Back in Blackface

The rehabilitation of “Stepin Fetchit.’

Few pop consumers remember who Stepin Fetchit was. That must mean we’ve come a long way from the period when mass media trafficked in racist black stereotypes, because Stepin Fetchit was one of the primary purveyors of that iconography. The minstrel-show tradition that lampooned African-Americans (sometimes by white performers in blackface) was kept going by Stepin Fetchit himself, who was black by birth and a race clown by chosen profession. This complicated identity is the subject of Mel Watkins’ recent biography Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, an account of the history of the notorious film- and stage performer who shuck-and-jived his way into mid-20th-century American pop consciousness.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry—the actor who created Stepin Fetchit—was born in 1902 and named to honor presidents. An emblematic figure in 1930s Hollywood, Perry played the quintessential lazy, foolish American Negro—first on the black vaudeville “chitlin’ circuit,” where he got the tag“The Laziest Man on Earth,” and later in dozens of movies. But with the advent of the civil rights era, Fetchit became a target of radical political sentiments. He was famously excoriated on a 1968 primetime CBS documentary Of Black America narrated by Bill Cosby. In the decades since, he has been virtually forgotten. Some biographers might see this as rough justice, but not Mel Watkins, who takes his cue from the contemporary range of black pop performers—from Samuel L. Jackson’s raging violence to Snoop Dogg’s indolent pandering to Chris Rock’s black-on-black ridicule. In this new spirit of relaxed embarrassment, Watkins attempts to rehabilitate Stepin Fetchit’s reputation.

From popular to pariah

Watkins starts by dedicating the book to “all of the early twentieth-century black comedians who, under the most repressive conditions, satirized and labored to humanize the nation’s distorted image of African Americans.” That’s Watkins’ sly means of shifting your interest past Fetchit and onto the larger conundrum of African-American humor. It’s a strategy tailored to hip-hop materialism and the vogue for academic validation of black pop. Moving readers within the politically correct confusion about pride, self-defense, self-deprecation, and self-denigration, Watkins uses tactics almost as slippery as Jackson’s, Dogg’s, and Rock’s.

One of the book’s strangest historical lapses is the way Watkins relegates certain of Stepin Fetchit’s politically conscious contemporaries to the margins. It is alarming to read Watkins’ infatuated descriptions of Stepin Fetchit’s antics, then realize that his regressive shtick, wooing Depression- and World War II-era audiences back to the strains of Old Dixie, was also the period when Paul Robeson, Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Paul Laurence Dunbar created works that struck blows against white supremacy and advanced the intellectual and artistic standing of black Americans. Watkins instead puts specious emphasis on Stepin Fetchit’s “talent” as a comedian:

Every movement was meticulously controlled … Perry skillfully contrasted his absentminded coon lethargy with the silken finesse of his dancing. Onstage, he would come meandering out, scratching his head, looking utterly confused and lost. Mouth agape, eyes half closed, shoulders slouched, arms dangling, he would slip into a practically incoherent monologue; delivering in a whining monotone to no one in particular most often it had little meaning beyond the visual impression of confusion.

That’s a pretty accurate police sketch of Stepin Fetchit’s crime. Yet Watkins seems oblivious to the meaning, the dismal, belittling impact of such public representations as “coon lethargy,” “meandering,” “slouch,” “incoherent,” “whining monotone,” “confusion.” Watkins quotes a newspaper interview where Perry analyzes his own big-screen act: “I decided to go ahead pantomiming just as I had always done. I picked out the important words in the lines I had, the ones important for laughs, or that gave a cue to other actors; I consciously stress them, the rest of the speech doesn’t matter. I mumble through the rest, gestures helping to point the situation.” Watkins is so impressed that Perry’s technique is deliberate and self-conscious that he disregards that it was also reckless and damaging.

Part of Watkins’ rehabilitation effort includes the dubious boast that Perry was initially cast in silent dramas at a time when Hollywood more readily used white actors in blackface rather than actual black actors. He makes the questionable assumption that a demeaning screen representation was better than none at all. This misses the point that Perry’s coon-show routine was only sanctioned as out-of-context comic relief, never a fully humane characterization. While “breaking down barriers,” Perry’s black male figure remained marginalized all the same. Watkins’ erroneous sense of black actors’ professional progress causes him to ignore a smoking gun, a letter Perry wrote to the Pittsburgh Courier to answer negative criticism: “I much prefer to work as comedy relief in a company of white people rather than an all-colored picture because in the former company I have no competition as to dialect and character, and therefore, have a much better chance for recognition.” This is a key point displaying how a black actor’s vanity and self-regard can override his sense of community and social effect.

Stepin Fetchit established the model of the unscrupulous black performer, pursuing money, work, and fame by any means necessary. One can imagine these same rationales animating Samuel L. Jackson when he lit up his face like a jack-o-lantern in The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), or Denzel Washington when he played the most wicked cop in Hollywood history in Training Day (2001). Watkins’ book justifies such self-justification; he argues against any criticism that might seem to impede Stepin Fetchit’s ruthless exhibitionism. His most complicated contention suggests that Stepin Fetchit was perhaps even more beloved by black audiences than by white ones. The venerable Hollywood slapstick producer Hal Roach (The Little Rascals) is quoted as saying:

Stepin Fetchit was a very funny guy. That’s why we tried to use him, because he was a skilled comic. … [T]he colored people in those days got as big a kick out of Stepin Fetchit as anybody. They used to come to the studio every single day, you know, dozens of them, wanted to see him.

What Watkins is suggesting here is that Stepin Fetchit’s act continued the “trickster” tradition of slaves: outwitting their oppressors by pretending to be slow-witted and lazy, and thereby exploiting whites’ sense of superiority. This ironical defense of black stereotypes misses the basic fact that while even black folks may recognize and laugh at the buffoons in their community, it doesn’t mean that this disdainful reflex is subversive.

Given the contemporary success of black performers and innumerable hip-hop artists who flirt with shameless, disreputable images, Stepin Fetchit’s legacy—from popular figure to pariah—takes on new importance. Should African-American performers be accountable to political correctness? To what degree should they worry that their antics shape the self-image of young African-Americans? Should they follow any standard other than their own conscience? Should they have a conscience? Watkins ends his tale with complaints about Lincoln Perry’s late-in-life ostracism by Hollywood and the black community. He notes that Perry was haunted by his own out-of-date image as the “laziest man on earth” whose brand of comedy was no longer tolerable in the 1970s. Watkins laments that Perry’s identity became confused with the figure of Stepin Fetchit, and that in this ignominy a misunderstood artist was sent to oblivion.

But Watkins disregards the effect Stepin Fetchit’s odious comedy had on the moviegoing public. The psychological rationale for racism cuts two ways—flattering whites and defaming blacks—and it rebounded upon Stepin Fetchit and stained his soul. Watkins revives the ghost without heeding the opportunistic performers who follow Stepin Fetchit’s path, a scary thing.