Retelling the History of Black Music

Bert Williams, Godfather of the Black Stage & Studio

by Mark Reynolds

24 September 2008

Bert Williams 

For all his musical and comedy achievements, Williams always longed to do a serious theater role.  Such opportunities were almost unheard of for blacks at the time, but Charles Gilpin’s 1920 success on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones encouraged Williams to pursue a dramatic vehicle in earnest.  He was the driving force behind Under the Bamboo Moon a 1921 production in which he attempted to transcend the parameters of his audience’s long-held expectations.  But the show never made it out of the tryout phase on the road.  Williams became sick while the show was in Chicago, and was unable to complete a performance in Detroit.  He died of pneumonia in March 1922, arguably one of the most famous black people in America.

Praise for Williams overflowed.  More than 5,000 attended his funeral in Harlem, and a book of laudatory essays was published.  To the end, he was a lightning rod in the black community for his decision to perform exclusively in blackface throughout his entire career, and for the images of black people represented by his roles.  But despite white critics who had their own grapples with the issues raised by Williams’ body of work, most serious post-mortems of his career recognized his singular accomplishments as a performer, accomplishments made all the more remarkable by the racial hurdles he had to contend with in the process.  Fields eulogized him as “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”

One might think, for all he did and when he did it, that Williams would be on some sort of Mt. Rushmore of black culture, along with the likes of Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington.  But that’s hardly been the case.  First, his day came long, long ago, and there aren’t too many documents of his work that have been kept available down through the decades (Archeophone, the music label specializing in reviving pre-1920 pop music, has a three-volume set of Williams’ complete recordings). 

Second, there’s been relatively little attention paid within recent mass-market black cultural history products to his turn-of-the-century epoch, as compared to the Harlem Renaissance, which has generated dozens of biographies, readers and analyses.  Most crucially, later generations came to see his (or anyone’s) choice to perform in blackface as a negation of racial pride, an unwelcome throwback to a time of rampant degradation, antithetical to the notion of black social advancement.

Forbes’ book applies clear-headed research and fresh interpretation to her case for why Williams still matters.  She builds upon the basic chronological framework laid out by Eric Ledell Smith in his 1992 Williams bio (Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian, McFarland) with copious context setting about Williams’ life and times.  Her explorations of the burgeoning black entertainment industry, the influence of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and other tangents help explain the various dynamics of the black culture in which Williams operated.  In the virtual absence of performance recordings, Forbes relies on newspaper accounts, reviews and show business histories to capture the essence of Williams’ art. 

To the extent that a reader can recognize the present in the distant past, Forbes’ book is full of revelations.  Issues black artists and entertainers have been wrestling with for the better part of a century become been-there-done-that after considering Williams’ career.  People nowadays think highly of Queen Latifah and Will Smith for parlaying music stardom into acting stardom, but Williams had conquered both arenas 80 years earlier.  Anyone who thinks that black show business entrepreneurship started with Russell Simmons, or even Berry Gordy, would learn much from Forbes’ introduction to the hard-working, optimistic spirit that drove black musical theater back then. That there’s a legion of bloggers and talk-show pundits holding court on the hot black pop stars of the moment, isn’t entirely new either: even back then, there were plenty of entertainment critics, black and white alike, writing informed and impassioned reports and analyses - and wrong-headed missives too - about Williams’ art.

On a more profound level, Introducing Bert Williams provokes new insight into questions about images and representation. Williams and Walker attempted to work against minstrelsy stereotypes, and succeeded in some respects; black performers ever since have strained to expand their parameters from a similarly narrow range of archetypes.  Williams’ move to the Follies started a conversation about representing blackness within a mainstream context that has continued through virtually every crossover moment in black American life, from actors in limiting film roles in the ‘30s, to Bill Cosby on both I Spy in the 60’s and The Cosby Show in the ‘80s, to even Flavor of Love and Barack Obama’s run for the White House.

Both Williams and Walker asserted the role of skill, education and development of their craft; it would be generations before black entertainers would be respected for the work they put in to build their chops.  For many voices in Williams’ time, the central question of black entertainment’s value was if it advanced the interests of the race; fast forward to our ongoing debate over the effect of rap music on black youth and society.

And then there’s the whole blackface thing. It’s almost as sensitive a black cultural tripwire as the word “nigger”.  For many, there’s just no getting around equating performing in blackface with the distasteful connotations of white performers pretending to be real-live darkies, cavorting about in exaggerated send-ups of how everyday black folk allegedly act (or black performers taking on such characterizations, with or without the cork).  Robert Downey, Jr. managed not to attract too much heat for his role in this summer’s Tropic Thunder, playing a character playing in blackface that clearly wasn’t meant to represent an “authentic” black person, but it’s quite a different story when drag performer Chuck Knipp dons the burnt cork and wig to become Shirley Q. Liquor, ig’nant and proud of it.  Forbes helps us understand how Williams strove to stand up for universal dignity (and maintain his own) while wearing a mask that, to this day, retains a singular power to make black people anxious, if not angry.

It seems counter-intuitive that a performer this gifted, influential and historically significant would need to be “introduced” to anyone (the book’s title parallels that of the 1999 Halle Berry film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, another reclamation of a long-forgotten, misunderstood black star).  But such is the case for the tradition of black show business: it predates even the advent of radio, and its few surviving artifacts are rarely viewed in public. Further, there’s never really been a moment in the 86 years since his death when Bert Williams came back in vogue.  His era is too distant from ours, both chronologically and culturally, for an obvious connection to be forged. But if one can say there’d be no Usher without Michael Jackson, and no Jackson without Sammy Davis Jr., then it’s not at all a stretch to say that without Bert Williams and his fellow pioneering black performers, the last 100 years of black entertainment in America would look awfully different.  Forbes’ bio reaffirms Williams as a star both in his time, and for all time. 

In the process, Forbes also opens a door into a vibrant world of black cultural enterprise, a sub-world hardly acknowledged in modern accounts of black entertainment, complete with strivers, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and straight-up hustlers on their post-Reconstruction, pre-NAACP grind.  Essentially, they helped gave birth to what we know today as modern black pop culture.  A full 100 years ago and more, when newspapers were the only mass media and sound recording and film were still novel technologies, Williams and other black folks were already taking it to the stage.

Recommended reading: 
Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America, Robert C. Toll (1974) – A sturdy introduction to the minstrel era, and its major players.

Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott (1993) – An oft-cited dissection of the ties between race, class, identity and performance.  Bob Dylan, it is widely held, “borrowed” the book’s title for his 2001 cd.

Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop, W.T. Lhamon (1998) – One of the first works to connect modern black pop, specifically Michael Jackson and MC Hammer, to its antecedents in black dance and performance.

Just before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York 1890 to 1915, Thomas L. Riis (1989) – Brief sketches of turn-of-the-century black performers, plus reproduced scores and extensive analysis of the music in the major productions.

Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America, Karen Sotiropolous (2006) – An in-depth evocation of the A-list of millennial black talent, and the various worlds they navigated.

Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, John Strausbaugh (2006) – A modern history of blackface and its offshoots, from minstrelsy to misguided frat parties.

Next: The Black Pop Explosion of the 1920s

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