Bert Williams: The Funniest Man We Never Saw, the Saddest Man We Never Knew

“The Funniest Man We Never Saw, The Saddest Man We Never Knew” – W.C. Fields

Known during his lifetime as “the funniest man in America,” Egbert “Bert” Austin Williams enjoyed fame as the straight man and ballad singer of the African American comedy team of Williams and Walker. Together, the two men became one of the best-known acts of musical comedy during the early twentieth century. Williams met his partner, George Walker, in San Francisco in 1893, when he began performing in order to finance his studies at Stanford University. They worked their way to New York, where in 1896 they appeared in Victor Herbert’s Gold Bug. The two performed in such musical comedy hits as The Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1908). When Walker retired, Williams starred in Mr. Lode of Koal (1909), then performed with Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies from 1910 to 1919. In 1920 Williams joined fellow entertainer Eddie Cantor in Broadway Brevities. Williams was admired for impeccable comedic timing and pantomimes. He died in 1922 after opening in Under the Bamboo Tree. – St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture

 

His Story

Long before our run terminated, we discovered an important fact: that the hope of the colored performer must be in making a radical departure from the old time “darky” style of singing and dancing. So we set ourselves the task of thinking along new lines. The first move was to hire a flat in 53rd St., furnish it, and throw our doors….The Williams and Walker flat soon became the headquarters of all the artistic young men of our race who were stage struck….By having these men about us we had the opportunity to study the musical and theatrical ability of the most talented members of our race. – Bert Williams

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Bert Williams bore the brunt of ridicule—of ridicule from the Negro press—and fought his noble fight. Today the results are just coming to light. The demand for Negro shows on Broadway is taking a number of Negro girls and men out of kitchens and pool rooms and janitor service. Bert Williams’ tree—to him one of gall—is already beginning to bear fruit, and there is no telling how long the harvest will last. – Eric Walrond, Carribbean writer

Bert Williams was born at New Providence, Nassau, in the British Bahama Islands, and is now thirty-five years of age. His grand-father was a white man, the Danish and Spanish Consul for the Bahama Islands, who married a quadroon. His grandfather, who owned a number of small ships, made consider- able money during the Civil War, which he lost later in investments in the United States. When he was two years old, Frederick Williams, Mr. Williams’s father, came to New York. Here he learned the trade of papier-mache maker, and this brought him into connection with the New York theatres. Thus Bert Williams got his first acquaintance with the theatre when he was a boy.

Although Williams had lived in America since he was ten years old, his strong identification with his West Indian birthplace meant that he never felt completely comfortable with his neighbors in Harlem, and he was denied companionship and support from people of his own race. He hired a West Indian chauffeur to take him to the theater, insisting that cafes lowering the color bar to serve him, must also serve his driver. Williams was in a constant state of exile: from the white culture, from which he was barred because he was a Negro; and from his Harlem neighbors and theatrical acquaintances, because he remained at heart a West Indian. – Ann Charters

Better educated than most African Americans of the time, Williams finished high school and enrolled at Stanford University. Early performing success, however, encouraged him into show business playing in minstrel troupes. Although he attempted to become a serious singer, setbacks forced him back into minstrelsy. Small-time minstrel shows turned into big-time vaudeville after Williams paired up with his long-term partner, George Walker, and the run of successes, which included popularizing the Cakewalk and a Broadway musical, continued until 1909 when Walker’s illness forced his retirement. Williams then pursued a new career as a stand-up comedian, joining Ziegfeld’s Follies and performing with such century African American actor who stars as Eddie Cantor and W. C. Fields. often performed in blackface. (Library In 1915, he produced, directed, and of Congress) starred in the films Fish and Natural Born Gambler (1916) for the Biograph Company. Williams also recorded his own songs on wax cylinders and early phonograph records. Further appearances with the Ziegfeld troupe continued throughout the decade, but heavy drinking, chronic depression, and overwork extracted a heavy toll.

Despite his star status, he could not eat or socialize with his peers or even stay in the same hotels. He once said that what made discrimination so bad was that he could always still hear the audience’s applause thundering in his ears. Yes, Bert Williams finally made history by integrating Broadway and appropriating minstrelsy. But he did it at the price of the masquerade, wearing a mask he hated but was never allowed to remove onstage. Moreover, it is arguable that his great international success on Broadway, in film, and in recordings helped keep the dying form of minstrelsy alive far longer than it would have survived had he never lifted it beyond its roots in sideshow spectacle and made it, for a time, legitimate art.

Williams had to violently wrest minstrelsy from whites, which he did through the bold and ironic gesture of advertising himself and George Walker as ‘‘Two Real Coons.’’ However, it is important to note that the struggle for ‘‘realness’’ or authenticity in a minstrel’s performance existed within the tradition of white minstrelsy itself. As the pugnacious Nick Tosches documents in his challenging and utterly fascinating book on minstrelsy, Where Dead Voices Gather, white minstrels competed and were prized for their ability to perform as ‘‘natural nigger singers’’ or even were celebrated as ‘‘natural born nigger singers.’’ In this case racial authenticity was utterly independent of race and utterly depen- dent on performance. Tosches offers us a helpful neologism to name this particular collusion of cross-racial fascination, racism, and the obsession with mimetic fidelity: ‘‘negrisimilitude.’

For black performers to perform the realness of the fictional ‘‘coon’’ was a direct political contestation that occurred in the realm of American racial fantasy. This gesture was an act of reclamation that links black minstrelsy to the emergent black nationalisms in turn-of-the-century America. Certainly minstrelsy was the only national space allowed black theater performers and, in many cases, writers, dancers, singers, and musicians up until and beyond the ‘‘jazz age.’’

Bert Williams’s techniques of theorizing and distancing himself from the mask he wore and was never allowed to remove onstage did not make the job of ‘‘darky’’ any easier. Irony could only lessen the blow, not evade it. Perhaps the greatest difficulty came from having to stick so closely to the norms of the racist tradition in order to get work, while at the same time projecting a modern black subjectivity which made specific political.

‘‘I reached the conclusion last spring that I could best represent my race by doing pioneer work. It was far better to have joined a large white show than to have starred in a colored show, considering conditions.’’ – Bert Williams

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Make it Mines

What allowed him to cross that color line, in fact the agreement made between early-twentieth-century American spectacle and race, was the blackface mask. To enter on the white stage as a black performer required that he wear the minstrel mask as if hyperbolically to signify his di√erence as other while simultaneously comforting the audience with the warm, familiar, unthreatening meanings of minstrelsy. So where Eddie Cantor’s mask was worn to emphasize that he was not a Negro, Bert Williams’s was worn to emphasize that he emphatically was one—and in so doing he maintained an epistemological balance, a social contract.

Jewish immigrants for whom minstrelsy was a strategy of projection used to achieve social whiteness while distancing themselves from the extreme otherness of the African American. Rogin cites Williams as the greatest of those black performers who denatured the mask and attempted to sever the essential connection between the signifier and signified: ‘‘Williams masqueraded as a minstrel black, and one need only listen to him sing his signature song, ‘Nobody,’ to hear him turn self-denigrating irony against the viewer.

Certainly by the time of Bert Williams’s black-on-black minstrelsy on Broadway, by the time of his very public act of disappearing behind his hypervisibility, minstrelsy had undergone a series of transformations. It had been reclaimed by nonwhite performers, though few of them had the kind of self-conscious politics of the Williams and Walker stage shows. Williams and Walker, it must be stressed, worked within the assumptions of assimilationist nationalism. They had the sanction of political figures like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, and initially the wider black community for whom their success as independent Negroes was enough to reduce the lingering traces of minstrelsy to merely vestigial aches. Their transformations of the form of minstrelsy would be repressed or evoked as a sign of racial trauma by subsequent generations of black culture producers in the United States; from the Harlem Renaissance up to the contemporary moment, as, for example, in Spike Lee’s deeply troubled film Bamboozled (2001), which features multiple images of Bert Williams as well as some of his most well-known costumes. For these generations the very mask was too shameful to even quibble about its various and intricate semantic or signifying possibilities or to even dare connect to Du-Boisian double-consciousness or assimilation.

Also, as black men motivated by the almost Victorian sensibilities of bourgeois assimilationism, they were denied the pleasures of that total abandonment to the libido that gave minstrelsy its ludic ritual value. For them ‘‘the Negro’’ simply did not mean the ‘‘id.’’ If anything, as represented by the ‘‘darky,’’ it was a negative image of the white superego that relentlessly sought entry into the black psyche; a demon to be exorcised. Minstrelsy for them had to function within the discourse of racial uplift which, of course, by the time of the Harlem Renaissance had uncritically positioned the minstrel as a figure of the ignoble past. But by this very gesture—by naming their fear—the minstrel was then empowered, as an image of the movement’s own political undoing.

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The Man

Williams died in 1922, a year particularly significant for the West Indian presence in Harlem. It was the social moment of the Harlem Renaissance, the year Marcus Garvey was jailed for mail fraud and the year Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows was published; it was also the height of the anti– West Indian fervor that struck black Harlem during the months before the Garvey indictment, which came soon after his fateful meeting with the Ku Klux Klan. But since his career spans the period of the greatest Caribbean migration to the United States, from the last decades of the nineteenth century to and just beyond the period of the Harlem Renaissance, Bert Williams’s persona dramatizes the tensions at work in the migrant black West Indian psyche upon transatlantic landfall. Rather than simply functioning as a convenient sign for a heuristic and excessively materialist ‘‘Black Atlantic’’ dis- cursive framework, he allows an interrogation of the micropolitical and psychosocial impact of these post- and neocolonial black migratory patterns, the shifting patterns of identity, affiliation, and differentiation.

Booker T. Washington collapses the mask into the face, celebrating the performance as the performer, and reads the mask inside out, as all too many would. For him the actions of Bert Williams’s persona are indistinguishable from Bert Williams himself.  Bert Williams’s last show, considered one of his best, was Under the Bamboo Tree. He died on March 4, 1922, while touring with the production in Detroit. He was the original comic who never got any respect, an individual of great personal dignity who was never allowed to show it on stage.

‘‘Bert Williams has done more for the race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts. I have been obliged to fight my way.’’ And Williams’s use of dialect and the minstrel tradition is not parodic or multilayered in this hearing—nor is it self-hating and regressive. It is no more and no less than a refusal to ‘‘whine and complain.’’ The comedian’s incredible success was proof of America’s progress from racism toward a true meritocracy, and minstrelsy—black minstrelsy—could be a sign of that movement. – Booker T. Washington

Although Williams claimed that blacking up liberated him, it also became something of a straitjacket, as did the exaggerated language of the minstrel show—“as much a foreign dialect as that of Italian,” he later observed.  Even though he was a star onstage, he was forced to comply with the dictates of segregation off it. Returning to his luxury hotel with Cantor, Williams commented on the irony of being forced to use the back door: “It wouldn’t be so bad, Eddie, if I didn’t still hear the applause ringing in my ears.”

 

Source:

Social History of the United States by Brian Greenberg, Linda S. Watts, Richard A. Greenwald, Gordon Reavley, Alice L. George, Scott Beekman, Cecelia Bucki, Mark Ciabattari, John C. Stoner, Troy D. Paino, Laurie Mercier, Andrew Hunt, Peter C. Holloran, Nancy Cohen, October 2008, Bert Williams, Pages 344-345

Williams, Bert (1874–1922), St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture
Ed. Thomas Riggs. Vol. 5. 2nd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2013. p373. COPYRIGHT 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning

The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora
By Louis Chude-Sokei, Book | Published in 2005, DOI: 10.1215/9780822387060, ISBN (paper): 978-0-8223-3643-3, ISBN (cloth): 978-0-8223-3605-1, ISBN (electronic): 978-0-8223-8706-0

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Very interesting perspective on the artistic life of Bert Williams. Thank you for introducing him to me. His artistic contribution to the Black American experience reminds me of actor-producer,Tyler Perry.

    I personally say, death to modern day minstrel shows. Black producers and entertainers can do a better job expressing Black talents and creativity respecting the Black American experience and struggles e.g. Spike Lee, than Hollywood White executive producers of movie and music couple with these mediums distribution chains into the society but racial stereotypical input in our society continue in the field of American Entertainment. Simply because, Hollywood is all about that mighty dollar – if it sells at the box office produce it. – Spiritually I have much respect for all humans artistic and creativity talents because human innate behaviors and creative talents will find a path or medium of expression in life with the least resistance to display ones / individual creativity to the world even with the entertainment industry, such as it is, in exposing positive and negative imagery to the world, such is the world.

    Humanity is not perfected yet, so each individual coming into existence or birth in life must choose a balance between a positive existence or a negative existence in life which one is comfortable with their own spirituality, positive or negative. We do this knowingly or unknowingly as humans.

    Like

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