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Author Q and A (221 KB)

Perseus Books Group
Basic Civitas
Mar 22, 2010
US $18.95
CAN $24.00
UK £10.99
ISBN: 9780465018116
ISBN-10: 0465018114


London Daily Telegraph, "Christmas books: Pop music," 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?'"

BookPage, February 2008
"While no less a celebrated figure than W.C. Fields often touted the versatility and talent of Bert Williams, the first black performer to appear on Broadway, 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. Williams was a superb entertainer, marvelous storyteller, impressive vocalist and often imaginative performer, yet he worked in an era when blacks were openly lampooned and ridiculed in hideous minstrel shows and blackface routines that depicted them as unthinking, childlike buffoons and caricatures. Despite this, Williams managed to inject a degree of humanity and dignity in even the worst creative situations.

Forbes carefully follows Williams' rise to stardom and traces his involvement and participation in almost every phase of American entertainment. With access to everything from joke books to interviews, letters, films, songs and reviews (both positive and unflattering), Forbes not only tracks the evolution of Williams' career, she shows the toll it took on him, especially the rejection he received from fellow African Americans angered by his frequent use of blackface. Williams was a complex, driven and conflicted soul, skilled enough to have successfully operated in every arena from medicine shows and vaudeville to films, musical theater and early recordings, yet today he's more an object of pity or scorn than triumph. Introducing Bert Williams provides some much needed perspective and documentation regarding his life and times.

Publishers Weekly, 12/3/2007

"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)

Introducing Bert Williams at MoMA

Copyright © 2007-2019 Camille F. Forbes. All Rights Reserved.