From Bert Williams to “Strange Fruit”: Race and U.S The Inauguration

January 13, 2024
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From Bert Williams to “Strange Fruit”: Race and U.S The Inauguration

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Friday, January 20, 2017.

Black British Singer Rebecca Ferguson, recently announced that she would accept an invitation to perform at today’s inauguration of  Donald Trump, with the caveat that she be allowed to sing the classic anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit.”  Ferguson’s decision recall a similar decision almost 40 years ago by Black celebrity, to perform at the inauguration of a another hugely unpopular President among Black audiences.

In January of 1981 and at the peak of his career, actor, singer and dancer Ben Vereen was asked to perform at an inaugural celebration for Ronald Reagan. With a successful career on the stage, winning a Tony Award for Pippin in 1973,  Vereen become a household name on the strength of his role as Chicken George, grandson of Kunte Kinte, in the ground-breaking mini-series Roots (1977). With access, perhaps, to his greatest stage, Vereen chose to pay tribute to America’s first Black cross-over artist, Bert Williams.

Williams, who was the first African-American to have a starring role for the famed Ziegfeld Follies in 1910, and who with partner George Walker, once labeled their minstrel act as “two real coons,” is today the most well-known Black-face minstrel.  Born in the Bahamas in 1874, Williams’s ability to perform so-called “authentic” Black American culture, made him a major star.  With his mainstream success, Williams paved the way for generations of Black stage and movie performers, though the Blackface minstrelsy that  was his vehicle is often looked back on with disdain and shame.

It was perhaps such shame that Vereen was hoping to address, when he began performing tributes to Williams in the early 1970s.  As Vereen told the Los Angeles Times in 1975, “I’m dealing with cleaning up Black history—the uncle Tom/coon era. Bert was one of the highest paid vaudevillians, yet he couldn’t share a dressing room with a white man.” Given his history of portraying Williams, Vereen probably thought nothing about the performance as he stepped on stage that evening in January of 1981, even as Black leaders had already dubbed the Reagan presidency as the beginning of a new nadir of the Civil Rights period.

As part of his performance, Vereen began with an introduction that explained the indignities that Williams faced, including the task of putting  charcoal on his face on a nightly basis, in order to be transformed into the “darky” that White Americans—and quite a few Black Americans—found so alluring.  Unfortunately, when Vereen’s performance was aired by CBS, the introduction was edited out.  As Camille Forbes, author of Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star, describes the performance, “the appearance included only an image of Ben Vereen, a black man, seemingly shuffling and dancing in blackface.”

Negative reaction to Vereen’s performance was relatively swift, this in the era before 24-hour news coverage and with no #BlackTwitter to drag him. Noted Black journalist Williams Raspberry queried in the Washington Post, “What sort of commentary was this on the prospective relationship between black America and the Reagan administration?…Didn’t Ben Vereen in particular understand the hazard implicit in re-awakening this shameful stereotype?”  Earl Calloway, writing in the Pittsburgh Courier was less diplomatic: “last night’s performance was a devastating blow to the progress of social and economical equality which black Americans have received in entertainment.”

The controversy speaks to the ways that the images of Blackness are intimately related to how Black Americans feel about their political realities. Vereen had previously performed his Bert Williams tribute for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford without much comment, but the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 raised the stakes associated with the circulation of so-called negative stereotypes.  

For his part Vereen, was clear about his intent, telling The Washington Post, “I was trying to say that Blackness didn’t start with The Supremes. I was trying to show a part of our history that needs to be seen and heard.  I am very proud of my heritage.”  Vereen also wanted to bring the brilliance of  Williams back from obscurity.  As he told television host Tony Brown, many audiences simply didn’t know he was paying tribute to a Black man, as many only recalled the Blackface minstrelsy of the White performer Al Jolson.

Ferguson, with her offer, seemingly wanted to call President-elect Trump’s bluff. “Strange Fruit,”  a song written by Abel Meeropol, was a linchpin of Black (and Progressive White) resistance to anti-Black violence in the South. Billie Holiday’s performance of the song — like “God Bless the Child,” it became one of her signature tunes — made her a target of the Surveillance State, with risks associated, that few have faced since.  The significance of the song will likely be lost on most in attendance at Mr. Trump’s inauguration, yet it is a reminder of a long tradition of such resistance in the arts.

In his own way Bert Williams was emblematic of that resistance, attempting to fuse his Blackface performance with a sense of Black humanity (inclusive of the humorous aspects of Black life) and indeed, Vereen’s gesture 36 years ago, however misinterpreted, was an attempt to do the same for Williams and Black America.

An intellectual and a professor of Africana Studies, Mark Anthony Neal has been conjuring analogue for a digital world for a long time. Check him out at @NewBlackMan + @LeftofBlack + BookerBBBrown on the ‘Gram + and the homebase at NewBlackMan (in Exile).

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