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Stagolee Shot Billy
Harvard University Press, 2004
304 pp., $19.00
Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture
W. T. Lhamon Jr.
Harvard University Press, 2003
478 pp., $68.50
Tricksters and Badmen
What makes Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, and Slappy White black comedians? Why do black musicians from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie to NWA combine antics and clowning with their serious artistry? How is it that O. J. Simpson and Tupac Shakur, and to a lesser extent Michael Jackson, draw at least as much sympathy from the black community as John Henry and Joe Louis? Why are rap music and the hip-hop lifestyle so prominent in popular culture today?
One of the most important figures in the black folk tradition is the trickster. Such figures appear in many cultures around the world, of course—think of the Norse Loki and the Native American Coyote, for example—and the black trickster may owe something to specifically African traditions, but in the context of North American slavery he developed a life of his own, a special prominence. His character exhibited a dialectic, combining apparent opposites. He could sing both sacred and profane music, gospel and blues, sometimes combining them in ways that defied convention. His ethic was somehow good but also bad, combining the hero and the villain.
At one level the trickster was (and is) simply a survivor. Belonging to an oppressed group in America, where can one find recognition? Among other places, in the entertainment world. It's a place for a double life. African Americans were considered exotic, comical, different. So they often learned how to please the crowd with exaggerated frolics and expected caricatures. Under the surface, though, many of them developed a level of freedom—freedom simply to exist, and freedom for artistic development.
The greatest of the early 20th century black comedians was Bert Williams. Born in Nassau, in 1874, Egbert Austin Williams spent most of his life on the stage. He could sing, he could dance, and he was a marvelous banjo-player. In addition, he told stories. One of his best known tales was "You Can't Do Nothing Till Martin Gets Here," a wild story of a black preacher in a ...