Dancing Down the Barricades: Sammy Davis Jr. and the Long Civil Rights Era (Hardcover)
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A deep dive into racial politics, Hollywood, and Black cultural struggles for liberation as reflected in the extraordinary life and times of Sammy Davis Jr.
Through the lens of Sammy Davis Jr.'s six-decade career in show business—from vaudeville to Vegas to Broadway, Hollywood, and network TV—Dancing Down the Barricades examines the workings of race in American culture. The title phrase holds two contradictory meanings regarding Davis's cultural politics: Did he dance the barricades down, as he liked to think, or did he simply dance down them, as his more radical critics would have it?
Davis was at once a pioneering, barrier-busting, anti–Jim Crow activist and someone who was widely associated with accommodationism and wannabe whiteness. Historian Matthew Frye Jacobson attends to both threads, analyzing how industry norms, productions, scripts, roles, and audience expectations and responses were all framed by race against the backdrop of a changing America. In the spirit of better understanding Davis's life and career, Dancing Down the Barricades examines the complexities of his constraints, freedoms, and choices for what they reveal about Black history and American political culture.
About the Author
Author of seven books on race and US political culture, Matthew Frye Jacobson is Sterling Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University.
"Davis was caught between warring views of what it meant to be Black in a racist U.S. Jacobson is one of the subtlest commentators on what it means to be caught in such a cultural bind. . . . A subtle, insightful book likely to be on many readers’ radar for its nuanced look at the consequences of a racial divide with roots that, as Jacobson makes clear, are longstanding, systemic, and institutional."
— Library Journal, starred review
"In this intriguing deep dive, Yale University historian Jacobson (Roots Too) places singer and actor Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990) at the center of the intersection between race, culture, and politics in America. . . . Nuanced, incisive, and frequently surprising, this is a worthy reconsideration of a divisive public figure."
— Publishers Weekly
"Jacobson’s own writing style is scholarly yet accessible, not bogged down with too many critical theory buzzwords . . . Particularly dynamic are Jacobson’s discussions of the racial hostilities that Davis and other Black entertainers faced off-stage in Las Vegas."
— The Daily Beast
"Within Jacobson’s rich and layered description of the civil rights movement and post-civil rights era, he gives us a detailed and compassionate portrait of Davis; we understand his passion for the civil rights movement as well as why he was called a sellout and ostracized within his Black community. . . . It’s a testament to Jacobson’s sensitivity in writing about Davis that he closes Dancing Down the Barricades without reaching a conclusion about Davis’ authenticity."
"Not exactly a biography, this subtle, expansive study is a scaffold for a searing assessment of white racism that forced African American entertainers into hard spaces during the long civil rights era. . . . Davis, who interacted personally with Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon, emerges as a complex cultural worker whose outstanding artistry allowed him access to worlds that modeled “self-emancipation” from strictures of white racism. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
— Choice Reviews