I just received the following correspondence from David Lander, a friend of and frequent contributor to American Heritage, and thought I'd share it:
“Joshua Zeitz, in his piece on The Jazz Singer that went up on AmericanHeritage.com on October 6, refers to the assimilationist aspirations of the movie’s Jewish protagonist and asks rhetorically, ‘Who, but a white man . . . needed to black up to play an African-American?’
“As the cover photo of the Winter 2005 issue of American Legacy shows, the seminal black actor Bert Williams felt he did. In the accompanying story, the late Ralph Allen, who wrote Sugar Babies and other musicals, noted that Williams and an African-American partner named George Walker developed an act in the 1890s that was ‘similar to those of the white comedians who wore burnt cork. Billing themselves as “the Two Real Coons,” they took whatever jobs were offered them [and] appeared in small-time minstrel shows, in medicine shows, and in honky-tonks. Along the way they encountered all the difficulties that black men, performers or not, [then] suffered.’
“Allen called Williams a forgotten man of his profession, emphasized that he helped create today’s ‘colorblind stage,’ and said ‘his mournful but unsentimental manner introduced a new tone into comedy.’ W. C. Fields was a great fan, and Eddie Cantor considered Williams his mentor.
“Bert Williams died wealthy and famous in 1922, five years before The Jazz Singer married movies to sound. He was 46 years old, and the fact that he, a black man, had risen to prominence portraying a white man caricaturing a black man is one of American history’s ironies.”