Stepin Fetchit: It's Not What But Where

The Caricature: Stepin Fetchit
The Caricature: Stepin Fetchit | Source
And the man behind it: Lincoln Perry
And the man behind it: Lincoln Perry | Source

The controversial nature of Lincoln Perry has been talked about and explored on many occasions. During Perry's heyday his popularity and success were unmatched by any Black entertainer and truth to tell by very few white performers as well.

The feeling among the Black community was Perry had earned his accolades regardless of the image he projected on screen. They saw the comedic aspect of what he was doing and enjoyed it immensely. The same could be said about White America as well. Perry's humor crossed all boundaries and made it possible for everybody to be in on the joke.

Over time conventional wisdom states that Perry's antics fell out of favor among Black Americans. As if suddenly they discovered that laughing at this individual was wrong. Stepin Fetchit was not to be admired but scorned. He became the lightning rod for all the negative stereotypes that Black people had experienced since the beginning of time.

In the 1968 documentary Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed, Bill Cosby put in blunt terms just how much public opinion had changed towards Stepin Fetchit. In Cosby's words “The tradition of the lazy stupid crap shooter chicken stealing idiot was popularized by an actor named Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry.”

There was no acknowledgment of Perry's talents or even an attempt to put it in context. All the anger that supposedly many Black people felt towards the past was encapsulated in one sentence with Perry taking the full impact.

Then later on came a re-examining of Perry and public opinion changed again. No they still were not happy over his portrayals but at least his artistry was brought into the equation which allowed a begrudging acceptance.

Yet for all this back and forth change of heart opinion in the Black community was never that cut and dry.

Two Minds

It's hard to comprehend how a group of people can like something and hate it at the same time but that's exactly what happened in the Black community.

The abominable stereotypes of Black people became not only a new art form in the 1830's and '40s but big business. Portraying people as something less than human made many white entertainers rich. Blacks could not have been happy to seem themselves held up for ridicule particularly when slavery was accepted as the natural order of things in many parts of the country. Even in free states blacks enjoyed very little in the way of basic human rights.

While the Civil War may have ended slavery the basic mindset of Blacks as inferior was entrenched. Everything from newspaper editorials to popular entertainment of the day reinforced this attitude.

Yet a funny thing occurred. Black entertainers decided if you can't beat them join them and do it better. Black minstrels laid claim to being the real deal stereotypes. You want shucking and jiving then check this out. Complete with authentic plantation life.

Whites responded favorably but Black America took it too a whole new level when it came to supporting these shows. So much so that more than a few theater owners had no choice but to relax their normally rigid seating policies. Many Black entertainers became megastars thanks in large part to the support of African-Americans.

Take What You Can Get and Run With It

But this acceptance of the worst stereotypes about themselves never got in the way of the activism that was always one of the foundations of Black America.

On the one hand you admired the performers for being great performers. The laughter, dancing and music were very much appreciated. On the other hand the drive to uplift the race could never be derailed with many of the same same black blackface entertainers contributing to make sure it happened.

Sam Lucas was a major star of minstrel shows but he became even more famous later on for his attempts to break away from blackface. Wallace King was known for singing romantic ballads at a time when far too many Whites thought Blacks were incapable of such feelings.

Sam Lucas dressed to impress.
Sam Lucas dressed to impress. | Source
Billy Kersands: The most popular black entertainer of his day:
Billy Kersands: The most popular black entertainer of his day: | Source

Following The Lineage

In many ways Lincoln Perry came from this tradition. He was the world's laziest person. A slow witted buffoon who mumbled his way through life. These are the standards when it comes to black stereotypes. But like Black entertainers before who worked in this genre there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

For one the slow-wittedness served a couple of purposes. It flustered people that Stepin Fetchit really did not want to deal with and often got him out of work that he didn't want to do.

This goes back to slavery where Blacks often devised clever ways to slow down work or get out of it altogether. The mask of a fool was one way.

Two it served as a form of protection. Before Stepin Fetchit and even during his time a smart Black person was considered a dangerous one which means you were being watched. A "dumb" person moving in slow motion was no threat to anyone therefore they could just pass through with a wave of Mr Charlie's hand.

Now Perry's character wasn't using this ruse in movies to help escaped runaways. Hollywood was not that kind of party. But it came in handy regarding the fine art of self preservation. As Perry himself stated, "I represent the Negro who White people despise. The Negro who is supposed to be stupid..."

The minstrel in action
The minstrel in action

What Did He Say?

Black minstrels had to be careful when it came to poking fun at White America. Get it wrong and they could find themselves literally running for their lives.

Get it right and it goes over their heads and lands right in the lap of African Americans who are in on the joke.

Mississippi was the last place in the world many Blacks wanted to be. The reference to White folks keeping you working was not a compliment but a sly putdown on the conditions that existed in not only Mississippi but huge chunks of the American south.

In other words Stepin Fetchit's mumbling often was a smoke screen to say what was really on his mind albeit in coded language aimed directly at Black audiences. The history of being in on the joke continues.

Depends On Where You Stand

A major part of figuring out Stepin Fetchit (at least for this writer) is not what he did but where he did it. In front of a group of Whites it looks rough and a huge part of that is not necessarily what he's doing but how they treat him.

While a Will Rogers is quite sympathetic (He and Perry were good friends in real life) that didn't apply to a lot of other whites. Fetchit in their eyes was inferior and they treated him that way. No surprise because regardless of their station in life back then they treated most people of color that way.

Stand Up And Cheer (1934). Warner Baxter giving the all too familiar dismissive hand gesture to Stepin Fetchit
Stand Up And Cheer (1934). Warner Baxter giving the all too familiar dismissive hand gesture to Stepin Fetchit

Yet when you see Perry doing the same thing in Miracle In Harlem you really don't think anything of it. What shines thru is the comedy. The other players may think he's crazy but not inferior.

While he lasted Perry was extremely popular with Black audiences much as a Bert Williams was with African Americans in his time. For Perry and a lot of his contemporaries theirs was a proud rich history. It may not explain away all the negative imagery that later generations of Black Americans were not ready to forgive but it does give you a better sense of where Stepin Fetchit was coming from.

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