In October of 1974 the United States Supreme Court upheld a decision by the US District Court ruling in favor of CBS.
The network had been sued for defamation regarding a series of documentaries on Black America.
The first of these entitled Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed contained a sequence that described one of the old black movies stars and the character he created in less that glowing terms.
As narrator Bill Cosby put it, “The tradition of the lazy stupid crap shooter chicken stealing idiot was popularized by an actor named Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry.”
Perry was furious when he saw documentary and railed against CBS for slandering the image he created which in his own words was a credit to the film industry.
He had been waging this battle for many years. Taking great pride in what he accomplished and refusing to apologize even as public opinion and time had turned against him.The lawsuit was finished but Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit would continue the fight for the rest of his life.
Tambo and Bones and Mr Interlocutor
It should have been obvious to Bill Cosby and the producers of Lost, Stolen or Strayed that Stepin Fetchit did not popularize the tradition of the lazy stupid crap shooter chicken stealing idiot. How could he when that persona had been ingrained in the American psyche since the early 1800’s? By the time Perry arrived on the big screen that argument had long been settled.
It was in the 1830’s that white performer Thomas Rice first introduced his Jim Crow character to the stage. Rice in blackface and tattered clothes mimicked the speech, dance and songs of slaves. He became a hit with audiences and soon a new American art form was born: the minstrel show.
Blacks were stupid lazy buffoons. Carefree (meaning irresponsible) with a penchant toward thievery and superstition. There were no deviations or degrees of humanity.
They were all alike and White America ate it up.
But their was another strand to the minstrel show. In the 1840’s Black Americans got in on the act stressing they were the true minstrels since they were…well the people that were getting imitated.
Black performers perpetuated stereotypes but they also moved towards trying to humanize these characters without losing the exaggerations which were a big part of the shows.
They also very slyly poked fun at White society. Making comments on the world they lived in and the audience in front of them without incurring any resentment. Just being a Black performer (or Black period) invited backlash. No need to fan the flames if you didn’t have to but still make your point.
Much like the cakewalk dance later on which became a worldwide craze White people who were on the receiving end never figured out the joke was on them.
While the minstrel show declined during and after the Civil War years it didn’t completely fade from existence. Even as other forms of stage entertainment gained in prominence certain elements remained a part of the Black entertainment structure.
In part it was for necessity. Racial attitudes for a very long time remained harsh and unflinching. For another it was a way to escape the daily grind.
There were so few avenues open during this period that many had to take what they could get. The entertainment world even with it’s emphasis on portraying Blacks as dimwitted clowns was a ticket out.
Quite a few were very prosperous and it put them front and center in the Black community just as it had done for jockeys, prizefighters and those living the sporting life.
Blacks may not have been thrilled with how they were portrayed but the success these talented individuals achieved (largely because of Black audiences) allowed them to flaunt it while thumbing their nose at the restrictions society had placed on them.
In the eyes of many Black Americans these men and women had earned their celebrity status regardless of how.
It was this world Lincoln Perry came from when he first debuted on screen
“I represent the Negro who White people despise. The Negro who is supposed to be stupid but I put so much innocence and cleanliness into my roles I am actually making the Negro White.”
By his early twenties Lincoln Perry was a vaudevillian managing his own carnival show. He made it to Hollywood in 1925. With the emergence of sound Stepin Fetchit would become the movies first Black superstar reportedly earning at one point two million dollars a year.
His persona as the laziest man in the world was deeply immersed in the minstrel tradition but like the great entertainers of the past the characterization showed a great artist with a keen mind at work.
Dim-Witted To The Extreme
It’s other worldly dim wittedness. Maintaining almost a perfect state of conscious and unconscious. Like a sloth. Watching Stepin Fetchit at work I can’t believe sometimes he doesn’t just fall down.
Except it was a mask. Frustrate the people around you so completely they don’t want to have anything to do with you. It’s a polite way of saying “no not today” and making it stick without any backlash. In other words play the fool but don’t be one.
In scene after scene Stepin Fetchit is carrying on a running conversation with the other person, himself and apparently an invisible third party. Mumbling and rambling and you’re thinking okay where is this going?
Where it’s going is to some sly humor…
Perry was taking it back to the tradition of Black minstrels. Exaggerate it enough to cover yourself then let loose and get out fast.
It wasn’t stream of consciousness gobbledygook. Underneath the mask Perry had something to say. This was a constant with Stepin Fetchit. Insult the man to his face and he can’t make heads or tails out of what’s being said while Black people understood it perfectly.
For being the world’s laziest person there is very little stillness to Stepin Fetchit when he’s on the screen. In one way or another his body refuses to stop moving. It seems restless but is really in total harmony with what he’s doing. Like the image or not Perry knew his art and his instrument.
None of the other old Black movie stars from that era and not many White actors for that matter ever achieved the success of Lincoln Perry.
He flaunted his lavish lifestyle and Black America loved it. In almost every facet Stepin Fetchit was carrying on the tradition and if you were to ask many Black people back then doing just fine.
Not Stepin Up
Conventional wisdom is too often either or with no shades of grey.
In the case of Stepin Fetchit’s relationship with the Black America it comes down to Blacks grew tired of Perry’s shtick and the demeaning portrayals as a whole.
Actually Perry was in a number of race movies after he was no longer in demand.
What you see is the same thing you always see. Perry doing his thing. The obvious difference is he doing it among Black people. Judge Priest is one thing Miracle In Harlem is another.
Black people across a wide swath have never liked offensive portrayals of themselves just as any other people would feel the same way. No one could have felt good about Currier and Ives Darktown pictures or seeing White actors pretend to be Black with the most racist interpretation imaginable.
Black minstrel shows from the jubilee singing to boisterous high stepping complete with brass band in its own way celebrated Blackness.
They were aware of their environment and in particular who was watching them. Black people knew the game and what could be said and done without getting a rope tied around their neck.
Maybe some of them actually believed it but the depiction of their own kind in racist terms was necessary to a degree because it acted like a smoke screen. Whites laughed at the caricature. Blacks laughed at the caricature and what lay underneath.
There was no hue and cry from the Black community when the minstrel show ceased to be popular but while it was there Blacks used it to tell their story.
Perry was a worldwide success like none of the people that came before but his time was coming to a close.
A serious lack of financial discipline as well as all too frequent erratic behavior which garnered him unwanted headlines were contributing factors
That behavior was at the heart of Perry’s clashes with Twentieth Century Fox including studio head Darryl F Zanuck. Perry wanted better roles instead of just walking on and doing his shtick.
That wasn’t going to happen and by 1938 he was out at Fox Studios. By this time much to Perry’s anger and dismay Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the new Black superstar on the block. His collaborations with Shirley Temple had catapulted Robinson (already a phenomenon before films) to fame rivaling and in many ways surpassing Stepin Fetchit. If Mr Bones wanted to quit then Mr Interlocutor was waiting in the wings.
From Burnt Cork to Real Face
“It takes time and I don’t believe that we will gain by rushing or attempting to force studios to do anything they are not readily inclined to do.” Hattie McDaniel
Quite a few leaders in Black America were familiar with this go along to get along refrain coming out of Black Hollywood.
Just don’t say anything and over time things will work out. No need to make waves.
Yet that’s exactly what needed to happen and sensing it wasn’t going to NAACP President Walter White stepped in.
Perry, McDaniel and others didn’t have the clout (and from White’s perspective desire) to push the image of Black America forward therefore it fell to him.
“It was Step who elevated the Negro to the dignity of a Hollywood star. I made the Negro a first-class citizen all over the world…somebody it was all right to associate with. I opened all the theaters”
Perry was famous around the world but this comment is complete nonsense. If he had elevated the Negro to first class citizenship then the Civil Rights Movement would have been an after thought.
Theaters and just about every other area of American life remained rigidly segregated. The whites only signs remained in place including in movie theaters. Separate as Supreme Court Justice Earle Warren noted was inherently unequal.
Perry was playing the game of revisionist history considering he told an interviewer years before that he didn’t want to offend the sensibilities of White southerners and even questioned the drive for social equality which kind of defeated his point about making Black people first class citizens.
The cold hard truth is Stepin Fetchit for all of his talent was a superstar for the same reason as the Black minstrels who came before him. The racism of the time made him one.
In this way he’s right. Perry was continuing a long line of black minstrelsy and there was no way he could or should reject where he came from. The thing that made him a star on a global scale.
While Cosby and the producers had a point they failed to put it into context of the history of what Perry was actually doing and the meaning behind it.
It doesn’t excuse Perry and others for not continuing the activism needed to push the imagery forward then later on claiming they did but it doesn’t take away from his comic genius or the tradition it came from either.