Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface”

We recently came through the usual Halloween bag of “blackface” controversies, and Ethics Alarms, as it has before, tried to guide the discussion to the material distinctions that social justice warriors, who strategically deal in absolutes when seeking power through real and contrived offense, refuse to acknowledge or are intellectually incapable of doing so. The short version of the Ethics Alarms message: make-up for legitimate theatrical purposes isn’t “blackface,” isn’t “racist,” and shouldn’t be object of knee jerk condemnation based on emotion or ignorance.

Today Turner Movie Classics showed “Swing Time,” the 1936 musical that is probably the high water mark in the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire canon. It has the best song (“The Way You Look Tonight”), the best novelty scene (Astaire pretending to be a klutz in a dance lesson with Ginger, then shocking her and her boss—and saving her job— by showing “what a great teacher she is” by dancing, well, like Fred Astaire) and arguably two of the best dances by the two, “Never Gonna Dance” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” The film also contains a controversial “blackface” number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” in which Fred pays homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. Local TV stations have long been reluctant to show “Swingtime” because of guaranteed complaints that the number is racist, or, if they cut the number (which is unconscionable), complaints pour in from film and Astaire fans that they have defaced a classic out of misplaced political correctness.

If one argues that the number is “racist” because of Fred’s make-up, then one is necessarily arguing that no white performer can ever offer an admiring  salute to an African-American great by emulating him. Astaire’s choreography (by Hermes Pan) contained specific references to trademark steps and gestures by both Bubbles and Robinson, though more of the former than the latter. (Some would say, maybe even Fred, that this was because he didn’t dare set himself up to be compared to Robinson, whom many regard as the greatest tap-dancer of them all.) Blackface, as typified by minstrel shows, was a burlesque of negative black stereotypes. There isn’t a hint of this in Astaire’s number: he wears dark make-up because he is honoring two contemporary black dance stars who he knew, learned from, and respected. The make-up is the epitome of a legitimate theatrical device, and racially demeaning neither in intent nor effect. Those who see it as such are either deliberately misconstruing the number, or don’t know what they are talking about. (There is an unfortunate racially demeaning set piece that appears for a couple of seconds at the start, a large caricature of exaggerated black features. You can take the film out of 1936, but you can’t take 1936 out of the film.)

The ironic part of the effort to quarantine “Bojangles of Harlem” is that the number is one of the few reminders in our culture of who Bill Robinson was, and—here’s Jack on his “duty to remember” and cultural literacy soapbox again–he was an important figure in American theatrical, cultural and civil rights history that should be remembered.  Instead, Robinson is almost completely forgotten: I bet most of the NAACP members who get up in arms when TMC shows “Swing Time” have no idea how significant Robinson was, and the contributions he made to art and society.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1877 – November 25, 1949) was the best known and most highly paid African-American entertainer in the country until his death. He excelled in  vaudeville, on Broadway, recordings and radio, and only the film industry’s apartheid for most of his career limited his success in Hollywood. Robinson is credited with revolutionizing tap with his graceful, fluid style. lightness and presence. There was far more to his career than his famous dance numbers with little Shirley Temple in several films during the 1930s, which is how most white audience members knew him. He and Shirley were the first inter-racial dance couple in film history in 1935’s “The Little Colonel.”

Robinson used his popularity to begin toppling other racial barriers. He became one of the first black vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup. Vaudeville also had a rigid “two colored rule,” preventing black performers from appearing without a white partner: Robinson went solo and killed the restriction. He was also the first African American to headline a  Broadway a mixed-race production.

Robinson was an activist off the stage as well.  He is credited with persuading the Dallas police department to hire its first African-American policemen. During World War II ,
he lobbied FDR to change the army’s policies regarding African-American soldiers, and helped organize a fundraiser that was the first integrated public event to take place in Miami. He was also credited  with helping out or advancing the careers of  Lena Horne, Jesse Owens, the Nicholas Brothers,  Ann Miller and others, including Fred Astaire.

But most of all, he could really tap. Here is his signature “Step dance,” which was much borrowed and adapted by famous and not so famous tappers…

Besides “Swing Time,” the other remaining cultural reference to Robinson is the song, “Mr. Bojangles,” most famous as a standard song and dance number in the repertoire of Sammy Davis, Jr. (I know: “Who?“), who also knew Robinson and was influenced by him.  The only aspects of that song—which was also a hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band— that relate to Bill Robinson is the old man’s name and the song’s theme of dancing: the real Bojangles didn’t drink, and never had a dog.

Robinson did end up broke like the dancer in the song, though. Despite making millions during his career, he had a gambling problem, and when he died penniless in 1949, Robinson’s friend Ed Sullivan (“Who’s Ed Sullivan?”) financed a funeral worthy of his achievements in life. Robinson lay in repose at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in Harlem and an estimated 32,000 people filed past his open casket to pay their respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the service, which was broadcast over the radio.  New York Mayor William O’Dwyer gave the eulogy.

Here is Fred, paying his respects:

[A subsequent post about John Bubbles is here.]

15 thoughts on “Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface”

  1. here’s Jack on his “duty to remember” and cultural literacy soapbox again

    Step up! Step up!, Jack. You are now speaking for a larger audience with a larger purpose than ever before: to bring back color and variety* to the American public by vanquishing the idiotic idea of “cultural appropriation”- as-poison, as if it were not in truth a cornerstone of that copying and adopting of *diversity (in it’s true form) of our ever-evolving language and literature, our manners, our morals, our food AND DRESS (including make-up and hairstyles), our humor, our traditions, our history . . . our country. This is the real definition of “melting pot,”: that essential elements of all cultures can be absorbed into the fabric of a people to strengthen and enrich it for all.

    That some will be or many taught to be, “offended” instead of flattered by (or indifferent to) dark makeup or hula costumes, is an offense to reason. There are those of Italian extraction (or tourist snobs) who abhor the idea of American-version pizza. Their response? to laugh, and to see that the genuine Italian style pizza – there is such a thing! it’s comparatively bland — appears on high-end restaurant menus, whilst introducing yet more new squiggles and curls of pasta onto the supermarket shelves. Are native Hawaiians ashamed of the Hula dance? Teach the inelastic how to loosen up and learn the real and traditional meaning of “body language.”

    Are we not all allowed to play the rudra veena and listen to reggae? (Well, okay, not together.) Nuts. I am heartened by what has occurred in the “ragtime world” this year when I saw not only a growing number of black guests at the festival, but that for the first time some of them were appearing in the Grand March, knowing it would be photographed, and making that appearance in the “costume,” if you will – the dress of turn-of-the-century cakewalkers – in finery that has always added color (no pun intended) to the Victorian/Edwardian garb the festival was accustomed to. It’s not the dress that stands out, though it does — it’s having the mix that wasn’t seen before, that now coalesces to celebrate the music and the musicians who together/separately generated the popular music of today.

    Black participation in this particular event also celebrates the liberation of certain brave individuals — yes, they are brave. Behind the proud, elegant, strutting couple, the woman in stand-out red from head to toe, march a pair who have been dragged along unwillingly or inveigled into joining the parade by the couple who are sheltering their shyness, still “in the closet”, so to speak, not in period dress nor in smiles, and perhaps ashamed of being there because they know their family and friends might not approve. Why not? Because of the cover illustrations and the lyrics of many of the songs of 120+ … today considered demeaning, insulting, truly offending . . . . Because of this, the music has been hidden and so have those who would most be appreciative of it.

    Because of the strictures of the Hallowe’en police and those who inveigh against people “being” whomever they wish to be, what is to become of Heidi, and Hula/Moana and Downton Abbey …. and Bill Robinson? Where did Charlie Chan (no, he wasn’t, but no matter, to all intents and purposes, he was) and Flower Drum Song go? How soon before we lose all our fictional characters, most of our beloved children’s books and comics as well as our historical heroes? Is it my duty to remember Zorro and Tonto and Kato (and why did they have no family names? Never mind.) and Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Joe Jordan, Scott Hayden, James Reese Europe, James Scott, William Sweatman, Arthur Marshall, Harry P. Guy, Tom Turpin, and Ernest Hogan (nee Crowdus, 1865-1909, 1st African-American to produce & star in a Broadway show, writer and later regretter of immensely popular tune “All Coons Look Alike to Me” )? Yep. And I will defend to the death my right to play their compositions (even when restricted to moderate volume), and to dance on my own soapbox until it, and I, fall to dust.

  2. Jerry Jeff Walker wrote and sang “Mr. Bojangles.” As kids, my buddies and I saw Walker perform it in coffee houses in Miami in the late ’60s. The Nitty Gritty Dirtband did a terrible cover. And Jerry Jeff Walker (as you can tell by the name) affected a very “good old boy” demeanor. Which made the song even more interesting.

      • I didn’t know Robinson had a gambling rather than drinking problem. My good friend English professor who was also an American theatrical performer historian dismissed the Walker song out of hand, presumably because it was so inaccurate. Being teenagers, we all thought it was profound. Of course.

        • The Jerry Jeff song was released in ’68, Bill Robinson died in ’49. “Bojangles” was a term that referred to a street performer who danced, particularly common in New Orleans. The “bojangles” in the song was, according to Walker, a white guy he shared a night in the drunk tank with, the story he told about his dead dog bummed everyone out, and so he danced a bit to lighten things up. Your good friend is right, the song isn’t about Bill Robinson, but it is about a “bojangles”, so perhaps not fairly dismissed out of hand. Sammy Davis certainly worked it as a bit of an homage to Robinson.

          • Thanks Joe. That really makes sense of the whole thing. So “Bojangles” was a generic term. Yes, it was ’68 when Walker was performing at the coffee houses on U.S. 1, aka Dixie Highway, on the edge of the University of Miami campus, one of which was called “The Flick.”

  3. Bravo for this post. I too learned about Bill Robinson only through TV reruns of Shirley Temple movies (and she was pretty damn good, too, don’t you think?).

    25 years ago a book entitled “Cultural Literacy” was published — Jack, you would know the author — the index for which became a parlor game among my friends. The idea was that to be culturally literate one should be able to identify people, places, events — and perhaps even place them in time and know their significance. I still have that book somewhere… and would venture a guess that 80% of the people reading the list now would be at a total loss.

    Keep it up, Jack. You may be our only source for this kind of knowledge now. We’re too mired in muck to pay attention, and unfortunately, those you’re reminding are not the ones who really need it. Maybe instead of writing a book about rationalizations, you could update the cultural literacy book…

    Does all the hate-mongering and mindless political ramblings of so many Americans stem from the fact that our culture, our history, is so completely unknown to them? That is, anything beyond their own tiny experiences and terrible education? (My favorite, which I love to mention, is the Yale Law grad who couldn’t name the years of the Civil War… or place it in the right century.)

    Take immigration, for example. Do they realize that at Ellis Island an immigrant could be turned back for having pink-eye? That boatloads of emigrant Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were turned away from our shores because of an anti-Semitic State Department? That legal immigrants who wait ten years for legal status have become among the most valuable citizens we have? That they are givers to this country: not takers?
    “Give me your poor… huddled masses” indeed.

    But back to topic: If I had to pick between Astaire, Robinson, Sammy Davis and Shirley Temple as dancers, I’d pick Shirley. If only because she was about six years old when she kept pace with Robinson… Have to get a YouTube of that dance.

  4. “make-up for legitimate theatrical purposes isn’t ‘blackface'”

    So it’s your contention that, because Astaire’s tap routine is an hommage to Robinson, not a minstrel-show caricature, what he does to his face is only “make-up”? I think we must need a new definition of “legitimate” then, since lampooning buffoonery has always been a legitimate theatrical purpose, cf. Aristophanes, Plautus, commedia dell’arte, Monty Python… But of course, there we are talking about the *deserved* lampooning of recognizable social actors behaving badly, not the wholesale denigration of an entire race.

    Seems to me there’s a cognitive dissonance between the opening of the Bojangles routine in “Swing Time,” which you call its “unfortunate racially demeaning set piece,” (complete with big buffoonish pantlegs — a motif recurring later in the movie, as you note), and the astonishing dance number Astaire proceeds to perform thereafter. The opening seems to tell us how to take what will follow, but I agree, Astaire’s performance doesn’t cooperate with the “blackface” objective. (Still, don’t you think that’s undercut by the fact that later on, we see the sole black character in the film is only there for laughs?)

    And really, what of Astaire’s homage to Robinson would be lost if he hadn’t blackened his face? Nothing, so far as I can tell.

    Fat suits, toupées, false noses are make-up; race is not make-up. When Orson Welles darkens his face to play Othello, we know he’s a white guy in make-up. The purist objection isn’t “Blackface!” — it’s “Why not cast an actor who’s actually black, so we don’t have to pretend to believe Welles is?”

    I think you’d agree that the notorious minstrel-show and “Birth of a Nation” blackface, for the purpose of ridiculing or demonizing all African-Americans, is noxious. Which leaves us with the weird gray (so to speak) area of black greasepaint that serves no purpose at all, as in Astaire’s “Bojangles” performance, save to make an reference to race that is, on reflection, just beside the point, irrelevant. In those cases we look to context for some clue as to the intention, as as I mentioned, in the case of “Swing Time,” that context doesn’t look good.

    I’m not playing social-justice warrior here, as I hope you can tell, and I think you make some great points. But perhaps you also wrap up the issue a little too patly? I watched “Swing Time” last night, and it may really be, as you say, the high-water mark in the Astaire-Rogers oeuvre. I thought Rogers was especially fine, and Helen Broderick and Victor Moore too. But the film’s confused attitude toward race seemed both older and newer than its 1936 release date.

    • Astaire is not responsible for the tone of the direction or the cultural racism that “Swing Time” reflects at several points,

      I do not understand how anyone can say that black make-up isn’t necessary if a white dancer is trying to openly and clearly emulate and honor a black one. I’m pretty literate on musical theater history, and Astaire’s routine sent me to research Bubbles and Robinson, neither of whom have received their cultural due. Astaire borrowed all sorts of styles: without him pointing to black artists overtly, why would anyone know what he was doing? A big sign saying, “Now Fred will evoke two of his mentors who happen to be black, John Bubbles and Bill Robinson” isn’t an artistic exposition, but an academic one.

      • Have you never watched any of the Kennedy Center Honors? I admit, I haven’t been a very faithful viewer. But when Carole King was honored, Aretha Franklin did not sing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” in whiteface with a frizzy wig. When Al Green was honored, people singing his songs blackened their faces.

        Astaire’s number in “Swing Time” is not so different. It’s announced before the number that he’s honoring “Bojangles.” What darkening his face added to the effect, I do not see.

  5. Your argument is somewhat missing the point: this is an amazing musical dance performance that is to be admired, but it is also a very tainted performance, and pretending it’s not is insincere and damaging to understanding and moving beyond the mistakes of the past. In addition to the needless darkening of his face, Astaire’s costume in this number looks foolish (drawing upon the goofy stereotypes of minstrelsy) and is out of step with every other outfit in the entire film that emphasizes the most tasteful of clothes throughout. As a white male viewer, I need to, and can accept the cringe-worthy mistakes here and still appreciate what’s left: a white dancer’s homage to a contemporary but absent black performer which failed to rise above the racist stereotypes of the time. The truncated clip you posted fails to address the whole number and tries to pretend the offense is not there, but it is.

    • What, in your view, is the “offense?” It’s an offense today under current accumulated social and historical conclusions that Fred Astaire (and his costumer) were not able to access. “Tainted” is a conveniently vague word—obviously it’s tainted, since wearing dark make-up for any purpose whatsoever is now automatically labeled racist regardless of effect or intent.

      Do you know for a fact that the costume Astaire wears isn’t consistent, or even an exact copy, of a costume worn by Robinson (or John Bubbles) at some point in his career? I don’t, so please enlighten me. I think your assumption is unwarranted. Not only is the number a stage number in the movie, rendering any comparison with what the characters wear who are not “on stage” irrelevant, but again, the number is intended as, and is, an homage. The objection to blackface is that it was NOT intended as an homage, but as a way to make fun of and minimize blacks generally. You cannot say Astaire “failed to rise above the racist stereotypes of the time,” because those stereotypes included not giving black performers their due. Astaire was explicitly rejecting that stereotype.

      In the end, your argument is just more presentism: you blame dancer for not predicting how his artistic salute would be seen decades in the future, for political rather than artistic reasons.

      That is both illogical and unfair.

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