Eartha Kitt: 'Can't Let the Bastards Get Us Down'

I have long since lost my notes of the interview and have no idea where the videotape is. But I remember it was not what would generally be a regarded as a "good interview" or "good television." She did not try to be cute or sexy or even likable. And she was so down emotionally that her answers lacked the crispness we like in TV news. She was, of course, critical of the Pretoria government, but on that day, at least, she was not "a good sound bite." There were long pauses in the middle of sentences. This was an interview that would require some editing.

At some point, I decided we had enough and asked the cameraman to stop shooting. He went off with the tape to make sure it reached a TV satellite. In those days, when we had a controversial interview or had pictures of the authorities violently repressing demonstrators, we would often ship the tape to a neighboring black country to avoid censorship by the whites who ran South African television.

I stayed behind and chatted a bit with Kitt. We talked about the plight of coloreds who felt they were not accepted by either whites or blacks. In my experience, the coloreds were the saddest and angriest people in South Africa. She was sympathetic to them. She, too, was of mixed-race. The illegitimate child of a black Cherokee woman and a white man, she had endured abuse from blacks as a youngster for looking too white.

Just before I got up to leave, her mood changed. She clearly had had quite enough of all this pessimistic talk. The gloom seemed to lift from her. She suddenly looked 10 years younger. The snap and crackle were back: "What the hell! Things will get better. They've got to. Can't let the bastards get us down."

I never saw her again. But I wish I could have interviewed her one more time -- on the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison.

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