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The Secret Star
Like most cultural phenomena, celebrity was not always with us; it grew out of new opportunities and enthusiams in the young country. The early 19th-century performer Richard Potter, a magician and ventriloquist, was the most famous performer of his time. The more remarkable aspect of his story, however, is the fact he was an African American, the son of a slave, performing in an era before emancipation. Although so many central themes in the American saga converge in Potter's life, there has never been a biography of this elusive man. John Hodgson has finally presented his life in a biography, Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity, which Kirkus Reviews calls a "definitive life history that gives voice to a pioneering and little-known entertainment legacy." Following is an interview with Hodgson on the fascinating story he has uncovered.
Q: What were the biggest challenges in researching Potter's story? Did he leave any writings or portraits? Was he mentioned often in others’ writings?
Hodgson: The biggest challenge, by far, was the extreme scarcity of reliable information about him, coupled with the extreme obscurity and inaccessibility of that information. This was further complicated by the fog of wild, unfounded rumors and myths about his origins and feats that have accreted around him since the latter part of his career.
There are very few first- or second-hand accounts of any aspect of his life, and all of these are themselves quite brief. The advertising for his performances, at least, could be found in archives of old newspapers. His touring itineraries could then be gradually teased out of information about his performance dates and places. Almost everything else–personal information, kinship links, friendships, social networks, neighbors, finances, personality traits, behavior, family tragedies–had to be worked out from thousands of tiny bits and data points of information. These emerged from old legal files, probate records, wills, church records, newspaper advertisements and anecdotes, ephemeral broadsides and handbills, tax records, Masonic lodge records, journals, and the like.
No portrait of Potter exists (one was painted in 1815, but there is no record of it since). He did not keep a journal of any kind. Apart from his signature on various legal records and a few handwritten insertions in some of his extant broadsides and handbills, the only writings by him known to exist are the one letter and one brief note that I discovered in my research and present in the book.
He was indeed mentioned (sometimes in print, sometimes in private communications) in others’ writings–he was, after all, the most famous performer in America for many years. These mentions often provided invaluable evidence about important moments in his life and career that would otherwise have remained unknown.
Q: Potter had a national following, so his touring took him into Southern cities such as New Orleans, Mobile, and Raleigh. Was he forced to “pass” in these places, and was he ever in danger of being harmed or not allowed to leave? Were his appearances in the North relatively safe, or did they have their own challenges?
Hodgson: It wasn’t so much that he was “forced” to pass. Both he and his wife could easily be taken as white. More accurately, Potter appeared to be exactly what anyone meeting him already assumed him to be–a dark-complexioned white man, or a light-complexioned black man, or the product of an English/East Indian marriage. Added to this, Potter was so thoroughly respectable in appearance and speech and demeanor, so well dressed, so completely a gentleman in every way that he rarely encountered any suspicion about his racial origins anywhere where they were not already known. In the Deep South, Potter averted most racial questionings by the simple, highly effective expedient of having a forceful, attractive, well-spoken white man, Benjamin Thompson Jr., accompanying him as his assistant (probably along with Thompson’s wife, who herself was a notably beautiful woman). With such a man comfortably and happily serving him, Potter could hardly be taken or even imagined as anything but a well-bred white man (or perhaps a distinguished foreigner). Even so, we do know of a few instances when he was apparently in danger of discrimination and of robbery.
In the North–especially in the later years of his career, when his racial origins were becoming more widely known and, even more important, as racial attitudes in America increasingly hardened and coarsened–he frequently encountered instances of racial antagonism.
Q: That's very vivid in the book. While Potter strikes us as one of the few lucky African Americans of his era who could work and prosper pretty much as a white man would, he did not escape persecution. Can you talk about how his later years were impacted, in some ways tragically, by his race?
Hodgson: Sometimes the racial antagonism he encountered took the form of straightforward hostility and disapprobation, but sometimes it found its way into legal attacks, with serious financial repercussions for Potter. Less obviously but more importantly, the lack of community support he found when his young (14 year-old) daughter was raped and impregnated by a thirty-something white, married man clearly had racial undertones.
All the same, his great significance in the larger history of America’s racial attitudes and their evolution owes much more to his unique triumphs than to his all too common tribulations. As a widely recognized and famously gentlemanly and respectable entertainer, he bore very public witness to an entire generation of Americans that a black man, no less than a white man, could exemplify the best qualities of humanity–the same witness that Frederick Douglass would in turn begin offering soon after Potter’s death.
Richard Potter: American's First Black Celebrity is available now.