I was dead serious when I suggested Sammy Davis, Jr. should be among the honored for his achievements in entertainment, film, and stage as a Hispanic American. There’s one mis-speak in this stand-up joke: Sammy Davis, Jr.’s mother was Cuban not Puerto Rican.
Sammy Davis, Jr. wrote his own life stories published into autobiographies. In 2003, Washington Post writer Wil Haygood published In Black & White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. with observations of the role race played in Davis’ life and career.
The Cuban ancestry, in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which saw President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev battle to a standoff over nuclear arsenals, made Sammy nervous. Anti-Cuban sentiment had swept the land. The Cuban-haters might begin to dislike him, and Sammy was not in the business of losing admirers and fans. So he flipped the Cuban history – telling relatives to keep quiet about it—with made up Puerto Rican history.
Elvera Sanchez was born in New York. Her grandfather fought in the Spanish American war. Elvera was a performer herself, a chorus girl in Harlem. Her light-skinned got her the job. Even after having Sammy, Jr. in 1925, neither she or Sammy Davis, Sr. could put show business on hold to focus on parenting. Eventually the Davis’ separate gigs defined the marriage in show biz terms: breaking up the act. Elvera went her way, Sammy and son (Jr.) went on the road.
Sammy Davis, Jr. claimed to be a lot of things long before golf-pro extraordinaire Tiger Woods self identified and claimed his “cablinasian” identity on Oprah (combining his parents Euro-American, African-American, Native American, Filipino, and Chinese heritages). [So far “cablinasian” hasn’t caught on or maybe Tiger is in a classification all by himself.]
But being the consummate entertainer, it seemed whatever Sammy claimed on stage, he claimed in life. He danced, he acted, he sang (the triple threat as they called it); he performed the vaudeville circuit with his African American father and uncles; he hung out and was a member of the coolest gang of cads known as “The Rat Pack.” Sammy claimed Vegas, Hollywood, African Americans or “Negro” as it was known then. He claimed Judaism when he made a conversion in the 1950s. He even claimed Archie Bunker on an episode of “All in the Family,” when he landed that famous kiss on America’s favorite TV bigot’s check. Sammy claimed the freedom to work where he wanted and to love whom he wanted regardless of the rules and taboos of the color line.
I guess back in the days of black and [mostly] white everything, anything else was “exotic” or “something else” that was too hard to sell. Hollywood already had its “Latin Lovers” Cesar Romero (also Cuban) and Ricardo Montalban. Afro-Latin was not on the ethnic menu. Multi-anything just wasn’t hip when Sammy was riding high or waiting for the call to give the comeback kid another chance. You could and still can easily get your butt branded with an “identity crisis” especially if you’re Latino, look African American, and English is your first language.
The great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rican) was saved by the “something else” because Spanish was his first language. But it didn’t save him from Pittsburgh’s racial segregation. Clemente lived in the all-Black section of Pittsburgh while settling in with his team. [Clemente died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.]
The crazy and complicated genius of the Americas and its identities is that somehow we have managed to survive this long in this mix and actually make something interesting of it culturally, artistically, historically. If we are now moving towards a world in which we can claim all our ancestors and kin without denying any of them, will their communities claim us back? Can we do this — without the blender vocabulary Tiger Woods proposed to “simplify” or dilute — and just be all that and then some without any additional vetting or scrutiny from the audience.
Recently I started getting emails from an on-line publication Vida Afro-Latina. It features news and views of Afro-Latinos in the U.S. and throughout the Americas. Friends like James Early at the Smithsonian and his friend Sheila S. Walker, editor of African Roots/American Cultures have hipped me to Afro-Latino arts and culture. This publication is unashameably part of the African diaspora and proud of its Latino heritage and culture.
I haven’t seen Sammy Davis, Jr. on the Hispanic Hall of Claimed yet, but I thought as Hispanic Heritage month comes to a close, it was worth the mention. The last time I saw Wil Haygood he had completed the script for the film adaptation of his Sammy Davis, Jr. biography. The project is in development and is being produced by actor Denzel Washington. The expected release is 2011.