Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Entertainer's Story

You need to read this piece by John McWhorter at City Journal. It's about the life, career and, frankly, the meaning of the late Sammy Davis, Jr. If you're my age and are familiar with Davis, it's in part a stroll down memory lane. But it's a painful walk, and, in the end, I think it's both unnecessary and unkind.

McWhorter, an interesting fellow in his own right, begins by questioning Davis's star quality: "I never quite got the Sammy thing." I'm with him there as I never got it either. With the article's subtitle, he questions it even more: "The extraordinary gifts and fleeting legacy of Sammy Davis, Jr." I'm afraid I agree again. While the legacies of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, his "Rat Pack" cohorts, remain secure, I suspect that if you're under a certain age, you've never even heard of Sammy Davis, Jr., and this is so despite the fact that during the 1960s and 70s, he was nearly omnipresent on the television.

As McWhorter sees it, the reason Davis is increasingly unknown is that actually his chief talent was for mimicry, at which he was apparently extremely good. And for precisely that reason, he never established for himself an identity as an entertainer that was fundamentally his own. But it's worse than that according to McWhorter. For the same reason, he also failed to establish an identity of his own as a man. He writes that,"Before the sixties, Davis imitated whites; afterward, as he tried to go with the times, the best he could do was to imitate being black."

It's sad, but I think there is something to what McWhorter observes. Besides not quite getting the Sammy thing, I remember that Davis's on-stage persona always made me squirm a bit when I watched him perform. He was obviously very talented, but he seemed to me to be forever trying just a bit too hard. As if, and this is really the point of the piece, he wasn't really comfortable in his own skin. Apparently for McWhorter, who is himself African-American, this fact about Davis makes him a fitting target of scorn.

As I read this article, I couldn't help but remember A Soldier's Story, the 1984 movie screen-written by Charles Fuller, who also wrote the 1981 play from which the film was adapted. I love this movie and highly recommend it. It's superb on so many levels, the story, the back-story, the setting, the music, the acting,...everything! It's about an all black Army unit comprised mostly of Negro League baseball players who are whiling away World War II at a post in Louisiana. Their sergeant is mysteriously murdered and a black captain/lawyer is sent from Washington to investigate. The suspicion is that local Klan members killed him and that the post's white leadership is covering it up. The setting, the Jim Crow South, makes getting at the truth by a black attorney of the murder of a black soldier difficult at best, but that obstacle is what drives the drama.

In the course of the lawyer's investigation, through a series of flashbacks, we learn much about the character of Master Sergeant Vernon Waters, the slain black soldier. It turns out he was a self-loathing black man who directed much of his anger for being so at other members of his own race. He was angry at them for not living up to his own ideal of what they should be, and what they should be is more like white men. This made him mercurial and mean and his men hated him for it.

Save one, that is, the team's star player, C.J. Memphis who surprisingly pities the sergeant. At one point he explains his sentiments to his fellow soldiers: "Any man ain't sure where he belong, gotta' be in a whole lotta pain." But his goodwill is never requited as Memphis epitomizes for the sergeant the very kind of black man he despises. Memphis was an otherwise ignorant, inarticulate, backwoods Mississippian, whose very existence the sergeant cannot tolerate as it serves chiefly, in his judgement, to bring further shame to the entire race. As a result, in order to dispose of him, he frames him for a serious crime and has him imprisoned. At one of his visits to the jail we learn precisely what makes Sergeant Waters tick as he explains why he had no choice but to do what he did to the young soldier/ballplayer.
Them Nazis ain't all crazy. Whole lot of people just can't seem to fit in to where things seem to be going. Like you, CJ. See, the Black race can't afford you no more. There used to be a time, we'd see someone like you singin', clownin', yassuh-bossin'... and we wouldn't do anything. Folks liked that. You were good. Homey kind of nigger. When they needed somebody to mistreat, call a name or two, they paraded you. Reminded them of the good old days. Not no more. The day of the Geechee is gone, boy. And you're going with it.
As it happens, and I can't help but spoil the ending in order to make my point, no whites were involved in Waters' murder. He was killed by another soldier in the unit who hated him for the way he routinely treated them all, for the way he treated Memphis specifically, and for the way he seemed to be ashamed of the black race. When the lawyer breaks the case, he challenges the murderer with these words: "Who gave you the right to judge? To decide who is fit to be a Negro and who is not?"

Could we not ask these same questions of John McWhorter? As far as I know, Sammy Davis, Jr. never hurt anyone. In fact, he brought a great deal of joy to a lot of people, white and black. If he was a conflicted man who sometimes failed to summon sufficient courage, well, it was a conflicted age and courage was often in short supply. Might he, along with many others besides, be more deserving of our sympathy than our contempt?


  1. And in this case Sammy Davis, Jr. served as a foil for that wonderful review of a favorite movie of mine!

  2. The Sage aims to please. Now pass the popcorn, will ya?