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Chude-Sokei makes the crucial argument that Williams’s minstrelsy negotiated the place of black immigrants in the cultural hotbed of New York City and was replicated throughout the African diaspora, from the Caribbean to Africa itself. Williams was born in the Bahamas. When performing the “darky,” he was actually masquerading as an African American. This black-on-black minstrelsy thus challenged emergent racial constructions equating “black” with African American and marginalizing the many diasporic blacks in New York. It also dramatized the practice of passing for African American common among non-American blacks in an African American–dominated Harlem. Exploring the thought of figures such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Claude McKay, Chude-Sokei situates black-on-black minstrelsy at the center of burgeoning modernist discourses of assimilation, separatism, race militancy, carnival, and internationalism. While these discourses were engaged with the question of representing the “Negro” in the context of white racism, through black-on-black minstrelsy they were also deployed against the growing international influence of African American culture and politics in the twentieth century.
By the time Bert Williams appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, his career as a performer had taken him from carnivals in California-performing in Santa Cruz, Monterey, Salinas, and other coastal towns-to medicine shows and fairs across the country. Inevitably this led to the vaudeville circuit where he and his partner George Walker headlined for years, becoming major celebrities in a time when celebrity was as rare as it was dangerous for blacks. Although his career continued successfully after the Follies, it was in New York that he made history as the first Negro actor to appear as a regular in a Broadway spectacle.
The Funniest Man We Never Saw, the Saddest Man We Never Knew
Not that there wasn't great opposition; to use Williams's own words, a "tremendous storm in a teacup." The cast itself threatened to boycott the Follies and there were major protests over the idea of a Negro star on the Broadway stage, especially one receiving top billing. Opposition and organized protest came from judges, the police, the media, and, in 1919, the fledgling Actors Equity Association in which Williams could not gain membership.And as the tide of nationalism grew in the years before the Harlem Renaissance, African American critics and journalists also attacked Williams, though he had long been a beloved performer in an African American social world still unaware of how crucial it would be to America's popular culture. He did not assert racial pride loudly enough, they argued. His success was not a sign of assimilation but a comic denial of its possibility. Some even went as far as to argue that he was being "used" by the Follies, offended more by his move to Broadway than the vestigial presence of burnt cork.
According to James Weldon Johnson, Bert Williams "defected" to the Follies in 1910, thereby helping to end the development of a distinct Negro theater. This description of Williams's signing with Florenz Ziegfeld as a "defection" is worth a moment of consideration. It comes from a man known for his narrative of racial passing, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which helped signal a Harlem Renaissance that would define itself partly by repressing the image of the minstrel yet simultaneously engage the poetics of masking. But what makes his language interesting is that it reveals that a "distinct Negro theater" in fact depended on blackface minstrelsy. In 1930's Black Manhattan, Weldon Johnson is aware of the difference between "black musicals" which featured African Americans on the stage but rarely in the audience and a Negro musical theater that featured African Americans onstage, in the audience, and behind the scenes. Hovering over both these uses of race in American popular performance was the still potent memory of a black theater that involved no "black" people at all, just white men in blackface, occupying the mask of black maleness and femaleness as well as the multiple ethnic identities that minstrel theater depended on. So despite the criticism in Weldon Johnson's choice of words, Williams's movement to the Follies was in fact crucial for both the expansion of possibilities for black performers in America and the assimilation/integration that dominated early-twentieth-century black cultural politics, which both Williams and Weldon Johnson firmly supported.
However, this was the epistemological thicket that Bert Williams struggled through, a context where his individual success was beginning to be read as a sign of cultural and political failure; a mise-en-scène in which the space between mask and flesh was being erased by the exigencies of an emergent radicalism. His obituary in the black socialist paper The Messenger sums up how he would eventually be read by the rising generation. Williams, it read,
rendered a disservice to black people.... He played in theaters that either barred or Jim-Crowed Negroes-a policy born of the conception that all men of color are inherently inferior to white men-and by a strange irony of fate, Bert Williams was himself a facile instrument of this insidious cult. His fun-making, of course, was what they wanted, the lowest form of intellection. They delight in visualizing a race of court-jesters.
There is no allowance here for the subtleties of his performance and its possibilities for multiple readings; indeed, the very idea that any subtlety could exist behind this kind of masking would have struck the writer as being inconceivable, as it still seems to many for whom the blackface trickster lurks behind or nips at the heels of any black public expression or comic performance. The obituary reads the mask without its complexity and strictly registers its function in a bichromatic set of racial relationships: men of color-that is, African American men-vis-à-vis white men. It forgets that before joining the Ziegfeld Follies Williams had been a star in the Negro musical theater, as Weldon Johnson documents in Black Manhattan. The obituary also goes out of its way to imagine a history in which African Americans themselves did not engage and consume minstrel theater from complex and unorthodox subject positions.
What is perhaps more crucial is that, by reading Bert Williams in relation simply to "white men" or a white audience, his intra-racial and cross-cultural performance is excised from American cultural memory, as is the very space of the "intra-racial" and of cross-culturality. After all, minstrelsy was bigger and broader than its immediate American context and traveled farther even than the limits of the nascent American imperial sprawl and its attendant discourses of race. Its meanings were relentlessly reappropriated and inflected by cultural groups external to the black/white dialectic that so defined American cultural politics, as was the case with Williams's performance. In the obituary from The Messenger, the many other forms of cultural difference within and behind his unruly mask are silenced by the prioritizing of African American/ white relationships in the movement toward full assimilation and the recriminations that mark that movement. The varieties of protest, resistance, and political expression enabled by his use of the mask are likewise unimagined and heartily disallowed. Typically, the obituary also assumes that the contest of race is an exclusively male one, suggesting that blackface minstrelsy was simply a ritual of interracial masculinism for being primarily conducted by males; this despite the gender cross-dressing that was also a part of its form.
But the primary reason this repression of black minstrelsy was necessary is this: Esu-Elegbara-the West African trickster figure and the messenger to the gods conjured by Henry Louis Gates in The Signifying Monkey-does in fact have two faces. In a subsequent chapter, much will be made of this figure as a sign of an intra-racial, transatlantic continuum of signifying-and the minstrel, at least in Bert Williams's appropriation of that figure, is also a product of this continuum. In an era where both white racism and black resistance were erected with phallic tropes of masculinist authenticity and the organic fetish that is "soul," once removed from the binary stage, the promiscuous figure of the black minstrel threatens both positions. This figure denatures the hierarchy of black and white, which assumes that such a performance could only be pulled o by white men behind the mask who emphasize the racial dialectic. But by ironizing and reclaiming the previously white artifice that was the racist fiction of the "darky" or the "coon," the once absolute space between black and white was whittled down by the presence of a black minstrelsy. Would this were enough. This lamp-blackened child of Esu would then go further, revealing the layers of artifice and performance involved in the resistant political fiction called black "soul" in an era of rising nationalism that had little space in its ranks for irony, difference, or profound self-questionings.
In his time with the Follies Bert Williams was a cross-cultural pioneer; but as Ethan Mordden reminds us in Broadway Babies, "Ziegfeld did not make Williams a star; he already was one." Because of his presence in the suddenly integrated cast, the Follies no longer toured southern towns. Yet despite the organized opposition of the forces of law and social order, Williams was fully acknowledged by the press and by the audience as the featured performer. Some members of the same revue have themselves become legend while Bert Williams's name has almost disappeared after generations of nationalist erasure. He was the most famous black performer of his time, a veritable global superstar, and was rumored to make more money than the American president. He would later be cited as an influence by as quintessentially American a writer as Ernest Hemingway, who idolized him; and he so impressed George Bernard Shaw that Shaw thought to cast him in one of his plays. At his funeral, Irving Berlin was among the luminaries who were his pallbearers.
Performers in the revue who now have a prominent place in American theater and film history include Ed Wynn, Fanny Brice, and W. C. Fields, who famously called Williams "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew." A year after Williams joined the cast, Will Rogers arrived and was followed by the comedian Eddie Cantor, with whom Bert Williams would perform minstrel skits that had attained classic status by this time. Both of them would perform in blackface as end-men Tambo and Bones, singing Irving Berlin's "I Want to See a Minstrel Show" while surrounded by the "Follies Pickaninnies." The image of both the Negro and the Jew sharing a stage in burnt cork is an image of modernist American popular culture that still awaits consideration and analysis. The sadness that W. C. Fields identifies in Williams oers a glimpse of the performer behind his mask of comic melancholy. It is the sadness of the black performer held by racialized performance conventions; the tragic sadness of black skin trapped underneath a black mask held firmly in place by racism and the complex symbolic value of race in fin de siècle American popular culture.
For Williams, as one of the most visible personalities of Black Harlem on the eve of its renaissance, the tragic weight of his comic performance was no doubt produced by the racist implications of minstrelsy that he could critique and momentarily transcend but never escape. But considering Williams's own intellectual and political concerns and commitments, the sadness must also have been associated with the political assumptions of an African American nationalism, for which assimilation was its goal, and a separatist Garveyite nationalism which would be established in Harlem two years later with the founding of the UNIA in 1917. As a self-professed "race man," a celebrity, and an omnivorous reader of African and African American history, Williams was decidedly aware of these dual tendencies in black cultural politics as well as the changing meanings of the minstrel mask. Yet as someone personally aware of the distinct histories of and rising tensions between African Americans and West Indians in Harlem, he knew that the meanings of masking could be made more flexible in order to address these tensions and histories even if one could not ever fully escape the mask itself.
To see Williams, as a minstrel performer, as a harbinger of American and transatlantic modernism, it must be noted that the tradition of minstrelsy itself spans the centuries and underwent changes in its technological apparatus. It marks the transition from southern plantation to vaudeville to Broadway and then, in a gesture that signals its lasting effect on both modernism and postmodernism, to motion pictures. Even though it was not as impressive as his recording career, Williams's identity as one of the earliest black stars of the still new medium of film was of great significance. Returning to those early years before the official birth of a New Negro sensibility, Bert Williams made the epochal stage show Shuffle Along possible by integrating Broadway and by his tireless efforts to maintain and develop black musical theater in New York. In fact, the orchestra from the Shuffle Along company performed at his funeral in 1922. So despite the repressed memory of subsequent generations, it is safe to say that the modernism of the Harlem Renaissance would not have been the same without Williams. But in the endless visions, versions, and revisions of Harlem's New Negro Renaissance, Bert Williams is-if remembered at all-rendered as a side-note.
As stated at the beginning of this chapter, Bert Williams's performance during the 1915 season will prove significant in identifying a specifically black modernist sensibility subtly but significantly different from the one that dominates American and African American literary and cultural history. By listening for the voice he employs on one particular night during one particular performance, it is possible to explore the multiple black immigrant communities in early-twentieth-century New York City-their inflections and silences and the city's various "black" vernaculars that shared geographic and often cultural space. By a fully historicized hearing of this heretofore inaudible voice, the modernism of Bert Williams's mask can be sounded as paradigmatic and argued as central. But before exploring the necessarily anticlimactic moment of his voice's unmasking, it is crucial to contextualize the very politics of the minstrel mask itself as appropriated by its best-known wearer up until that moment.
To fully situate this 1915 performance in the changing politics of modernism, immigration, and minstrelsy: it was one where the slippage between mask and flesh, originary place and vernacular mimicry, was exposed before being quickly recuperated and repressed by a cultural climate unready for what it suggested. That it occurred in 1915 is notable-the year in which Booker T. Washington died and D. W. Griffith released his infamous Birth of a Nation, with its well-known use of racist minstrel stereotypes in his representations of free blacks as a threat to national integrity. But by then minstrelsy had become as much a product of subversion as it was of repression. Even Griffith's dependence on minstrel stereotypes and images could be read as a subversion of an earlier tradition, in which minstrelsy was used to contain a threat and render it benign through comic representation and nostalgic evocations of a safely and permanently preindustrial space that could and would only exist in memory. In Birth of a Nation the plantation stereotypes become malevolent and threatening as comedic farce becomes surreal chaos and as the Negro stereo-type transforms from smiling darky into an expressionistic sign of white national trauma.
No one performer took the complexities and contradictions of subversion as far as Williams, who represented that fragile yet crucial tradition of black minstrelsy that explicitly attempted to appropriate and transform the already troublingly complex white tradition. At the time of his performance on Broadway, the meanings of minstrelsy were more fragmented than ever before, as much so as the black community itself. It was now possible to imagine one use of the mask deployed against another, though the politics of the African American social world seemed intent on erasing the mask in favor of the fiction of something more "authentic" which lay occluded behind it; something foundational, some essential "soul." In addition to these tensions, there were more personal and particular reasons for the sadness that Williams carried with him on that stage and in that moment. Clearly he still strongly felt the loss of his celebrated partner, who died in 1911. George Walker had been the straight man, Zip Coon to Bert Williams's Jim Crow. As such he had provided the anchor for the complex navigations around self, language, identity, and national self-consciousness coded in Williams's performance since the two men met in San Francisco in 1893.
Excerpted from THE LAST "DARKY" by Louis Chude-Sokei Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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