In the eyes of UCSD Professor Camille F. Forbes, black history is American history. With a retrospective glance to 19th century and early 20th century minstrel shows, racism and struggle for black performers, Forbes sees a period in history vital to the understanding of the entire American culture, not just that of black people.
Forbes, who is Jamaican, is an assistant professor of African-American literature and culture. In her new book, “Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star,” Forbes gives legendary West Indian entertainer Bert Williams center stage as she explores his struggles and successes as a black performer under the spotlight of racism.
Williams has been criticized, often by black people, for his decision to perform in “blackface,” a makeup technique typically employed by white performers as a comedic display of the racist images of a “darky.”
In a conversation with the La Jolla Light, Forbes, who is a performer herself, discusses how this decision impacted Williams’ career, points out the traces of his influence in black entertainment today and draws a connection between the “first black star” and one of the biggest black stars in the 21st century, Dave Chappelle.
Q: Explain the title of your book.
A: “Burnt Cork” – Makeup that he wore in performance, which is really essential to understanding his challenges and his triumphs as [a black actor] attempting to play stereotypes with a degree of humanity and sensitivity that would allow audiences to commiserate and relate to him instead of mock him.
“Broadway” – He spent much of his career working on Broadway. [It’s] partly a kind of shorthand term talking about entertainment in that period.
“First Black Star” – First black superstar performer. There were other actors of course. He achieved a prominence and was able to make certain demands in terms of pay, access. He was able to have a kind of achievement that was unheard of.
Q: How did you become interested in Bert Williams?
A: Thinking about, ‘Who are the people who came before who might have influence?': forbears of entertainment today. What were they up against? I’d never heard of Williams before. In the references made to him, that he was a first-rate comedian on stage, the preeminent black star, and yet he was unfamiliar to me and I came to find that he was an influence to lots of other people. It seemed that there was an important story to be told there.
Q: How did performing in blackface impact Williams?
A: He came into himself as a performer and comic through use of that blackface. He was able to somehow think differently about it, add complexity. In the short run, there was something freeing about that. Over time, what becomes clear is how difficult it is to remain optimistic about what the larger American society, white public, is thinking about what he’s doing on stage. As he sees the reality of bias in practice in the North, he became increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of it really just being liberatory. If there aren’t these kinds of changes in circumstances in society, it starts to feel more like a trap.
Post WWI, he saw black soldiers returning after fighting abroad with the French with great dignity, returning seeing things unchanged and really thinking more so than ever, ‘What is this baffling practice of segregation?’
He often faced this disparity between being loved and adored by public on stage and having to face taking the freight elevator when he left that stage.
Q: How were you introduced to black literature and performance?
A: Very informally. I remember learning a lot about toasts and that kind of ritual growing up from my parents. There is a kind of presentation mode, comical part of almost telling a story during a toast.
I did a senior essay on rap and it’s relationship to communities in crisis and giving voice to communities. I had family living in the Bronx and knowing some of the people who were kind of there in the beginning of what would later be known as rap or hip hop.
Q: In what ways do you see Williams’ influence on today’s black entertainers?
A: When I look at someone like Dave Chappelle, it’s more of what I see reflected in his experience ... at the time when he had, [what has] been described as a “breakdown"– very much a realization of being power broke on the one hand and having to deal with, in a sense, being misunderstood on the other hand and the disappointment and devastation from an experience like that.
‘Is this fame power just an illusion? What part of it is real?’ When we saw Chappelle trying to make sense of that ... suddenly he says, ‘What’s going on here?’
That kind of assessment was part of Williams’ everyday life. Even the most direct criticism of [society] can be missed if an audience decides, ‘I’m hear to laugh, not to think.’ Comics often want their work to do much more than entertain.
Q: Who are your influences as a performer?
A: I’ve been very interested in the kinds of ways that performers use characters in their comedy. Looking at some of Whoopi Goldberg’s work, doing her one-woman show, dealing with things that are seen as stereotypes and being willing to challenge and humanize and give space to being seen and heard; Richard Pryor; John Leguizamo: lots of different representations of what Latino is and challenging some of those. Some of the work that Dave Chappelle has done has been challenging in that way. It’s meaningful for me to see how seriously these performers can ... work when they ... challenge an audience to view.
Q: What do you hope readers get out of your book?
A: To see what a performer [experienced] during that time and historicize it; to talk about what things in the society were making it that much more challenging; to get a clearer sense of the dynamics of the time.