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Sammy Davis, Jr. and seeking white acceptance in an “independent and assertive way”

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Sammy Davis, Jr.

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This excerpt from cultural historian Gerald Early’s essay from The Sammy Davis Jr Reader is a provocative reminder of Davis’ important role in breaking down racial barriers, and how the racism he faced led to his rebellion against it that was “couched in terms of seeking the acceptance of whites, but seeking that acceptance in a new, independent, and more assertive way.”

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[Sammy] Davis was born one year after another famous Harlemite, writer James Baldwin. They were part of a new generation of blacks when they came of age in the 1940s. Just as Baldwin by the late 1940s and early 1950s was breaking down barriers in literature by writing for some of the leading intellectual journals and magazines of the day, so the Will Maston Trio, almost solely on the strength of Davis’s talent and his connections (Sinatra had taken a liking to him in the early 1940s), was breaking down barriers, professionally and personally, by playing El Rancho in Las Vegas, Ciro’s in Los Angeles, the Beachcomber in Miami, and finally, the Copa in New York. When Davis emerged as a star in the early 1950s he was part of a generation of new black cross-over stars who were openly rejecting segregation and the restriction of the black institutions to which they had been assigned: Jackie Robinson in baseball, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier in film, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Gwendolyn Brooks in literature. They did not wish to be seen as black ballplayers, black actors, or black writers but as professional ballplayers, professional actors, and professional writers. Jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and others were expressly changing the public demeanor of the black jazz musician, from dance band entertainer to serious, self-conscious artist. And jazz music, at times, became a form of protest. Of course, what made the assertion, the rebellion of these blacks especially poignant, ambivalent, and perhaps misunderstood by both blacks and whites, was that it was couched in the terms of seeking the acceptance of whites, but seeking that acceptance in a new, independent, and more assertive way. These performers wanted to be accepted by whites for what they themselves thought they were and not for what whites wanted them to be. As Davis so richly expressed it in Yes I Can: “‘ They’ll like me even if they hate my guts!'” It was this drive for acceptance that motivated him during his horrendous years in the army (unlike Sinatra, Lawford, and Martin, Davis actually was in the armed services during World War II) when he was beaten, tortured, and harassed by racists. He thought he could win them over with his performances in army shows. Whether he did win them over remains an open question, whether it was worth the effort is decidedly debatable. But it is clear that like many of the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and artists, Davis thought the Negro could effect change for both him or herself and for the group through art. This, too, is a questionable belief but not an uncommon one. As Davis wrote in Yes I Can: “I’d learned a lot in the army and I knew that above all things in the world I had to become so big, so strong, so important, that those [bigoted white soldiers] and their hatred could never touch me. My talent was the only thing that made me a little different from everybody else, and it was all that I could hope would shield me because I was different.” In his mind, his own fate, the war against racism, and his sense of individuality were tied together in a complex way.

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Excerpted from The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader, by Gerald Early

Sammy Davis, Jr. plays drums and vibes with his band on the Ed Sullivan Show

Read my interview with Gerald Early on Miles Davis