TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 7-24
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The Black Dandyism of George Walker
A Case Study in Genealogical Method
Barbara L. Webb
Most scholarly and popular discussions of African American performance at the turn of the 20th century focus on the limitations of the minstrelsy "trap" that confined these performers to interpretations of existing stereotypes. 1 Such assessments discount the possibilities for agency within these "minstrelsy- derived entertainments," including those that proceeded from minstrelsy's traditions of satire and parody, and the related intrinsic threat of a joke failing to remain a joke. In a recent issue of TDR, Michele Wallace called for an increased acceptance and interrogation of black participation in minstrelsy and an appreciation of black performers' accomplishments in this field (2000:144-45). I hope this essay contributes to just such a project.
George Walker's performance of the black dandy constituted a refusal to echo minstrel caricatures by causing the standard "joke" of the well-dressed, suave black man to fail, to be reclaimed by its object. An investigation of the resources available to Walker to perform such a sleight of hand turns up a possible kinship link with an unlikely relative: the European and Euro-American dandies who provided much of the inspiration for the initial minstrel joke. My contention is that Walker reclaimed the dandies' point of view from the minstrels, rearticulating it from within an African American context. The theoretical impetus for this line of inquiry is Cities of the Dead (1996), Joseph Roach's provocative, controversial study of circum-Atlantic performance.
Minstrelsy-Derived Entertainments and George Walker
George Walker is best known as the partner of comedian Bert Williams, and has been less thoroughly studied, perhaps in part because of his early death in 1911. Williams is best remembered today for his use of the blackface comedic convention, the most easily accessible symbol of a racist past we like to think contrasts with our own time. Walker is not as readily appropriated for such a symbolic function, since the conventions of his day did not require his dandy straight-man character to wear blackface. Thus, a photograph of Walker fails to rouse the same anger, sadness, or sense of tragedy as one of Williams. 2 [End Page 7] [Begin Page 9] Walker's portraits show a well-dressed, handsome, confident, smiling man in the prime of life (plate 1). Even so, late-20th-century scholarship often takes for granted that Walker's performance of a stereotype, a dandy with roots in minstrelsy, was a response to the restrictive necessities of the era. The black press of his own time, however, lauded his originality as well as his business expertise. How can this picture be reconciled with the usual historical assumptions about culturally "trapped" performers of minstrelsy-derived entertainments at the height of the Jim Crow era? David Krasner has more recently proposed that black performers of this time actually ironically commented on, rather than uncritically embodied, the stereotypes of the minstrel stage (1997), creating new jokes accessible mainly to black audiences. I suggest a slightly different, though not contradictory, possibility for Walker, where the cultural memory of earlier dandies and the ambivalence of satire enabled him to foil the joke on the black dandy by becoming that type in a nonsatirical mode.
It is productive to examine George Walker's performances in terms of the European dandy of the 1820s and later, as well as in comparison to the minstrel dandy that originated in the 1840s and continued in various forms through Walker's own day. Comparing Walker to the minstrel dandy is not new, but most comparisons treat the dandy as a self-evident character upon whom Walker patterned himself. The perception of Walker's performance lineage changes, however, and more interpretive possibilities open up, if we consider that the minstrel dandy was not a coherent stage type, but a spectrum of performance options. A minstrel dandy could be played out in character songs such as "Zip Coon," "Long Tail Blue," and "Dandy...