Sammy Davis Jr. (Manhattan 1959, photo by Burt Glynn)
Q: Your nightclub and theater audiences are predominantly white. Do you think there may be some element of race consciousness in your compulsion to win their approval?
Sammy Davis Jr.: No question about it…Ever since I recognized what prejudice is, I’ve tried to fight it away, and the only weapon I could use was my talent. Away back, when I was learning the business, I had no education, no power, no influence; entertaining was the only way I had to change prejudiced thinking.
Again in the Army, especially the Army, where I met the most concentrated bunch of haters I ever experienced: On that stage, for the eight months I was in Special Services, that spotlight erased my color. It made the hate leave their faces temporarily. It was as if my talent gave me a pass from their prejudice, if only temporarily. And when I spotted haters in the audiences, I tried to give extra-good performances. I had to get to them, to neutralize them, to make them recognize me…
Q: You said “the most concentrated bunch of haters” you ever met was in the Army…will you give us some idea of what you went through?
SDJ: I met some prejudiced cats—all right? I got pushed and banged around some, got my nose broken twice—all right? But the roughest part wasn’t that; the roughest was the psychological. I had never known one white agent, manager or anybody else who hadn’t been friendly…until the Army, nobody white had ever just looked at me and hated me—and didn’t even know me.
From the day I got into the basic-training center from the first 10 minutes, I started hearing more “nigger” and seeing more sneers and hate looks than I’d ever known all my life. Walked inside the gate, asked a cat sitting on some barracks steps to show me how to get to where I had to go: “Excuse me, buddy, I’m a little lost-” Cat told me, “I’m not your buddy, you black bastard!” When I got assigned a barracks, cats in there—most of them from the South and Southwest—don’t want to sleep nowhere next to me. And there was this one guy elected himself head of the haters. First move he made, he ground his boot heel down on the $150 chronometer watch my dad and Will had borrowed the money to give me as a present. I had treasured that watch.
Man, they did all kinds of things, sick things. One time I remember, I had just done my first show there at the center, and I mean I had entertained them. Well, back in the barracks, suddenly they all acted friendly. Offered me this beer—but it wasn’t beer, man, it was warm piss. Then a cat “accidentally” poured it on me. Well, I went for him, ready to kill. He was a big cat, and I didn’t weigh but 115 pounds. He broke my nose the first punch, but, man, I fought him like a wildcat, and before he beat me unconscious, I broke his nose, too. From then on, nearly as long as I stayed there, maybe every other day I had some knockdown, drag-out fight, until I had scabs on my knuckles! Got my nose broken again. It got so everybody white I saw, I expected to hear “nigger.” Somebody ask me if I want my coffee black, I was ready to fight.
Q: Were all the white soldiers that anti-Negro?
SDJ: No, there was good cats there, too—don’t get me wrong—at least some that didn’t want to get involved, or who didn’t hate Negroes that bad. And I had a sergeant who was one of the finest men I’ll ever meet. Anyway, I met George M. Cohan Jr., and we got an act going with this Women’s Army Corps captain in charge of us. Well, one time some cats from headquarters came and said the captain wanted to see me, and I went with them into a building where they said she was—but there were four other cats waiting instead.
Pushed me into a latrine; some of them held me and the others beat me. They wrote “coon” in white paint across my forehead, and “I’m a nigger” across my chest. Then they ordered me to dance for them. “Dance, Sambo—fast!” Man, I fought to get at them, but they pinned me and punched me in the gut until it looked like I’d have to dance or die. Don’t even like to think about it! Sick cats! I danced until I couldn’t no more. Then—bam! In the gut again—and I had to dance some more, until finally they saw I was ready to pass out. Then they poured turpentine over me, and told me the reason they’d given me “this little lesson”: They’d been watching me “making eyes” at the white WAC captain. She was my boss, man, my commanding officer—and that’s the way I treated her. Didn’t make no difference. Anyway, they finally left me there. I was so sick, I just wanted to crawl into the latrine walls and die, man; I just lay down and cried.
That was when, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to go out and do my act—go out there and smile at people who despised me. But I made myself do it anyhow. I was fighting myself so hard to stay out there that the fighting made me do maybe one of the best shows I ever did in my life. And I’m glad it did, because I discovered something. I saw some of those faces out there grudgingly take on different expressions. I don’t mean for a minute that anybody suddenly started loving me—I didn’t want that from them anyway—but they respected me. It taught me that the way for me to fight, better than with my fists, was with my talent. For the next eight months, going across the country doing my act, I nearly killed myself every show trying to make them respect me. Maybe I still am.
-excerpted from Alex Haley’s Playboy interview with Davis, December 1966