Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips

external image dancing-in-dark-caryl-phillips-hardcover-cover-art.jpg
external image dancing-in-dark-caryl-phillips-hardcover-cover-art.jpg


Dancing in the Dark is about a man named Bert Williams who was a black American entertainer. He lived from 1874 to 1922. He was a "blackface" performer who altered his appearance and acted in ways that reflected a stereotypical "black person” during the 1890's. He performed for white audiences while highlighting stereotypes that they had towards African Americans. Yet Williams did not live in Americe his whole life. He was actually born in the Bahamas. He emigrated to the United States with his father. His father looked to the United States for promises of an uprising middle class for African Americans.

One time period when migration was prominent within the united states is during the time of the Homestead Act of 1862. Although Bert Williams was born 12 years after the Homestead Act began, his life is comparable to the lives of those who settled in the Great Plains in response to the Homestead Act. These people, known as homesteaders, moved from their homes in order to receive 160 acres of land by living on that land for five years. Comparably, Bert Williams gave up some personal dignity and dignity of other African Americans. Dignity was lost because he used prejudices towards African Americans in order to be a well-liked entertainer. Like the homesteaders, he made sacrifices in hopes of finding success. Further, Williams' father made the decision to emigrate to the United States in hopes of finding a success similar to what the homesteaders looked for in the Great Plains.

In reality, the homesteaders found life on the Great Plains difficult. Certain resources for living, like water and trees, were not readily available. Drought, dust storms, and prairie fires were common sources of worry for the homesteaders. Many saw the Great Plains as a “treeless wasteland.” Similarly, Bert Williams did not find his entertainment successes to be fully satisfying. He had plenty of worries like the homesteaders did. He was described by W.C Fields as “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew” (Brett). This quote demonstrates that although Bert Williams searched for fulfillment, he did not find it, much like the homesteaders. Unfortunately, sacrifices made by both the homesteaders, Bert Williams, and his father did not bring them the success, prosperity, nor happiness that they had hoped for.

Bert Williams as a "blackface" performer
Bert Williams as a "blackface" performer

Bert Williams
Bert Williams

To watch a video that includes other famous African Americans' thoughts on Bert Williams, click here.
For a sample of a Bert Williams performance, click here.







Next Page: Flyin' West by Pearl Cleage