Mariah Carey wasn't about to close her eyes to the past when discussing racism and the making of "Lee Daniels' The Butler" during a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Monday. She recalled she was riding on a Long Island school bus when a student spit on her when she was a child because of the color of her skin. And the foul memory came flooding back while she was making "The Butler."
In the movie, Carey plays the mother of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a character based on the White House Butler Eugene Allen, who served presidents for 34 years and retired in 1986. In the early scene of the sweeping period drama about America's tumultuous racial past as seen through the butler's eyes, a dissolute plantation owner's son rapes Mariah's Georgia sharecropper. Immediately afterwards, the rapist shoots her husband dead in front of their son, Cecil, who has goaded his father to protest the violence against his mother.
As traumatic as Mariah's scene and its aftermath is, what apparently disturbed the singer/actress most was the recreation of the Woolworth's Lunch Counter sit-in located in North Carolina in 1960. In that emotional moment in the struggle for racial equality, a white woman spits on a black college student (Yaya Alafia) simply for asking to be served at the whites-only counter.
"That actually happened to me," Carey said on Monday. "I know people would be in shock and not really want to believe or accept that, but it did. ... That right there, that was almost the deepest thing to me in the movie because I know what she went through — and it happened to be a bus as well. It was a school bus."
Oprah: "Where somebody spit on you?"
Carey: "Yeah. In the face and in the same way."
The daughter of a white Irish American mother and an African American/Venezuelan father that raised her in "safe" suburban Long Island, Carey, 43, still didn't grow up protected from racial bias. The song lyrics for "Close My Eyes" echo this experience: "I left the worst unsaid; Let it all dissipate; And I try to forget."
In the past, Carey has discussed the fact that her mother Patricia's family disowned her for marrying a man of color in 1960. It was a rejection that Mariah felt very deeply. The racial tensions also had a negative impact on her parents's marriage and they divorced when Mariah was three.
In fact, Mariah and her mother Patricia appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" last year in an episode that addressed being biracial in America. On the show, Mariah talks about her personal struggles with growing up biracial and penning poetry about her conflicted feelings as early as the third grade.
On the show, Carey told Oprah, "One of the first memories I have is when I was in kindergarten or nursery school they asked us to draw a picture of our family and so I was drawing everybody and I got to my father and I started to make him brown. And, they were like, the kindergarten teachers are often young, and the two women were standing behind me giggling. And I turned around, self-conscious, and asked, 'why are your laughing?' And they said, 'you’re doing that wrong. Why are you making your father the wrong color?' And I said, 'No, that’s the color that he is.' They made me feel like something was wrong with me, that it was a bizarre freakish thing."
To quote Mariah's theme song, "They can say; anything they want to say; try to bring me down" – but spitting tries even a budding diva's sense of inner peace.
Watch Forest Whitaker in an exclusive clip from "Lee Daniels' The Butler":