Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture, by Davis Suisman

Teaching the Article
Exercise 1

African Americans in the Entertainment Business

In the early twentieth century, African Americans enjoyed very limited opportunities to work in the popular entertainment business, which then consisted mainly of theater and music. As the entertainment business grew in variety and prominence, the way African Americans were represented and their opportunities to represent themselves became pointed social issues.

The grotesque caricatures of the nineteenth-century minstrel stage came down to twentieth-century audiences in several forms. One was blackface comedy, in which even African American performers darkened their skin--"blacking up," in the language of the business--to enact comic roles. Other forms included the widely popular racist "coon" songs and the savage depiction of African Americans in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (the first full-length motion picture, released in 1915), in which all African American characters were played by white actors in blackface.

On this cultural landscape, the African American comedian Bert Williams stood out as a performer who entertained and touched both black and white audiences. In 1922, at the time of Williams's death, Black Swan reported that he had pledged himself to making recordings for the new company and had invested money in it.

Consider the following sources:

Please note: Listening to audio clips requires the free Quicktime player.

Judging by these three sources, what did it mean for an African American to be a professional entertainer in the first two decades of the twentieth century?

Compare the two following eulogies written after Williams's death in 1922, one laudatory, the other critical.

Two eulogies for Williams:

Now compare them with a third eulogy, this one published as a Black Swan advertisement:

Although Williams appealed to both black and white audiences, commentators suggest that he appealed to them in different ways. Moreover, he has usually been spared the sharp criticism aimed at African American performers who acted out stereotyped roles. What allowed Williams to speak so poignantly to African Americans as a performer? How do you think different audiences understood his signature song, "Nobody"? What are we to make of the tragicomedy of the lyrics and the precise elocution of his talking/singing style? How did such a performance comment on African American stereotypes?