By Matthew Frye Jacobson, author of Dancing Down the Barricades: Sammy Davis Jr. and the Long Civil Rights Era: A Cultural History

It has been supremely challenging, in the face of the constant emergencies and the grotesque uncertainties of the twenty-first century, to address questions of race and justice by turning to a figure like Sammy Davis, Jr.  Any reader might be forgiven for asking, amid surging white nationalism and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, why Davis, why now?

The beginning of an answer lies in the arc of Davis’s career—not only its span from the 1920s through the 1980s, but its continual evolution and transpositioning from the vaudeville stage, to the nightclub and casino circuit, to the recording studio, to Hollywood and Broadway, to television, to publishing.  Davis moved through practically every kind of space and genre that the culture industries provided, and so his career illuminates with unusual clarity the workings of race in these industries across a wide swath of the twentieth century. 

Davis became a kind of palimpsest of American culture writ large—a page upon which the traces of many varied and successive texts can still be read.  His performance repertoire brought together minstrel actors like Bert Williams, blackface jazz singers like Al Jolson, blues singers like Ethel Waters, borscht belt comedians like Eddie Cantor, pop singers like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and chitlin circuit performers like Pigmeat Markham.  He was associated in the public mind with outlaw lovers like Mildred and Richard Loving, he befriended social observers like James Baldwin, and was admired by political figures as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon.  Over the years he shared spaces with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt, Milton Berle, Otto Preminger, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte, Ed Sullivan, Elvis Presley, Donald Rumsfeld, and Jimi Hendrix. Davis was both adored and despised in ways that are themselves revealing objects of study.  How race operated in this singular life generates a granular understanding of the twentieth-century color line more broadly.


The following passage is an excerpt from the introduction to Dancing Down the Barricades.

A disturbing moment troubles the opening scenes of Sergeants 3, the Rat Pack’s 1962 western based on Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din.  Shortly after the opening credits, Sammy Davis, Jr., as an ex-slave named Jonah, stands atop the bar in a western saloon, shuffling and playing a bugle to the mixed jeers and encouragement of the white cowboys who fill the room.  “Why don’t you dance?” a menacing mountainman-type demands.  Jonah responds with a nifty time step before a second shouts, “I’d rather hear him play!” The room erupts in rivalling chants of “Play!” and “Dance!” “Gentlemen,” Jonah laughs nervously, “now I can either play, or I can dance.  But I can’t—“ A gruff voice interrupts, “Oh yeah you can. [Cocks his rifle.] You can play and dance.”  Which Jonah does, amid riotous and derisive laughter.  A gunshot rings out; a puff of dust indicates a bullet hitting the bartop a few inches from his feet.  This effectively ends the scene, as the gunshot fetches the intervention of the titular Sergeants 3 from the bordello upstairs—Davis’s Rat Pack buddies Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford—and attention rapidly shifts, ending the coerced bullet dance about one minute in.

Most discomfiting to today’s viewer will be that this is all played for laughs—mere “hijinks” or “antics” from the Rat Pack.  The trope of the “bullet dance” in comedic form has been common enough in popular culture, from Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny to The Simpsons, and so the comic sense alone is familiar here, though when added to the undercurrent of racial violence it rankles. But the scene becomes all the more unsettling if one knows, first, that the bullet dance was in fact lived history in the United States (predating even Gunga Din), and second, that Sammy Davis, Jr. himself had once endured it.  While in the army at Fort Francis E. Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Davis was suspected by a group of white soldiers of paying “improper” attentions to a white WAC captain.  “What you gotta learn,” one of his tormenters told him, “is that black is black and it don’t matter how white it looks or feels, it’s still black…” After assaulting Davis and writing “I’m a nigger” across his chest and “Coon” across his forehead in white paint, the ringleader pulled his weapon and instructed, “Dance, Sambo.”  Reports Davis, “I started moving my feet and tapping…”

One has to wonder exactly what Davis was experiencing as he played a similar scene for laughs a mere twenty years later.  How to read the confluence of comedy and coercion in a text like this? From the historical reality of the bullet dance in antebellum North America, to its menacing replication in a racial skirmish on an Army base during World War II, to its putatively comic refrain in a lighthearted adventure film in the 1960s, the telescoping of historical time and the condensation of racialized meanings is what most interests me in Dancing Down the Barricades.  “During slavery the master wanted to protect his investment,” Tenants’ Union organizer John Handcox once said, reflecting on the limitations and false promises of emancipation.  “… When we was freed, they just let us loose, and didn’t care what happened to us.  Whites started hangin’ and shootin’ blacks.  The way I see it, under slavery we used to be the master’s slave, but after slavery we became everybody’s slave.”  The character of Jonah might surely have agreed, as he danced atop the bar; but as white supremacy persisted and evolved across a century and more after slavery, Davis, too, had to reckon with what “emancipation” might yet mean, and how performance itself—the dance, in this instance—could be an instrument of bare survival or of more complete liberation amid the perpetual coercions of white supremacy—whether the frank and brutal coercion at Fort Warren or the subtler coercion on the soundstage of Sergeants 3

Dancing Down the Barricades is a book about politics, then—cultural forms that do political work; the politics of representation (meaning both the racialized hiring practices on stage and screen, and the articulation and dissemination of racial meanings through popular imagery and narratives); the various ways that politics could repay or punish cultural workers; and the ways that “celebrity” might be bent toward projects of social justice.  The book takes the Sammy Davis, Jr. story out of the strictly show-biz realm of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddie Cantor, Frank Sinatra, and Gregory Hines, and sets it instead in conversation with A. Phillip Randolph, Gunnar Myrdal, Martin Luther King, Jr., Diane Nash, Shirley Chisholm, and Stokley Carmichael.  Beyond the kind of biopic romance of the rags-to-riches show biz story, Davis’s trajectory has much to say about the economics and culture of segregated entertainment circuits; the patterns of racial deference in twentieth-century performance traditions; the street-level experience of Jim Crow, and the diverging generational outlooks by which African Americans met it; the postwar imperatives of desegregation, and the grain and the pace of this political work; the social geography of race and the varying political moods of Civil Rights activism; the place of white allies (and white “allies”) in the liberation movement; the public and private faces of racism and anti-racism; the play of race politics in dance, song, and script; and various cultural forms as a means of expression and liberation, the culture industries themselves as sites of contestation.

“There is still opportunity in America for a black man,” Davis insisted around the time of the Montgomery bus boycott; “he’s got to fight for it maybe harder than a white man, he’s got to fight for his stretch of dignity.  Once he gets it—and if he utilizes it properly—then he makes it a little easier for the other guy.”  The extent to which Davis’s triumphs in the industry really did advance “the other guy” was a question that dogged him throughout his career.  Many of his black colleagues were skeptical that the arts Davis had on offer ever did produce much in the way of liberation; and Davis himself was often torn between the claims that certain battles he fought—desegregating the Sands Hotel, for instance—were for his people or for himself.  Was he dancing the barricades down, or merely dancing down them? Davis “was exhausting to be with,” Eartha Kitt once sighed, and this had everything to do with the ways that his personal, psychic hungers were fused with an impatience with Jim Crow’s limits.  “There was always that nervous tension surrounding him, of having some place to go and not knowing how to get there,” Kitt said, describing both inner yearnings and external roadblocks.  “I’m going to be bigger than you are one of these days,” he told Kitt, to her mixed consternation and amusement.  But being “bigger” was Davis’s best and only plan for quieting his demons and for overcoming Jim Crow.  As Gerald Early writes, “few performers have reflected the glory of their times more fully or carried the burdens of their times with greater anxiety or gut-wrenching honesty than did Davis.”  Which is just to note that, given the racial dynamics of Las Vegas and Hollywood as his career was arching upward, there was a little bit of the bullet dance in everything Davis did.

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