Stepin Fetchit was a famous (some would say infamous) African-American film actor from the 1920s and 1930s who achieved unprecedented fame and popularity during a period of history when black people faced immense prejudice and legal restrictions.
Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry, gained extraordinary notoriety by depicting the worst possible racialist stereotypes of black people – the characters he played were invariably stupid, anti-intellectual, bug-eyed, lazy, shiftless, superstitious and subservient to whites. However, he was so funny and talented that he attracted the adoration of both black and white audiences.
To whites, he fulfilled all their racialist fantasies; to blacks, despite his embarrassing performances, he was one of the few black faces they could watch at the matinee.
In the meantime, Fetchit became a millionaire. In contrast to the shiftless, lazy characters he portrayed on screen, he was reportedly highly dignified and literate in real life.
By the time the black civil rights movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s (when Fetchit was still alive), he had become an anachronism, an embarrassment and a pariah.
Fetchit, tragically, died a penniless and obscure figure.
But Stepin Fetchit really never died.
Amazingly, in the more “enlightened” 21st century he still exists – watch rap videos, for example. They represent a new kind of minstrel show in which young black men are portrayed as lazy, violent, greedy, selfish predators utterly devoid of any redeeming qualities.
However, rap music (and all of its execrable images and 'values') is despised by many people, both black and white.
So, let’s consider mainstream media – and we still find other remnants of the shuffling 'Stepin Fetchit' character.
Perhaps the most well-known modern-day version is none other than NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who is current employed as an analyst for basketball games on the TNT network.
Barkley is a phenomenon that could only happen in America – a poor, boorish, uneducated, overweight black man from the Deep South who becomes a multi-millionaire athletic superstar and (even more inexplicably) a highly sought-out media celebrity who is frequently asked to comment on news events and social/political issues.
Barkley (who appears to me to be almost illiterate) has actually “authored” some books and even bragged that he would one day run for governor of his home state of Alabama (as a Republican).
He frequently appears on TV talk shows, spouts idiotic, vulgar and stupid comments and generates a lot of laughs (and dollars).
But the joke is on him. He doesn't seem to realize that most folks are laughing at him, not with him.
Sir Charles claims that he is “politically incorrect” and “telling it like it is” – but actually, he is merely saying whatever he knows his (mostly white) audience will find the most absurd. There is something very contrived and artificial about his entire public persona and demeanor.
Of course, the 'Round Mound of Rebound' is reaping the benefits of his fame and wealth and enjoying the leisurely Life of Reilly. He is either totally unaware of (or more likely, does not care about) what a foolish and embarrassing spectacle he is.
Beyond his 'entertainment value,' there is a grim undercurrent to his celebrity.
For Charles Barkley is part of a long and sad American tradition that stretches all the way back to the 19th century, when white comedians would paint their faces black and make vicious fun of black people by exploiting every egregious negative stereotype. (There were also black entertainers who also wore blackface and performed as minstrels).
Of course, Barkley is not the only one; there are many other modern-day minstrels who have become rich by playing the role of the fool – including Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, Flavor Flav, Dennis Rodman, Jimmie Walker, Michael Irvin and Tracy Morgan, to name but a few.
Stepin Fetchit had no choice. In order to survive (and prosper) in a deeply racialist and segregated America, he was forced to act foolish and subservient in movies and on stage. He was clearly a tragic victim of his times.
But Barkley has choices and opportunities that Fetchit couldn't even dream of – and still he chooses to repeatedly demean and embarrass himself in exchange for a pot of gold.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.