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Richard Potter

America's First Black Celebrity
John A. Hodgson

BUY Cloth · 352 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813941042 · $29.95 · Feb 2018
BUY Ebook · 352 pp. · ISBN 9780813941059 · $29.95 · Feb 2018

Apart from a handful of exotic--and almost completely unreliable--tales surrounding his life, Richard Potter is almost unknown today. Two hundred years ago, however, he was the most popular entertainer in America--the first showman, in fact, to win truly nationwide fame. Working as a magician and ventriloquist, he personified for an entire generation what a popular performer was and made an invaluable contribution to establishing popular entertainment as a major part of American life. His story is all the more remarkable in that Richard Potter was also a black man.

This was an era when few African Americans became highly successful, much less famous. As the son of a slave, Potter was fortunate to have opportunities at all. At home in Boston, he was widely recognized as black, but elsewhere in America audiences entertained themselves with romantic speculations about his "Hindu" ancestry (a perception encouraged by his act and costumes).

Richard Potter’s performances were enjoyed by an enormous public, but his life off stage has always remained hidden and unknown. Now, for the first time, John A. Hodgson tells the remarkable, compelling--and ultimately heartbreaking--story of Potter’s life, a tale of professional success and celebrity counterbalanced by racial vulnerability in an increasingly hostile world. It is a story of race relations, too, and of remarkable, highly influential black gentlemanliness and respectability: as the unsung precursor of Frederick Douglass, Richard Potter demonstrated to an entire generation of Americans that a black man, no less than a white man, could exemplify the best qualities of humanity. The apparently trivial "popular entertainment" status of his work has long blinded historians to his significance and even to his presence. Now at last we can recognize him as a seminal figure in American history.


"One of the most captivating personalities in the history of his craft, Potter was, and remains, essential to the longer African American journey, yet his story has too easily been obscured—and misconstrued. With the publication of his pathbreaking book, John Hodgson has, through painstaking research, helped to set the record straight on his subject’s remarkable life and adventures. The thrill I felt in reading Hodgson’s book—and, through it, discovering Richard Potter, the man and his times—was, in a word, magical."

From the foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Hodgson’s passion for Richard Potter and extremely impressive research make for a lively, engaging read.

Jill Watts, author of  Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood

A superb and timely book. Richard Potter will serve as an intellectual beacon for American readers and scholars in our increasingly multiracial society.

Peter Benes, author of For a Short Time Only: Itinerants and the Resurgence of Popular Culture in Early America

Even amid personal troubles (including the death of his teenage daughter), detractors, competitors, and class antagonists who dubbed him a practitioner in the 'deceptive arts,' Potter stood tall and became an icon. A focused, scholarly, definitive life history that gives voice to a pioneering and little-known entertainment legacy.

Kirkus Reviews

About the Author: 

John A. Hodgson, former Dean of Forbes College at Princeton University, is the author of books on Wordsworth and Shelley and the editor of Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Essays.

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