The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora

Louis Chude-Sokei,
The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora.
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.
ISBN 0 8223 3643 x
US$22.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

Theirs was in fact a unique and legitimate form of musical theatre, as most commentators would recognize and most black audiences would appreciate. But it was the presence of Williams’s blackface mask that anchored the performance for the white audience. In the Williams and Walker stage shows, he was the only one left onstage who wore it. George Walker did not, Ada Overton Walker did not, nor did the supporting cast […]. Because of the aesthetic and political safety associated with the symbol of the mask, Williams’s and Walker’s performances were allowed to function as minstrelsy despite the very obvious and very radical formal departures they brought to the stage. It is as if Williams and Walker were able to sneak a legitimate and innovative black musical theatre into popular culture underneath Williams’s mask, complete with complex, original, and progressive (for the most part and for their time) depictions of African American men and women.

Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last “Darky,” (32)

In his day Bert Williams was what would now be called a superstar. Recognised by his contemporaries as one of the greatest comedians to occupy and indeed reshape the American stage, Williams was not just a star in the US, he was an international star. His comedy – performed in and through blackface from early in his career – was applauded not only in the US but also abroad. Williams, along with his partner George Walker and their performance troupe, toured Britain with their production In Dahomey (which they performed for the British royalty).

Williams also performed in a number of early films and made many sound recordings (according to Lisa Gitelman, the Victor and Columbia labels recorded nearly eighty Williams’s songs between them[1] ), and through these recordings his form of minstrelsy travelled even farther a field. As Louis Chude-Sokei writes in the introduction to his new book on the comedic performer, Williams was “arguably the first black performer who could be described as an international pop star” (1). Williams’s decision to join the Ziegfield Follies in 1910 marked and in many ways enabled the racial integration of Broadway and Williams’s and Walker’s musical spectacular In Dahomey predated and made possible the more well known black musicals of the next decade such as Shuffle Along. And yet while Williams was acclaimed during his lifetime by both fellow entertainers (W. C. Fields famously described Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew”) as well as public intellectuals and political leaders from W.E.B. Du Bois to Booker T. Washington, in the decades since his death his name and his work have often faded from view or been met with an awkward, qualified, appreciation.

This designating of Williams to history’s shadows has largely been a result of the following generations’ ambivalence towards (or straight out rejection of) the figure of the minstrel, and “after generations of nationalist erasure,” Chude-Sokei writes, “Williams’s name has almost disappeared” (20).[2] Certainly Williams has not attracted the same kind of popular or academic attention as performers like Josephine Baker whose performances – like those of Williams and Walker – also involved forms of black-on-black masquerade (though without blackface) and also critically engaged with forms of ethnographic spectacle (and one of Chude-Sokei’s key arguments is that the forms of masquerade and urban primitivism that characterise the work of performers such as Baker were made possible by the form of “plural masking” at play in Williams’s minstrelsy). But while Williams’s name may have “almost disappeared,” over the last few years his work has, however, begun to receive renewed interest and critical attention, particularly in terms of the ways that he deployed and refigured the minstrel mask.

Chude-Sokei’s 2006 book The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-On-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora is not the only recent book that aims to bring Williams out of history’s shadows. Karen Sotiropoulos’s Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America [3] was also published this year and deals extensively with Williams’s and Walker’s work and the ways that these pioneers of black musical theatre critically reclaimed the figure of the minstrel. Caryl Phillips’ 2005 novel Dancing in the Dark also takes Williams as its subject.[4] Interweaving real and fictional documents including theatre reviews, excerpts from Williams and Walker stage shows, and song lyrics, Phillips’s novel draws a Williams that is increasingly troubled and isolated by what the performer saw, in his later years, as the failed reception of his work. Narrated through a number of characters, Dancing in the Dark explores Williams’s relation to what Phillips calls his “performative bondage” (Williams was reluctant to wear the blackface mask but saw it as a means to an end) and charts the Afro-Caribbean performer’s growing sense of homelessness in a Harlem that was increasingly defining itself against the figure of the minstrel. Nor are these the only books on this blackface performer: Williams has been the subject of a few biographies over the years, and his work has also been discussed in most major studies of blackface performance, from Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise (which Chude-Sokei draws on and discusses in his own book) to Arthur Knight’s more recent study Disintegrating the Musical.[5]

Chude-Sokei’s The Last “Darky” makes a significant contribution to studies of the history of minstrelsy and blackface performance, most notably through his discussion of the “global economy of minstrelsy,” and he argues a strong case for Williams’s importance in the development of a transatlantic modernism. As is also the case in some of the more recent publications that deal with Williams’s work, Chude-Sokei’s book is particularly interested in the form of masquerade that Williams and his partner George Walker developed. For Chude-Sokei, one of the problems with the ways that Bert Williams’s work has been remembered is that the focus on the fact of Williams’s blackface mask has all too frequently meant a blindness to the ways that he worked the mask – or rather, to the ways he mobilised various masks to not only rewrite and critique the figure of the “minstrel black” or “stage Negro” through and against its white racist form, but also, and very importantly for The Last “Darky”, as a way of generating and engaging in forms of intra-racial, cross-cultural dialogue. Central to Chude-Sokei’s study is a repositioning of minstrelsy beyond the borders of the US and its “bichromatic” racial politics: as Chude-Sokei argues, minstrelsy spoke “not simply to the bichromatism or American or British race relations but also to the interactions of various black colonial subjects with each other throughout the African dispersal” (146).

Chude-Sokei’s book re-positions Williams’ work in the context of an “emergent diaspora sensibility” that was “dependent on artifice, impersonation, and fraud and which then laid the foundations for both pan-Africanism and a contemporary Black Atlantic discourse for which pan-Africanism is its political unconscious” (13). Williams’s minstrelsy, Chude-Sokei argues, played an important role in the development of this diaspora sensibility, particularly through the forms of cross-cultural dialogue he developed through his reworking of the minstrel mask. And yet “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.” (22).

In this respect, The Last “Darky” is driven by and structured around two key interrelated arguments. On the one hand Chude-Sokei is interested in the ways that minstrelsy provided a ground for a transnational black modernism. In one of the book’s more remarkable passages he puts forward this argument as follows:

Minstrelsy and its dramatizing of the various meanings of race were, then, not a set of concerns limited to the coteries of Harlem’s renaissance or even to those who preceded Harlem and made its cultural explosion possible. Nor was minstrelsy a popular cultural phenomenon only in the United States and England. Because the aesthetic of minstrelsy could so spill off the stage and become prominent both on the periphery of these various sites of performance/exhibition/containment as well as within privileged sites of black resistance, it is impossible to not see and hear the tension of black skin under black mask as in fact constitutive of another kind of black modernism. This was a modernism that was international but saw itself within a self-generated simulacrum where race signified identity as much as it did disguise and where the stage became a virtual space that connected various black communities throughout the diaspora who spoke to and of each other via blackface performance. (141)

On the other hand (and at the same time) Chude-Sokei uses Williams’s work to trace and give voice to an “American legacy of intra-racial cross-cultural discourse that is increasingly in need of a far more sophisticated hearing than that allowed by American racial binaries and the mere mask that black often signifies” (11).

These two interrelated arguments are the book’s core contribution to and intervention in contemporary debates around black-on-black minstrelsy. But this focus also, perhaps, explains one of the book’s frustrations: what often seems to be left in the sidelines in The Last “Darky” is Williams’s performance work itself. In a particularly unwieldy sentence from the book’s introduction, Chude-Sokei describes the project’s aim and Williams’s position within it: “Though Bert Williams’s story is the convenient fulcrum and opportunity for narrative shape and extended interpretation, the ultimate concern is in fact the intricate patterns of cross-culturality at work within the assumptions of racial solidarity and behind all attempts to fix race into a bi-chromatic schema in the context of an American imperialism that was as dependent on domestic racism as it was on the legacy of European colonialism.” (11) While Chude-Sokei develops a fascinating argument about the forms of “plural masking” that characterise Williams’s minstrelsy, positioning his masquerade and forms of disappearance in relation to the masking traditions of the Caribbean and calypso, as well as to ethnographic spectacles and colonial exhibitions, his book can also leave the reader longing for more detailed descriptions of Williams’s performances themselves. After a punchy introduction that outlines the complexity and importance of Williams’s work, the reader must wait till Chapter 5 (the second last chapter) for a detailed analysis of one of Williams’s performances, where Chude-Sokei develops a rich and fascinating reading of Williams’s and Walker’s acclaimed production In Dahomey and its radical refiguring of minstrelsy. But elsewhere in the book there is remarkably little discussion of Williams’s “plural masking” in action, either in his stage performances or in his recordings and film performances (where, presumably, the play of masks would take a somewhat different form). When it comes to a discussion of Williams’s craft, Caryl Phillips’s novel seems to devote more space to summoning and restaging Williams’s acts, and in this respect Dancing in the Dark may offer its reader more of a sense of the intricacies of Williams’s performance work in action than Chude-Sokei’s study. This issue of the place of discussion of Williams’s performance work in The Last “Darky” is, however, one of the most interesting aspects of the book. In The Last “Darky” Williams’s performances often seem to slip from view in a play of appearance, disappearance, and dispersal as Chude-Sokei traces the sources, cultural and political contexts, and afterlives of Williams’s plural masking. This makes The Last “Darky” a complex and intriguing book for those interested in theatre history and performance studies, for in many respects what Chude-Sokei explores and puts into practice here is his claim that Bert Williams’s form of masking “diverted attention from the fact that cultural power emerged less in the act of revelation than in the inexorable process of masking.” (56)

While impressive in its scope The Last “Darky” is, at times, a difficult book. This is partly perhaps because of the sheer number of debates, cultural practices, and characters that it brings to the table in its discussion of Williams’s black-on-black minstrelsy, but it is also because of the writing itself, which is not always as tight or structured as it could be. Following the nuances of Chude-Sokei’s arguments often requires the reader to retrace his or her steps as, for instance, in the shifting distinctions Chude-Sokei makes between invisibility, disappearance, and absence in Williams’s form of plural masking.[6] Considering the importance of these concepts in and for Chude-Sokei’s project (and the ways that he positions Williams’s forms of disappearance and invisibility in relation to Ralph Ellison’s concept of invisibility), these slippages tend to weaken the book’s moves and arguments. Nevertheless, The Last “Darky” is a book that offers much to understandings of black-on-black minstrelsy and its histories in the US and throughout the African diaspora. For those interested in the history of black musical theatre in the US, Chude-Sokei’s discussion of the work of performer and choreographer Ada Overton Walker (George Walker’s wife and in many ways the third partner in the Williams’s and Walker phenomenon) will also be of particular interest. For readers interested in the histories and legacies of blackface performance, particularly as it crossed to Broadway and then to film, Chude-Sokei’s study offers a rich and valuable account of the impact of Bert Williams’s form of minstrelsy – and its forgetting – on the black cultural producers that followed him.

Jodi Brooks
University of New South Wales, Australia.

[1] Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999), p.135.
[2] And one of the key things that have been all too often forgotten for Chude-Sokei is that Williams was West Indian, not an African American. This is not simply a biographical detail that has often been overlooked in studies of the history of blackface and turn of the century black American performers but is crucial for understanding Williams’ work. (And a cursory glance across a range of studies that discuss Williams’s work reveal that he has often been misnamed as an African American performer, as is the case, for instance, in Mel Watkins’s book On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying – The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor [New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1994] and in Lisa Gitelman’s fascinating study Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines.) Williams’s West Indian heritage – and the fact that he was a West Indian immigrant in a country that has all too often equated “black” with “African American” – is important for understanding both the ways that he drew on West Indian cultural forms and gave voice to the experience of West Indian immigrants in Harlem through his form of black-on-black minstrelsy.
[3] Karen Sotiropoulos, Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Harvard University Press, 2006).
[4] Caryl Phillips, Dancing in the Dark (London: Secker &Warburg, 2005).
[5] See Ann Charters, Nobody: the Story of Bert Williams (London: Macmillan, 1970) and Eric Ledell Smith, Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1992); Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Arthur Knight, Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002).
[6] Compare, for instance, the following passages: “Bert Williams was actively and strategically silent in the din of multiple overdeterminations. He became and occupied ‘Nobody.’ But in so doing, his absence was not invisibility. The weight of the tragicomic mask was the weight of multiplicity…” (45); “like the invisibility of Ellison’s Invisible Man, [Williams’s disappearance] does not quite signify erasure and remains a palpable absence: a signifying vortex of multiple meanings, languages, dialects, and masks” (51) and “His signature was ‘Nobody.’ His persona was Mr. Nobody. His performance was erasure, not invisibility.” (54).
Created on: Friday, 24 November 2006

About the Author

Jodi Brooks

About the Authors

Jodi Brooks

Dr Jodi Brooks is Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at University of New South Wales. Her essays have appeared in Screen, Continuum and Senses of Cinema.View all posts by Jodi Brooks →