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Praise for Introducing Bert Williams

"Camille F. Forbes has produced a history not only of a life and an industry, but also of our ideas about the performance and theatricality of race itself. This is a significant contribution to the field of African American Studies as well as a model of how to pull a story out of archives and historical records that do not always cooperate.”

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

“This book combines the fascinating biography of Bert Williams with the enriched history of blacks in American show business. Camille F. Forbes does a wonderful job of displaying her research on his life as she recreates the atmosphere of the years during which Williams flourished. It is a welcome addition to my personal library.”

—David Jasen, author of The American Rag: The Story of Ragtime from Coast to Coast and Rags and Ragtime: A Musical History

Theatre Survey (2010), 51: 159-161 Cambridge University Press
© American Society for Theatre Research 2010

"One of the book’s greatest strengths is how it places Williams within the larger context of American performance and black performers, and shows how the headliner struggled against immense limitations—primarily, of course, the tradition of performed racial impersonation....

"One of the book’s most interesting threads is the way fame and prominence were complicated and sometimes double-edged goals for Williams and his partner George Walker. The famous duo met on the streets of San Francisco, where one of their earliest gigs together was on a fairground as fake Africans living in a simulated African village (an experience that became an inspiration for their later musicals). The indignities and difficulties they faced as unknown entertainers, billed early on as 'Two Real Coons,' became even more intense as they achieved national and international stardom...

"In analyzing these later solo years, Forbes’s meticulous research and compelling writing illuminate a phase in Williams’s career that may otherwise have seemed monolithic. Forbes details specific skits on which Williams worked, ones that were both topical (the building of Grand Central Station and the Jack Johnson–Jim Jeffries boxing match) and traditional (Williams still wore blackface and sang 'Nobody'). The racism Williams experienced during these years is made all the more painful because of how straightforwardly he handled and discussed it....

"It’s not hard to think of Williams’s life as tragic, considering that his talent was unable to be fully recognized in his time; nor is it hard to think of his life as ironic, considering his uneasy balance of personal notoriety and blackfaced anonymity. Fortunately, Forbes resists such facile readings in this worthwhile biography."

--Kevin Burne, City University of New York

London Daily Telegraph (December 2, 2008)

"I was more deeply moved and informed by Camille F Forbes's Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway and the Story of America's First Black Star (Basic, £15.99). The Bahamian immigrant was the most popular black entertainer of his day, performing demeaning 'coon songs' in blackface for the American audiences of the early 20th century. This book takes Williams out of cartoon imagery and reveals the man who would watch birds, beetles and butterflies for hours before weaving 'little stories about their lives, as if their hopes and dreams were human ones: and who is there to say that they are so very different?'"

Star-Ledger (NJ)

"When did black pride begin? Camille F. Forbes, in her engrossing biography, 'Introducing Bert Williams,' makes a case that the African-American entertainer (1874-1922) quietly invented the concept more than 100 years ago."

Tucson Citizen

"A comprehensive biography of Bert Williams - one of the greatest Broadway stars ever - is long overdue...Forbes, a historian and performer with a Ph.D. in American civilization from Harvard University, has written a remarkable book that is much more than a simple narrative about the life of an entertainer from the early years of the last century. She connects the dots and offers a glimpse into the fraught issues surrounding both race and artistic expression in American culture that even today continues to reverberate.

This is an important book about nothing less than the very birth of American show business."

Grade: A


"...Camille F. Forbes' thorough and captivating biography Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt-Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star represents the most exhaustive work done on this groundbreaking figure...Introducing Bert Williams provides some much needed perspective and documentation regarding his life and times."


“A neglected titan of popular culture gets his due… A wealth of detail illuminates the evolution of show business during Williams’s era, and the artist himself is quoted at length, revealing an articulate and thoughtful man beneath the burnt cork.”

Publishers Weekly

"Once billed as 'The Funniest Man on Earth,' black comedian Bert Williams (1874–1922), in the midst of a current revival (e.g., Louis Chude-Sokei's The Last 'Darky' and Caryl Phillips's 'Dancing in the Dark'), gets solidly covered by Forbes, a UC–San Diego professor of African-American literature and culture. She delivers an in-depth documentation of his life set against the shadowy backdrop of 19th and 20th-century racism. Working within the limitations of blackface stereotypes, Williams regaled audiences with his creative characterizations. Born in the Bahamas, he was schooled in California, joining medicine shows and minstrel troupes before teaming with George Walker for vaudeville and Victor recordings. Williams's woeful 'Nobody' became his signature theme song, and in 1903, he brought the first black musical to Broadway. When Ziegfeld ignored protests and cast Williams in 1910, his integrated Ziegfeld Follies became a theatrical milestone. Williams 'had shown that blacks who break through to "The Great White Way" can triumph and stay.' Forbes's foray through the Billy Rose Theatre Collection and other archives fills 52 pages of bibliographic notes, and her vivid, detailed descriptions of Williams's comedy routines bring his dynamic stage presence to life on the page." (Jan. 29)

London Daily Telegraph (March 1, 2008)

"...In Camille Forbes's richly detailed new biography, she tells one story that might stand for her subject's entire life.

Once, when Williams was performing in New York in the early 1900s, the great Maurice Barrymore, patriarch of the most celebrated acting family in America, went down to the wings to watch him in action. 'Like him?' a passing stagehand asked. 'Yes, he's terrific,' Barrymore replied.

Then, a moment later, as Williams was coming offstage, the stagehand said: 'Yes, he's a good nigger, knows his place.; Overhearing the remark, as he was surely meant to, Williams said under his breath: 'Yes, a good nigger knows his place. Going there now. Dressing Room One!'

Like so many of the stories in this book, this is a tale that could easily be interpreted in one of two ways. On the one hand, it lays bare the appalling racism that Williams had to endure throughout his professional life; on the other, it could also be seen as the story of victory against the odds, of a man who fought his way into Dressing Room One. Forbes leans towards the latter view, and the emphasis in this book is generally positive."

Copyright © 2007-2016 Camille F. Forbes. All Rights Reserved.