He stands onstage, a cigarette in one hand and a microphone in the other, impeccably dressed in a black tuxedo and matching bow tie. It’s the mid-1960s, and the nation is on edge. Black Americans are combating disenfranchisement in the South, often facing violence and arrest; in Harlem and Watts, frustrated by police brutality and rampant poverty, they’re rioting. White supremacy and anti-Semitism are on the rise, with George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party attracting national attention. Tensions between White and Black seem fit to boil over.
Enter Sammy Davis Jr., a thirtysomething Black man, a rich and successful entertainer, and a convert to Judaism.
“I’m colored, Jewish, and Puerto Rican,” Davis tells the audience. He pauses for a beat before delivering the kicker: “When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out!”
The overwhelmingly White audience laughs and applauds, relieved to be off the hook, happy to be in on the joke. Ain’t racism a gas?
Sammy Davis Jr. was called a lot of things throughout his lifetime in show business. The world’s greatest entertainer. The greatest entertainer who ever lived. Mr. Entertainment. Golden Boy.
Also: Nigger. Uncle Tom. Sellout.
Thirty years after his death from throat cancer, Davis has been either forgotten by the American public or dismissed as a relic from another time, an anachronism, a five-foot-five stain on African-Americans’ long struggle for civil rights. But today, with race relations at lows not seen since the 1960s, and Americans drawing widening lines in racial, political, and religious sands, is the time right to reevaluate Davis’ legacy?
My relationship with Davis began in the late 1990s, nearly 10 years after his death. I was a teenager, living, at that time, in a small town in southwest Colorado. I was the son of an African American father and Jewish mother, and no matter how hard I tried, I’d never felt like I belonged in either camp. I found my way to Davis at first because I was captivated by the otherworldly cool of the Rat Pack — the singing, boozing, and carousing troupe of the early 1960s, unofficially led by Davis, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra.
The Rat Pack, to me, embodied a bygone era, one in which men dressed in the best clothes, drank the best liquor, got the best-looking women, and took orders from no one. In my eyes, Davis had achieved the impossible: an African American Jew who somehow managed to become one of the boys. I hadn’t yet learned about Davis’ constant struggles: racism and prejudice, death threats from powerful people, and ceaseless ridicule and backlash from White and Black folks alike.
In his 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can, Davis writes how he hadn’t even been aware of racial prejudice until he joined the army in 1943 at the age of 19. He’d been in entertainment since he was four years old — first as part of a vaudeville act along with his father, and appearing in film shorts as well — and as an entertainer he’d largely been sheltered from the country’s racism. Davis was drafted into the army’s first integrated infantry unit, alongside White Southerners who weren’t particularly thrilled about serving alongside Negroes; he was routinely bullied and brutally assaulted by his fellow soldiers. He’d tried to fight back, but he was no taller than a tree stump and as thin as a rail. He realized he needed a different strategy if he were to survive. So he did what he did best: he entertained.
“My talent was the weapon, the power, the way for me to fight,” Davis writes. “It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.”
As an uneducated Black man in America, his options were limited, his prospects few. But his ambition — for wealth, success, and, most of all, acceptance — was limitless. “I knew that above all things in the world,” he writes, “I had to become so big, so strong, so important, that those people and their hatred could never touch me.”
Davis returned to show business after leaving the army, and was soon nationally renowned as a world-class entertainer. He was an old-school hoofer, a ham, the consummate song-and-dance man. He broke color barriers from Las Vegas to Broadway. He could sing better than Sinatra and dance better than Fred Astaire. The old adage that Black people in America need to be twice as good as Whites to succeed? Davis was 10 times as good.
But he could also be contradictory, confounding, and foolhardy. He did impressions of White celebrities when no other Black performer would dare. He spoke with an affected genteel diction when many Black entertainers were still doing “Amos ’n’ Andy” routines. He married a White woman when interracial marriage was still illegal in 31 states — something his daughter later claimed got him barred from performing at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration party. And, perhaps most confounding of all, he became a Jew when anti-Jewish sentiments were rampant.
When I listened to his records, I didn’t just hear a man who longed to be accepted as an entertainer. I heard a man who, like me, yearned to be accepted by our own people.
Explaining his embrace of Judaism in Yes I Can, Davis compares the plight of Black Americans to the long history of Jewish persecution across the world: “For thousands of years they hung on to their beliefs,” he writes, “enduring the scorn, the intolerance, the abuses against them because they were ‘different,’ time and again losing everything, but never their belief in themselves and in their right to have rights, asking nothing but for people to leave them alone, to get off their backs.”
By identifying as a Jew, Davis was now the target of two types of prejudice. And regardless of his passion, his talent, or his success — regardless of how big, strong, and important he had finally become — he still would not be embraced, either by Jewish or Black communities.
In this, some four decades later, I’d find encouragement. Davis was my mensch. When I listened to his records alone in my bedroom (my friends, curiously, didn’t share the same enthusiasm for Sammy Davis Jr.), I didn’t just hear a man who longed to be accepted as an entertainer. I heard a man who, like me, yearned to be accepted — with all our contradictions, ambiguities, and insecurities — by our own people.
But our people can be a motherfucker.
For all the racist slurs levied against Davis by Whites, he didn’t fare much better with the Black community. For every “nigger” he heard muttered by White bigots, he was just as often viewed with suspicion or outright called an Uncle Tom by a younger, more radical generation of Black activists who were distrustful of the ostentatious Vegas crooner. Never mind that Davis marched in Washington, was a close friend and benefactor of Martin Luther King Jr., and had personally given or helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the civil rights movement. Never mind that he’d been awarded the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Award in 1968 for his contributions to civil rights. Never mind, even, that he finally got rid of his conk and grew a natural. To many, he would always be tap dancing, grinning, jive-ass Sammy. He would lament that he had always been a member of the Black race but was never accepted as a member of the Black community.
Hugging Richard Nixon didn’t help. When Davis shocked the country by not only endorsing the Republican president’s reelection campaign in 1972 but going up on the convention stage and embracing him in front of all and sundry, that was the final straw. In a now-infamous photo, Davis clasps Nixon from behind like a reunited lover, each of them smiling to beat the band.
As we’ve recently been reminded, we don’t like to see a Black entertainer embracing a Republican president — and in 1972, that Nixon moment confirmed Black Americans’ suspicions of Davis. As Wil Haygood writes in In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.: “Sammy failed to understand blacks’ distrust of Nixon’s ultraconservative views. The hug at the Republican National Convention, in the glare of the nation’s spotlight, seemed too close to minstrelsy.”
In words that would echo decades later, Davis reflected on the fallout: “By their definition I had let them down. In their minds there were certain things I could do, certain rules I could break. I married a white woman and I hardly got any heat. But by going with a Republican President I had broken faith with my people.”
This was Sammy Davis Jr.: bewildered and bewildering. Frustrated and frustrating. Brilliant and immensely flawed. The only son of an African American father and Afro-Cuban mother — whom, during the height of anti-Cuban sentiment, he described as Puerto Rican — Davis held within his diminutive frame all the nation’s prejudices. But rather than retreating into himself, rather than accepting that some doors would forever remain closed to him, he kicked down the doors and tap danced into the foyer.
This was what Sammy Davis Jr. meant to me: Never apologize for your skin color or your faith. Never give an inch to bigots. Don’t accept closed doors. Do what you gotta do. You can make it. Yes I Can.
When I listen to his records today, I find myself wondering how Davis would be received in this moment, when race relations and anti-Semitism are at a point not seen since the 1960s. What would we make of Davis? What would he make of us? How would he respond to our current national crisis? I like to imagine he would do what he’d done his whole life, what he’d done better than anyone else, the same thing he’d done merely in order to survive in America: He’d entertain. He would endure the ridicule, bearing that lonely cross on stage night after night, if only to make our own lives a little richer, if only to let us know there was a place in America for all of us.