Bert Williams, c. 1925
Bert Williams was an enormously popular Bahamanian-American entertainer and comedian of the Vaudeville era. He is the first Black man to have a leading role in a film and on the Broadway stage, and played an important role in pushing back against the immense racial barriers of turn-of-the-century America.
Williams and his performing partner, George Walker, began their careers playing off stereotypical vaudevillian racial roles, performing in blackface makeup like their white counterparts. Blackface worked like a double mask for Williams, emphasizing the difference between Williams, his fellow performers, and his white audiences.
Rather than validating the practice of blackface, their use of the burnt cork makeup was a subtle indictment of its artifice. As Williams remarked in an interview, "A black face, run-down shoes and elbow-out make-up give me a place to hide. The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings the songs and tells the stories."
Tags: Vaudeville, blackface