The colour of funny

The hero of Caryl Phillips's new novel 'Dancing in the Dark' is based on the life of the black comedian who won over racist America
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Born in 1874 in the Bahamas, Williams went to the USA with his family 11 years later, at the beginning of the worst period in American race relations. Segregation was practised, and lynching tolerated, and blacks routinely called "coons", "darkies", and worse. Race riots erupted across America: when Jack Johnson knocked out a white man in 1910 for the heavyweight championship of the world, black neighbourhoods in 50 cities went up in flames.

Black entertainers put on plays or appeared in vaudeville, but in all-black casts, before black audiences. The one form of black entertainment that white audiences knew was the minstrel show, which had been popular since pre-Civil War days, in which blacks played the banjo, cracked jokes, and cakewalked; grotesque, dim, but happy. But these shows were often put on by whites in blackface. Williams and his partner, George Walker, promoted their comedy, song, and dance act by advertising its authenticity. They called themselves The Two Real Coons.

Williams, however, was so light-complexioned that, ironically, audiences would not accept him unless he blacked up. But the make-up was, for him, not merely a comic prop; it was the means of setting his talent free. "It was not until I was able to see myself as another person," he said, "that my sense of humour developed." Walker was the smooth-talking dandy, Williams his droll, shuffling foil. A tall, handsome man, he covered his features in tar-coloured greasepaint and created huge raccoon eyes that blinked in puzzlement or widened in consternation.

Renowned for his expressiveness and timing, Williams played numerous variations on the uneducated but commonsensical rustic - or, as one newspaper review put it, "a common everyday nigger" - who, outwitted at first by the slick Walker, outsmarts him in the end. Their sketches are now hopelessly dated, the jokes even worse than those in James Bond movies, but what made them different, and successful, was Williams's delivery. He was deft, he was subtle, he was lovable. Some of his black fans complained that the act was demeaning, and asked him to portray a black character who was clever and successful. His reply was always the same: "Too soon."

As early as 1897, when a New York reviewer called the team "the greatest comedy act ever witnessed in this city" without the qualifying adjective "black", it was obvious that Williams and Walker were too good to keep in an entertainment ghetto. Always regarded as the more talented partner, Williams went solo in 1909 and remained a star until his death, in 1922. Chaplin revered him, and is thought to have been influenced by him in creating the Little Tramp. Sarah Bernhardt, playing the same city, sent him flowers, with a note that read "To a fellow artist". Booker T Washington, the first great leader of black Americans, said, "Bert Williams has done more for the race than I have." But, as an exemplar of Washington's advice to blacks - to get an education, work hard, and ignore insult and discrimination - Williams would seem, to later generations, passive, even obsequious. His rare acts of defiance were haughty rather than impassioned. When a New York bartender told him that the price of a drink, for him, was $50, he calmly took out a roll of bills and bought drinks for the house. When a resentful stagehand called him "a good nigger who knows his place," Williams replied, as he walked away, "That's right. Dressing room one."

In 1903 Williams and Walker appeared in the first Broadway musical with a black cast, author, and composer. In Dahomey was pretty nonsensical, even by the standards of the day, but the music, by Will Marion Cook, had plenty of sophisticated syncopation, and Williams, as always, carried the show with his portrait of the eternal fall-guy. His "look of fatalistic hopelessness," one reviewer wrote, "simply convulsed the spectators" - by which, of course, he meant the white ones. Williams's black fans laughed as well, but his expressions would have been hard to see in "nigger heaven," as the seats reserved for them - in that theatre, the top three of five balconies - were called.

Nor could Williams go wherever he liked - the management of his expensive hotel made him use the service entrance. His response to such slights was typically detached. "I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a coloured man," he said. "But I have often found it inconvenient in America." Williams found a warmer welcome in England, where In Dahomey ran more than twice as long as in New York and played a command performance at Buckingham Palace. Williams returned to visit Edward VII, showing him how to tell jokes and shoot craps.

Williams was also an accomplished comic dancer, and his mellow baritone made him, in 1901, the first black recording star. Half-singing, half-speaking, he would let the melody run ahead of him, then nimbly catch up to it in a manner that foreshadowed the freedom of jazz. The songs, many of which he wrote himself, were the same sort of material offered by white comedians, with harmless, homey targets."

The audience he courted was white and prim, so any expression of sexual desire on the part of a black man would have ended his career. Even when he topped the bill of the Ziegfeld Follies, Williams assured his public, "There is not a white woman on the stage during my appearance in the Follies. I had that put into the contract."

Williams's most famous song, the only one to survive him, was "Nobody", a chillingly bleak number for anyone, let alone a comedian. To repeated questions - Who will give him a handout? a smile? - the answer is always the title word. The chorus goes, "I ain't never done nothin' for nobody/ I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time/ And, until I get somethin' from somebody/ I don't intend to do nothin' for nobody, no time."

'Dancing in the Dark' is published on 1 September by Secker & Warburg (£12.99)