Rosetta Duncan (in blackface) and Vivian Duncan (in natural face), as Topsy and Eva in 1927 dealt with Whites in characterizations of Blacks. In the sound films, the actors were forced to be convincing or sensitive or silly and stereotypic. Soon the black dialect and ‘suitable’ musical talents of both black and white actors had to fit into the making of ‘talkie’ motion pictures. Entertainment had to be more convincing by phasing out the blackfaced white actors and the use of more ‘suitable’ African-Americans in black character roles.”
And second, it is also worth stressing the fact that in this first talking film, there was not as much talking as there was singing. The mere title and theme of the film was enough to point out the connection that existed between all the different forms of art at the time. Jazz music and singing had seemed like the most natural expressions of this new revolutionary technique; it had seemed like its most flamboyant demonstration. So there they were. The three factors of change that coincided in the 1920’s and impacted on the place of African-American artists in general, and actors in particular, were all set in motion. The Harlem Renaissance had enticed the curiosity of white audiences, and had allowed a relative crossing of the cultural and color barriers. The permeability between different forms of the arts had made it possible for jazz music , that is to say black music, to literaly enflame the imagination of crowds, both black and white. Finally, the coming of sound movies would be the perfect means for African-American actors and performers to make themselves indispensable, to white investors.
C. New stereotypes, new visibility: African-American actors and a lasting dilemma.
As a matter of fact, the mainstream movie industry thought of movies as mere products in an increasing manner. Hollywood’s prime motivation was to make money, by providing the entertainment that the audiences of the time so desperately craved. What was popular at the time was jazz, and therefore, the major studios would have to provide jazz music and dancing, in addition to the classical genres of films. On screen musical roles were born, and African-Americans were going to have a part to play in their development. “With the coming of sound, the talking and singing voice of the Negro, would most distinguish him or her from white society. [In] the period from 1927 to 1939 […] the number of black parts greatly increased.” And indeed, African American culture began to be depicted more positively on screen. The Harlem Renaissance movement, with the working relationships it involved between black writers and white publishing houses and audiences as well, had demonstrated the viability of investing on African-American culture and arts. The expansion of the popularity of jazz music had opened new horizons both for movie studios, which would bank on it, and for African-American performers, who would benefit from the new visibility they could acquire from it. Understandably, they hoped that this new visibility and positive image would not limit itself to musical roles. The mainstream movie industry had to acknowledge that African-Americans had a strong money-making potential, whether they be actors, singers and dancers in their white-intended films, or whether they be the target audience of all-black cast movies they would release. It can be added here that, as a consequence of this newly-found interest in African-American themes and audiences on the part of the major studios, Race Movies tended to decrease in number. This was partly due to the disproportion between the budget of African-American film companies and that of studios such as the Warner Bros. Company. “After 1929, Race Movies made by Black producers started to die out when Hollywood saw a market. The mainstream industry began making films with All-Black casts for Black audiences thus choking off Black independent producers and distributors. Hollywood had the ‘funds’ and their own agenda for making ‘money’ from Race Movies.” The coming of sound films and the financial superiority of the major studios made it momentarily impossible for black-owned movie companies to follow. They lacked the money that was necessary to purchase the Vitaphone wiring equipment. Hollywood was able to exploit the African-American musical tradition for the first time. In conclusion, though it is true to say that the arrival of sound was synonymous with new opportunities for African-American actors, it should not be overlooked that instead of totally freeing them of old stereotypes, it was merely going to add new ones to the list of the Hollywood black imagery.
Despite the impetus given to African-American creativity through the various aforementioned cultural movements that took place in the1920’s, stereotypes were still very hard to circumvent. With the coming of the “talkies”, African-American actors and actresses were faced, yet once more, with a paradox. On the one hand, the increasing usage that would henceforth be made of their talent, in mainstream movies, would bring them the visibility they needed to exist as actors, on a national scale. But on the other hand, and as was explained earlier, appearing in stereotypical roles, even if those were new ones, made them seem to adhere to them. Their very presence in those films exposed them to the wrath of many a member of their own community. They were seen to perpetuate the burlesque, ridicule and the plain lies that insulted the African-American community, by denying them of a more realistic on-screen identity. Without a doubt, the most blatant example of this paradox, was the African-American actor Stepin Fetchit. In his biography of Fetchit, Leonard Maltin describes “a performer whose very name became synonymous with degrading portrayals of blacks on-screen. [Fetchit] is a troubling figure. This vaudeville veteran played slow, dim-witted, foot-shuffling, bug-eyed types – but did so with superb timing and comic know-how.” Fetchit was the perfect example of the typecasting of African-American actors. “His great talent was used by the majority to reinforce the stereotype of the lazy good-for-nothing Negro.”
(Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel in Judge Priest, 1934)
Of course, Fetchit was not the only one who found himself facing that kind of dilemma. Indeed, the choice between working in stereotyped roles, or not working at all, presented itself to most African-American actors then. Nevertheless, Fetchit seemed to embody the duality that existed in most, whether they gave in to the Hollywood system or not. “The roles of African-Americans during the 1920’s thru 1940’s saw the rise of black actors seeking work but only receiving roles dealing with light comedy, music, or dance. Therefore we see Stepin Fetchit getting star billing as an African-American actor in a series of films as the slow-talking, lazy-like plantation Negro.” African-American actors who had chosen to work in Hollywood, and had accepted the cliché roles they were being offered, had to deal with the antagonism of their position. By seemingly endorsing the Hollywood stereotypes, they were drawing back the image of African-Americans in general; but at the same time, the African-American movie stars that were born from this accession to public visibility, assuredly advanced the vision that white America had of African-Americans, everywhere in the country. In a well-remembered statement, actress Hattie McDaniel seemed to have summed up the lucid, and yet positive attitude that had been adopted by other African-American performers, as well as herself, when she had said: “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one!” From the year 1929 on, and for the decade to come, African-American actors and actresses would benefit from the Hollywood star-system, that had already benefitted the white actors throughout the 1920’s. Names such as Myrna Loy, Douglas Fairbanks or Joan Crawford, would soon be joined by those of Louise Beavers, Lorenzo Tucker or Hattie McDaniel. These African-American actors, as well as many others, would appear in increasing numbers of films, in which they could perform their parts, though submissive or stereotypical as they may be, in a manner that would gain them fame and recognition. The parts they were given often depicted unrealistic, sometimes even humiliating characters. It is therefore all the more inspiring that they succeeded in imparting spirit and talent to such caricatural roles. In these films, most African-Americans actors have not been remembered for the stereotypical aspect of their characters, but for the quality of their interpretations. In retrospect, this could be considered as a sort of evidence that the presence of African-American actors in Hollywood movies of the period, even when they were typecasted, and merely through the visibility it gave them, advanced the case of equality in race relations.
TO BE CONTINUED
(Next: III. Gone with the Wind: From novel to script; IV. African-American actors and the making of the film; V. African-American reactions to the film itself, or how to forget The Birth of a Nation.)
+ Version française de l’essai.
Videos on Race Movies.
 Snead, James A.. White Screens/Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side. New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 2-3.
 Diller, Frank. « Mammy Dearest: the Depiction of African-American House Servants in The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and Song of the South« . American Studies at the University of Virginia. August 1999.
 Beavers, Dibri L.. « The Woman Who Was Mammy ». American Legacy Magazine. Fall 2001.
 Cliff, Michelle, as cited in Campbell, Neil, and Alasdair Kean. American Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1999, , p. 82.
 Wallace, Michele. « Race, Gender, And Psychoanalysis in Forties Film », in Diawara, Manthia, ed., Black American Cinema. New York and London: Routledge, 1993, p. 264.
 Peterson, Joanne. « African-American History Through the Arts: African-Americans and the Cinema », CGHS American Studies Department, 1999.
 Sylvester, Melvin R.. « African-Americans in Motion Pictures ». Black History Month at the Long Island University. February 1999.
 Butters, Jr., Gerald R.. Black Manhood on the Silent Screen. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
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 Benton, Phyllis. “Once Upon a Time We Were Colored”, Midnight Ramble, http://www.midnightramble.com.
 « Close Up in Black: African-American Film Posters ». Smithonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. 2003.
 Sylvester, op. cit.
 Mills, Michael. « Midnight Ramble: the Negro in Early Hollywood ». Modern Times Classic Film Pages. 1997.
 Bourget, Jean-Loup. Hollywood, Années 30 du Krach à Pearl Harbor. Rennes: 5 Continents/Hatier, 1986, p. 9.
 Cuddon, J. A., ed.. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1992, pp. 401-402.
 DeCordova Wintz, Cary. « Harlem Renaissance ». Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia. 2005.
 « Eubie Blake: Je ne prononce jamais le mot jazz devant une dame, c’est très sale ». Jazz Magazine. April 1983.
 Turner, Nathaniel, « Eubie Blake ». Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African-American Themes, 2005.
 Morgan, Thomas L.. « Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake ». Tom Morgan’s Jazz and Blues. 1997.
 Hughes, Langston, as cited in Moor, Michael. « A Trip to Coon Town: the Black American Cultural Influence on the American Musical Theatre ». Last revised September 2001.
 Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1994, .
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 « The Jazz Singer« , Internet Movie Database Pro. Page 1 of 32. Last accessed July 2005.
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 « Close Up in Black: African-American FilmPosters », op. cit..
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 Smith, Ronald L.. Who’s Who in Comedy: Comedians, Comics and Clowns from Vaudeville to Today’s Stand-Ups. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
 Maltin, Leonard. Movie Encyclopedia. New York: Plume Publishing, 1995.
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 Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1991, , p. 82.