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Early Black Comedians

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Stepin Fetchit

Stepin Fetchit as "Gummy" in 1929 film Hearts of Dixie. Courtesy of Photofest.

Much like Bert Williams, "Stepin Fetchit" (birth name Lincoln Perry) was a talented comic actor relegated to playing crude African American stereotypes. Perry acted in almost fifty films over the course his career, his best-known role being Gummy in Hearts in Dixie (1929), an all-black musical that "set the standard for the Stepin Fetchit image and performance"; said performance consisted of a "shambling gait, laconic expression, and drawling, garbled speech" (Petty). Despite their severe casting to type, Perry and other black actors such as Hattie McDaniel tried their best: "Sambo and Mammy film roles, respectively, became dominant personalities within their small scenes, with the joke being on the white characters around them" (Burroughs). In 1939 McDaniel earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind. Meanwhile, Perry would pay dearly for his life's work. By the 1960s, he had fallen well out of favor, having had little success in pursuing mainstream film roles, and having become a target of ostracism by civil rights and Black Power activists.

Petty, Miriam J. "Fetchit, Stepin." Oxford African American Studies Center. Oxford UP, 2011. Web.

Burroughs, Todd Steven. "Comedians." In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Paul Finkelman, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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