Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story Of America’s First Black Star

Bert Williams was America’s first — and, arguably, greatest — black popular entertainer. Rising to an unparalleled stardom at the turn of the 20th century, when Jim Crow was being codified in the South and unembarrassedly practiced in the North, he displayed a virtuosity that won renown as unprecedented as it was transcendent. In 1901, he became the first major black recording artist; two years later, he starred in Broadway’s first successful all-black musical, In Dahomey. In 1910, he was the first black actor to be featured in a film, the same year that he became the only black performer to headline the Ziegfeld Follies, where he starred for ten years. (By his second year, he was earning the equivalent of $1.35 million, the top salary at the Follies.)

Thirty years after his death in 1922, at the age of 48, Williams ranked as one of the ten most important comedians in the history of the American popular theater in a poll by Variety. His trademark character — a shaggy-wigged, tattered and ambling bumpkin, slowly revealed to be a wise fool — would be the template for his immediate successors in black comedy; Stepin Fetchit portrayed a greatly coarsened version, as did other black comedic figures in the movies like Willie Best and Mantan Moreland, and echoes of Williams’s exchanges with the city slicker type enacted by his partner, George Walker, may be heard in Amos ‘n’ Andy. His influence continues to percolate in black entertainment, from Michael Jackson’s white glove (Williams made his entrance by displaying his gloved fingers against a closed curtain) to the down-home wisdom of comedians like Chris Rock (a typical Williams witticism: “Don’t loaf ’round de corners an’ ‘pend on de Lord fuh yo’ daily bread. De Lord ain’t running no bakery”).

A gifted mime — his classic pantomimes depicted a solitary diner or poker player whose reactions reflect a host of other diners or card players — inspired monologist, gifted singer (a forerunner of jazz vocalism), and subtle actor, Williams displayed the range and depth that an English music hall artist, Charlie Chaplin, would soon present to the world with his Little Tramp.

But academic commentators have carried on an unfortunate practice of refusing to see past an artist’s skin color. The latest example of this habit of mind is Introducing Bert Williams, Camille F. Forbes’s myopic attempt at a biography.

Crucial to understanding Williams’s importance is insight into the tradition in which he worked: ethnic caricature. As the United States experienced massive immigration at the close of the 19th century, such comic types became a staple of popular entertainment. (The most familiar, although their origins are forgotten, may be the Marx Brothers: Groucho the German professor, Chico the stage Italian, Harpo the madcap Irishman.) The venerable American version, of course, was minstrelsy, with its stereotyped blacks made grotesque by burnt cork. It is a convention that discomfits the contemporary sensibility. It was also the means through which Williams became an artist. “A black face, run-down shoes and elbow-out make-up gave me a great place to hide,” he would recall.

An uncommonly sensitive and learned man (in later life his recreation was reading European philosophy in a well-stocked library) and a native of the Bahamas, Williams found the character of the stage darky “a great protection…. It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed.” With his singular powers of observation, he created his wise fool, at once comic and resonant, a character with which white spectators could share a surprising sense of common humanity and with which black audiences (the most enthusiastic patrons of blackface comedy, a devotion that persisted into the 1950s) could identify, uproariously and ruefully.

None of which much interests Ms. Forbes, a professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. She has fashioned Introducing Bert Williams from her dissertation, in American civilization at Harvard University. Apparently, Harvard does not require students in American civilization to learn American history. Not only does she flub the history of Jim Crow (even with C. Vann Woodward’s classic history as a guide) and of the country’s entry into World War I, she consistently applies the sensibility of the 21st century to the attitudes of the 1900s, with disastrous results. She plainly disdains minstrelsy and its accompanying blackface. She abandons scholarship for racial cheerleading (most of the facts in this review have been drawn from other sources). What she wants of Bert Williams is that he be a modern-day Credit to His Race: “More than an artist, Bert was an activist. Not only did her perform, he made a statement. His words onstage equated to an exhortation, his artistic excellence to an effective call to action.” You know you’re in trouble when a biographer feels she must explain her subject’s jokes, either imputing solemn political commentary to a song lyric or asserting that a monologue employs “the technique of in-group referentiality.”

A pity. Bert Williams perfected his artistry at a pivotal moment in American history, when a rural nation was becoming urban, when the Victorian age was emerging into modernism, and his transfiguration of stereotype into comic pathos offers a unique perspective into the painful development of interracial relations and perception that would play out over the remainder of the 20th century. What is needed is not politically correct complacency but historical acuity — even more, a perceptive description of Williams’s artistry. With that, not only could we gain insight into his times, but we would have the added pleasure of delighting in one of the master showmen of American popular culture. In laughter all men are one; or as Williams would preface one of his comic stories in the company of the white upper classes, be they American or English: “We’re all Negroes here, right?”