A former editor of the New York Times Book Review persuasively argues that the man whose stage name is a byword for offensive stereotyping was in fact a sly provocateur and a race-conscious agitator.
Lincoln Perry is usually remembered as an actor who pandered to white prejudices by playing the shallow, ingratiating black buffoon billed as the “laziest man in the world,” a gullible, rural rube, all exaggerated facial expression and body language—in short, an insult to his race. But was he something else altogether? Was he, perhaps, a man possessed of considerable talent and folk wit that he used to subvert the very stereotypes he was reviled for portraying? Watkins shows how the working-class black audience who came to see “Stepin Fetchit” picked up on this subversive intent, while middle-class African-Americans saw only the insult. Equally insulted were those who couldn’t abide Perry’s off-stage and -screen bellicosity and ambition. This was no way for a black man to behave in mid-20th-century America, they felt. No doubt his wealth and sense of entitlement stuck in many craws, and his personal life only fed the fires. Perry couldn’t have been farther from Booker T. Washington’s principles of moderation and thrift: “I don’t need no insurance,” he said. “Ah ain’t never goin’ to save a dollar. . . . When I die, jes’ throw me out in the street.” Mustering ammunition from Perry’s newspaper columns, insightful reviews and his own believable interpretation of historical context, the author depicts a man who skillfully burlesqued mainstream America’s contemptuous vision of blacks, a brilliant comic actor who pioneered black achievements in the film industry. Perry was also an arch individualist who had no patience later in his life with groups like the NAACP “playin’ both ends and the middle.” This didn’t help him reconcile his roles with his intentions.
A sharp piece of revisionist argument.