BHERC - Press Releases & Media

Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry
By Noted Author ~ MEL WATKINS

(Los Angeles, CA) The Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (“BHERC”) is honored to present MEL WATKINS’ 2005 biography, STEPIN FETCHIT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF LINCOLN PERRY from January 27-30, 2006 at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center and Esowon Books.

Mel Watkins is a former editor and writer for The New York Times Sunday Book Review. He is the author of On the Real Side: A History of African American Humor from Slavery to Chris Rock, an analytical study of black humor, and Dancing with Strangers, a recollection of growing up in Youngstown, Ohio and attending Colgate University during the 1950s and 60s at the dawn of the civil rights movement. His latest book is the 2005 biography, Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. He frequently writes for major newspapers and magazines and has appeared as a commentator on numerous television documentaries about comedy, vaudeville and show business personalities.

Mr. Watkins is quoted about Black Hollywood Education and Resource’s (“BHERC”) upcoming weekend Stepin Fetchit — Reexamining the Black Image in Mass Media:

“The road to freedom and equality for African Americans has wound through treacherous terrain: from slavery to Emancipation and partial citizenship through legislated segregation and Jim Crow laws to the civil rights movement and the ongoing struggle for complete equality under the law and in the work place. In every field of endeavor from politics and voting rights to business and the arts, that path has been marked by concerted opposition, fitful setbacks and regressions, incremental, sometimes barely noticeable gains, and, on rare occasions — when the time was right and the outcry most insistent — stunning forward advances. The history of blacks in Hollywood films offers a classic example of that pattern.

The neophyte film industry largely ignored the black presence in America at the turn of the 19th century. When black characters did appear, white actors in grotesque blackface portrayed them. Even by the mid-1920s, only a handful of African Americans had appeared in Hollywood movies — Noble Johnson, Madame Sul-te-Wan, Bert Williams, Charles Gilpin and Allen “Farina” Hoskins among them. As in other fields, blacks actors faced the choice of conforming to stereotyped roles that supported the nation’s distorted view of black Americans, being excluded, or turning their backs on Hollywood to produce their own films. Despite the remarkable achievements of filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and, later, Spencer Williams, the latter effort failed. It was left to pioneer performers like Lincoln Monroe Perry to go behind the lines and fight the battle from within while establishing themselves as a presence to which black audiences could respond. Lincoln Perry (as Stepin Fetchit) took that first step, proving that a black actor could be a star attraction in motion pictures. If in retrospect the parts he played seem anachronous, we should understand that he pushed the envelope as far as the national consciousness and Hollywood producers allowed. His efforts represent the first steps on the path that led to African American acceptance in the film industry. Someone had to cross that bridge, assume that burden — and he did it magnificently.

For me, there is an additional reason for honoring Lincoln Perry’s efforts. As Ralph Ellison once said in defense of America’s obsession with ethnic humor:
“There is something about humor that makes it very, very tricky.

“The nation told Negro jokes, used Negro slang, turns of phrase, and danced Negro comic dances from its very beginning. This is the way this strange country operated. If you can laugh at me, you don’t have to kill me. If I learn how to laugh at you, I don’t have to kill you. This is one of the strange secrets of the power of humor, its cementing factor. It’s a humanizing factor, which sometimes humanized by reducing the outsider, or the opponent, to the level of the ridiculous.”

In the rush toward politically correct dismissal of the efforts of early black comic actors, we seem to have forgotten that keen insight. I sincerely believe that— as he shim-sham-shimmied his way to stardom while vainly attempting to change the insistently foolish image of blacks on the screen — Lincoln Perry instinctively understood what Ellison was getting at. “

— Mel Watkins, January 2006


Mel Watkins grew up in Youngstown, Ohio and graduated from Colgate University in 1962. He joined the staff of The New York Times in 1964 and, by 1966, had become an editor, writer, and critic for NY Times Sunday Book Review, where he remained for 20 years. During that time he wrote over 1,000 book reviews and either interviewed or wrote feature articles on such notable '70s and '80s authors as Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, James Baldwin, John Edgar Wideman, Gloria Naylor, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker. He received an Alicia Patterson Journalism Grant for research on American humor in 1979, served as book page editor for American Visions magazine from 1988 to 1990 and was an instructor at Rutgers University from 1992 to 1993. Since 1994 he has been a freelance writer.

Mr. Watkins is author of On the Real Side: The History of African American Comedy (1994); Dancing With Strangers (1998), a recollection of growing up in the Midwest and attending Colgate University; African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to the Present (2002), and the mystery novel Who Killed Tiffany Jones? (2002). Dancing with Strangers was chosen as the featured book for Youngstown State University’s First Annual Freshman Readers Dialogue in 2002.

Mr. Watkins has served as a commentator for numerous documentaries about American culture and humor, including A&E's biographies of comedians Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, and Martin Lawrence; Telling It Like it Was, Radio Smithsonian Presents Black Radio, hosted by Lou Rawls (1996); Vaudeville: An American Masters Special, a 1997 PBS documentary, and Stephen Foster: America’s First Great Songwriter (PBS, 2001). He was also among the authors who read poetry in the PBS presentation In Our City: New Yorkers Remember September 11th (2001).

Mr. Watkins latest book is a biography of the 1930s film star Stepin Fetchit, entitled Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, which was published by Pantheon Books on October 18, 2005. He is currently working as a consultant on the PBS documentary, Make ‘Em Laugh, and completing a novel tentatively entitled May December, A Contemporary Love Story.

For additional information regarding Mel Watkins’ books or activities, see Google, Amazon Books or [].

The Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center was founded to remove the veil of invisibility that shrouds African Americans and other minority groups from the main stage, and to spotlight diversity and the stellar contributions of black film and television artists who brought dignity and professionalism to even the most menial of roles. The Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, a nonprofit, public benefit organization, is designed to advocate, educate, research, develop, and preserve the history, and the future, of blacks in the film and television industries.

Friday, January 27, 2006, from noon until 1:30 p.m., an afternoon with MEL WATKINS at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center – Hosted by DR. DARNELL HUNT.

Sunday, January 29th from 2:00 until 4:00 p.m., there will be a Panel Discussion and Book Signing with MEL WATKINS, MILES KREUGER moderated by JEFF STETSON.
Monday, January 30, 2006 at 7:00 p.m. a book signing with author MEL WATKINS, Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry, at ESOWON Books, located at 3655 S. La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90016.

For additional information, please call 310.284.3170 or 323.957.4747. The panel discussions and book signings are open to the public and are free of charge, however, attendees are greatly encouraged to purchase books from Esowon. This historical event is produced by Sandra Evers-Manly, John Forbes, and Wren T. Brown.

To Purchase Tickets please call Inglewood Tickets at 310.671.6400

Noted Author Mel Watkins Press Release

Stepin Fetchit: Reexamining The Black Image in Mass Media Press Release

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