26 August 2004

Stepin Fetchit in Trinidad

"Does the name Stepin Fetchit mean anything to you?"

It certainly did. Stepin Fetchit was adored in my childhood by the blacks of Trinidad. He was adored not only because he was funny and did wonderful things with his seemingly disjointed body and had a wonderful walk and a wonderful voice, and was given extravagant words to speak; he was adored by Trinidad black people because he appeared in films, at a time when Hollywood stood for an almost impossible glamour; and he was also adored--most importantly--because, at a time when the various races of Trinidad were socially separate and the world seemed fixed forever that way, with segregation to the north in the United States, with Africa ruled by Europe, with South Africa the way it was (and not at all a subject of local black concern), and Australia and New Zealand the way they were--at that time in Trinidad, Stepin Fetchit was seen on the screen in the company of white people. And to Trinidad blacks--who looked down at that time on Africans, and laughed and shouted and hooted in the cinema whenever Africans were shown dancing or with spears--the sight of Stepin Fetchit with white people was like a dream of a happier world.

It wasn't of this adored figure that Jack Leland was speaking, though. He had another, matter-of-fact, local attitude. He said, "The ambitious people went north, and we were left with the Stepin Fetchits." Now there was a movement back; not big, but noticeable.
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 109.

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