Stepin Fetchit remains the most controversial movie actor in American history, other than Ronald Reagan. (There was a minstrel show featuring African-American actor Ben Vereen at the Janaury 20, 1981 Inaugural Gala.) While Stepin Fetchit was undoubtedly one of the most talented physical comedians ever to do his shtick on the Big Screen, achieving the rare status of being a character actor-supporting player who actually achieved superstar status in the 1930s (becoming a millionaire to boot), his characterization as a lazy, slow-witted, jive-talkin’ “coon” offended African Americans at the time he was a major attraction in motion pictures (primarily the 1930s).
The Stepin Fetchit characterization still offends African Americans in the 21st Century, more than half-a-century after he faded from the Big Screen. In the time that Stepin Fetchit became a cinema supserstar, the idea that a black man would be elected President of the United States was fantastic, as many African Americans were disenfranchised, not even allowed to vote locally, let alon for President.
Yet, some African Americans claim him as the first black superstar, and thus, a trailblazer for others of his “race.” The controversy over Stepin Fetchit remains very alive to this day, and two biographies were published about him in 2005.
Stepin Fetchit was the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who claimed a birth-date of May 30, 1902 but may have been born as early as 1892. Perry was born in Key West, Florida to West Indian immigrant parents.
Sometime in his teens, Perry became a comic performer. A literate and very intelligent man who wrote for the premier African American newspaper, “The Chicago Defender,” Perry evolved a character called “The Laziest Man In the World” as part of a two-man vaudeville act that broke through to play the white circuits. Eventually, he went solo. (Stepin Fetchit likely was the original name of the act covering both performers, as “Step ‘n Fetchit.” As a solo, he kept the name.)
While some believe that his stage name is a contraction of “step and fetch it”, implying a servile persona (the so-called “Tom”) that is synonymous with degrading racial stereotypes in popular entertainment in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Perry claimed he got the name from a race horse.
It is important when considering Perry’s place in American history to make the distinction that African American cultural historians do (while at no time condoning Perry’s career) – rather than being a manifestation of the servile “Tom” (named after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom”), Stepin Fetchit was an evolution of a later construction, the “Coon” who undermined his white oppressors by denying his labor and cooperation through an act of defiance that included the appearance of being lazy and stupid. Essential to the “coon” persona was talking in what to white ears is gibberish (which Perry excelled at), but which to black folk can be understood and contains barbed insults to “The Man.” What rankles so badly (since the Coon remains a stereotype that resonates in African American culture) is that white audiences swallowed Perry’s Stepin Fetchit act whole, as a true representation of a “Negro.”
The “Coon” persona mitigated the low status accorded African Americans by whites by feigning near-idiocy in order to frustrate whites by ironically fulfilling their low expectations. (The “Tom,” by contrast, is praised by whites for his good work and loyalty. A parallel racial caricaturization of black men by whites, the “buck,” is the repository of their racial and sexual fears, and still can be seen in blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and currently, in the gangsta rapper.)
Perry used this mitigation stratagem when dealing with whites in real life, allegedly maintaining a coon persona while auditioning for a role in the film In Old Kentucky, where he stayed in the Stepin Fetchit character before and after the audition. Often, while making movies in which he found the lines offensive, Perry would skip or mumble lines he did not like, pretending to be too stupid to comprehend the script.
The “Coon” stereotype existed long before Perry decided to adopt it (its prevalence as a defiance stratagem intensified after the gains that African Americans had made in the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era were rolled back by segregationist Jim Crow laws, when an “uppity” African American might find himself at the end of a rope). However, he was such a hit with white audiences that his Stepin Fetchit persona popularized the “Coon” image to an unprecedented degree in the medium of film, and many stereotypical black movie characters, including the child Stymie in the Our Gang comedy series, were based upon Stepin Fetchit to cash in on his popularity.
Perry reached the apex of his career co-starring with the Will Rogers in several films, including John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). When viewed today objectively (without revulsion), Perry’s Stepin Fetchit character can be seen as more than holding his own with the great Rogers, achieving some kind of inverse parity with his white “massa” through the sheer forcefulness of his personality.
Rogers clearly is fond of Perry (if not Stepin Fetchit), although he is liable to denigrate the Stepin Fetchit character unmercifully. In a way, it provides a window on race relations in that Southern whites and other white Americans could experience fondness for black folk, but were liable to “put them in their place” at any time, for any reason.
Stepin Fetchit became the first African American actor to become a millionaire, but he mishandled his fortune through lavish over-spending and was bankrupt by 1947. In the ’40s, his career in mainstream “white” cinema was essentially over, and he crossed over into “race” films, movies made by and for African American audiences, where he essentially played the same shtick. By 1960, he was a charity case in Chicago.
After the Fall
Perry had been denounced by the same civil rights leaders that eventually forced CBS to mothball the popular TV series Amos ‘n Andy as they didn’t want any stereotypes pandering to the inherent racism of whites while they were trying to obtain equality. Cast-out and an exile in the 1960s, Perry was rehabilitated by heavyweight champion Cassius Clay.
The three-time heavyweight champion of the world, Cassis Clay was the symbol of African American black racial pride who had become a Black Muslim, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and refused to be induvcted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War via the draft. (Ali’s fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won.)
Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali made Perry one of his entourage after the man know to the world as Stepin Fetchit, seemingly the opposite of the Ali persona, allegedly showed him a punch that the boxer successfully used during a fight. Following Ali’s example, Perry converted to the Honorable Elijiah Muhammad’s Lost-Found Nation of Islam (the so-called “Black Muslims”). He was saved.
Because of the degrading image Stepin Fetchit represents to many African Americans, Perry’s appearances in mainstream movies typically are cut out of the picture, regardless of the narrative logic. Most of his films have not been widely released on video. However, near the end of his life, Perry achieved a kind of career redemption.
In 1974, Perry appeared in a bit at the beginning of the Moms Mabley comedy Amazing Grace, in which he scolded a white train conductor lest he mistreat Moms. Later in the film, Mabley and her co-star Slappy White – two stalwart black entertainers of the Chitlin’ Circuit whose characters in the film represent the pre-Black Power generation that reached maturity during the World War II era – have been humiliated by both the black bourgeoisie and the new generation. With a haunting vocal by Perry on the soundtrack, a song about a young black man (obviously of another era) stealing “hair grease,” the downcast Mabley and humiliated White walk down a street, stepping on a poster of Stepin Fetchit cast away in the street. It’s a remarkable scene.
The film says that respect is due these people who did blaze the trail for a younger generation, at great cost to themselves. (Moms character, a widow, had lost her son during the war, a war in which African American men were segregated from whites and suffered egregious discrimination, all the while enlisted in the fight against Hitler’s racist Third Reich, whose racial laws had been modeled on the Jim Crow laws of the American South!)
And respect was duly paid.
The Hollywood chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. (whose national organization had made Perry its bete noire, along with Amos ‘n Andy) awarded him a Special Image Award in 1976 for his pioneering movie career that was rationalized as helping to open doors for blacks in the movie industry. Two years later, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry died on November 19, 1985.