I bet you have never heard of Canada Lee.
Most Americans, even black Americans haven’t, yet he was a remarkable, talented and courageous black man who made a difference in our history and our culture against daunting challenges. He should have been entered into the Ethics Alarms Heroes’ Hall of Honor long ago. This post will remedy that slight.
He was born to West Indian parents (and thus cannot accurately be called an “African American”) and named Lionel Cornelius Canegata on March 3, 1907 in New York City’s San Juan Hill district. A musical prodigy, Canegata studied the violin at the age of seven, and by the age of twelve was playing concerts. The compensation was sparse, however, so when he was 14, Canegata ran away to the Saratoga Race Track in upstate New York to become a successful jockey until he grew too tall for the job and became a horse exerciser for prominent racehorse owners. Once more seeking a path out of persistent poverty, Canegata changed course again, and set out to become a boxer.
He won 90 of 100 fights, the Metropolitan Inter-City and Junior National Championships, and the national amateur lightweight title. Before one match, an announcer butchered his name, and Canegata somehow became‘Canada Lee.’ Lee liked it and kept it.
In 1926, Canada Lee turned professional, and by 1930, he was a leading contender for the welterweight championship. Lee fought in over 200 fights as a professional boxer, losing only 25. Fate intervened with that path: a punch to the right eye detached his retina, and ended his boxing career just as it was getting promising and profitable. Like most boxers, Lee blew through the money he made during his boxing career, an estimated $90,000 (roughly equivalent to $1,644,684 today). “Just threw it away,” Lee later admitted. Later, Lee lobbied for insurance, health care, financial consultation and retirement homes for fighters. “The average boxer possesses little education,” he said in 1946. “If he winds up broke, he has no trade, no education and nobody to turn to.”
Lee had more options than the typical pug. He returned to music: Canada Lee formed a fifteen-piece orchestra at a nightclub in Harlem, which he also managed. The Depression ruined both. By the mid-1930s, Lee was again broke despite his impressive array of talents (which did not, alas, include financial management), and looking for a profession. Fortunately, he had some talents he hadn’t discovered yet.
While applying for a job as a day laborer, Lee stumbled upon a theatrical audition in progress at the YMCA. On a sudden impulse, he read for a role, and earned a paid supporting part in Frank Wilson’s 1934 production of “Brother Moses,” which played to a crowd of over ten thousand in Central Park. In the first acting job of his life, Lee received rave reviews, so he decided that acting would be his new career, hoping that it would last longer than music, riding race-horses and boxing.
It did. He worked with the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project in a play called “Stevedore” in 1934, and was seen by young Orson Welles, then the emerging boy genius of Broadway, who cast him as in the so-called “voodoo” Macbeth (1936) at the American Negro Theater. The production that was a major turning point in director Welles’s career as well as a legendary Broadway “happening”—it also was one of the first times Shakespeare was radically re-conceived in a different time and locale.
Lee played Banquo in this controversial production, which featured a Haitian setting, Voodoo rituals, a genuine witch doctor, relentless drumming and a cast of over two hundred black actors. Lee reportedly used his boxing skills to rescue Welles from angry protestors twice during the run. He also knew he had found his calling. “All my life I’ve been on the verge of something. I’m almost becoming a concert violinist and I run away to the races. I’m almost a good jockey and I go overweight. I’m almost a champion prizefighter and my eyes go bad. Now I’ve got it, now I’ve got what I’m going to be,” he told a reporter.
For two years, Lee worked in various black theater and Federal Theater Project productions. He also made his movie debut, playing, appropriately, a boxer, in 1939’s low-budget “Keep Punching.” Then Welles gambled on Lee to play the central role of “Bigger Thomas” in the stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s powerful and controversial novel “Native Son.” The 1941 production was a sensation, and Lee was briefly the toast of Broadway. The New York Times called him “the greatest Negro actor of his era and one of the finest actors in the country.” Wright also applauded the performance, noting the contrast between Lee’s affable personality and his angry intensity as Bigger Thomas, a murderer driven to unapologetic violence by America’s racism. (Ironically, it was Wright, not Lee, who played Bigger in the ill-conceived film adaptation of the play. Canada Lee’s performance today exists only in the memories of a few, and the archived accounts of the time.)
Lee was as committed to social justice and civil rights as the other progressive figures involved with “Native Son,” and his activities as an activist quickly became controversial. Langston Hughes wrote two short plays for Lee, but their criticism of racism in America was seen as uncommercial, and neither was ever staged. Lee spoke to schools children, sponsored various humanitarian events, and began speaking publicly against the segregation in America’s Armed Forces. He was also was a prominent supporter of the war effort. He appeared at numerous USO events, and received an award from the United States Recruiting Office and another from the Treasury Department for his help in selling war bonds.
During World War II, Lee continued to act in plays and in films. In 1942, he appeared in two Broadway comedies by William Saroyan, earning good reviews personally even as the plays failed. In 1943, he took a lead role in a production of the race-themed drama “South Pacific” (not the Rogers and Hammerstein musical), directed by Lee Strasberg, and in 1944 he became the first African-American to play Caliban in a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” When he played Bosola in “The Duchess of Malfi,” it was the first time a black actor portrayed a white character in a Broadway production. Lee played the role in white make-up—white face. Lee also worked in radio, in 1944 narrating the first two seasons of the groundbreaking WMCA radio series that presented Negro history and culture to mainstream American audiences.
In 1946, Lee became the first black producer of a Broadway show with “On Whitman Avenue,” a drama about racial prejudice in which he also starred. The play addressed the need for fair housing laws and was praised by former First-Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote weekly columns encouraging readers to see it.
Canada Lee continued to act in films, though good roles for blacks were rare. He refused to accept parts that he believed were demeaning to his race. His most famous film role was in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” (1944), in which he played a stevedore named Charlie in an ensemble cast led by Tallulah Bankhead. “Lifeboat” may have been the first major Hollywood movie in which a black character was not treated as a stereotype, and this was at Lee’s insistence. He insisted on changing his dialogue, which had been originally written in the “Steppin Fetchit” dialect that was routine for black characters in the 1930s.
It was stumbling across “Lifeboat” on Turner Movie Classics that reminded me to post about Canada Lee.
In 1947, Lee played a supporting role in another boxing picture, the John Garfield classic “Body and Soul”. He took another supporting role in 1949’s “Lost Boundaries,” a drama about “passing” as white.
By the late 1940s, the Red Scare and rising anxiety about Communism made many of Lee’s earlier activities and associations during his Broadway period toxic to his reputation and career. His name had appeared in some FBI files that were made public in the course of a sensational spy trial, and suddenly Canada Lee—artist, thinker, patriot, humanist—was being called “subversive.” Lee condemned the effort to implicate him at an emotional press conference in 1949, calling it racially motivated, and declaring defiantly, “I am not a Communist! I shall continue to help my people gain their rightful place in America.”
The forces allied against him and other blacklisted artists were too strong. When Canada Lee came up for a TV role, he was barred by the sponsor, the American Tobacco Company. Lee lost an estimated forty roles in TV, plays and movies over the next three years.
The FBI reportedly offered to clear Lee’s name if he would publicly name black singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson a Communist. Lee refused, saying, “All you’re trying to do is split my race.” Unable to get work in America, Lee was cast in a British film, “Cry, the Beloved Country.” (He and Sidney Poitier were admitted to South Africa for the location filming only after director Zoltan Korda applied for permits to bring them along as his indentured servants.) It was his last film role. Returning to the U.S., Lee found himself still blacklisted and unemployable. Impoverished and despondent, he told Walter White of the NAACP, “I can’t take it any more. I’m going to get a shoeshine box and sit outside the Astor Theater. My picture is playing to capacity audiences and, my God, I can’t get one day’s work!”
A few months later, he was dead of kidney failure and uremia. He was forty-five.
Because a rumor (vindictively circulated by right-wing columnist Walter Winchell) held that Lee had indeed turned against Robeson, his legacy in the civil rights movement was stained, and his important place in the struggle for civil rights has been neglected and nearly forgotten. Canada Lee deserves recognition as an important trailblazer for his race, a brave and resolute advocate for racial progress in America, and not least of all, an amazingly versatile, resourceful and talented man. Like the character he is best known for, “Bigger Thomas,” Canada Lee was crushed by the pressures of deep-seated bigotry that crippled his career and destroyed his health. But in his short life, Lee made a real difference in his country, and helped lay the foundation for the crucial changes that were to come.
And now you know about Canada Lee.