February 6, 2019
Ben Vereen performs at "A Tribute to Tony Randall" at New York's Majestic Theatre Tuesday Oct. 5, 2004. The event paid tribute to the memory of Tony Randall. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)

Early black actors, singers and vaudevillians were forced to don blackface as well if they wished to perform for more lucrative white audiences.

For example, William Henry “Master Juba” Lane is considered the single most influential performer in 19th century dance and is credited with inventing tap. It was only after his fame reached international proportions that he was allowed to tour with an all-white minstrel troupe and to perform without blackface.

One of the more disastrous critiques of blackface was from black actor Ben Vereen at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Vereen’s intent was a tribute to legendary black vaudevillian Bert Williams, who was forced to wear blackface to stay employed.

Vereen first danced and sang “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” before a cheering GOP audience, along with the president and first lady Nancy Reagan. He then stripped the blackface off while singing “Nobody (I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time)” to show the pain of blackface and the exploitation of African-Americans.

But ABC omitted the second part of Vereen’s performance when airing it, showing only the minstrelsy segment. Vereen, who at the time was one of the nation’s top black actors, faced an immediate backlash from African-American fans for what they saw as buffoonery.

Vereen has said he was promised that both parts would be shown and that he was “sabotaged by the network.”

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