Lesson in Black History – Lincoln Perry and Willie Best

stepin bestLincoln Perry and Willie Best—Born in Florida in 1902, Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry would go on to become arguably the most controversial black actor in the history of motion pictures. Best know by his stage name Stepin Fetchit (above left), Perry became the embodiment of the negative stereotypes that portray black men as lazy, illiterate buffoons. Billed as “The Laziest Man in the World,” Stepin Fetchit was one of the most popular black actors of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, appearing in more than 50 films, and becoming a millionaire. In real life Perry was nothing like his screen persona. He was a highly literate man, who also had a writing career working for the Chicago Defender. In the 1960s he became involved with the Nation of Islam and became friends with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Stepin Fetchit became so popular that he spawned many imitators, including comedic actor Willie Best, who was best know by his stage name, Sleep ‘n’ Eat. Best’s career started several years after Perry’s and would actually go on to be more prolific, with more that 120 roles. Working in both film and television, Best appeared alongside such notable actor as Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope, who called Best “the best actor I know.” Like Stepin Fetchit, Sleep ‘n’ Eat was a comedic performer who played lazy, superstitious simpletons and both became symbols of controversy for the derogatory roles they played. And while Stepin Fetchit is still remembered—most often in a negative context—Sleep ‘n’ Eat has been largely forgotten. Despite the stereotypical roles played by both men, they should also be remembered for being talented performers and major personalities in the entertainment business.

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