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Richard Potter

America's First Black Celebrity
John A. Hodgson

BUY Cloth · 352 pp. · 6.125 × 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

Hodgson, former dean of Forbes College at Princeton University, serves up a delectable slice of early American history with this page-turning biography of a popular African-American entertainer.... Hodgson sifts through the scattered and conflicting lore about Potter, and the result is a pleasing hybrid of detective story and history of an overlooked vein of culture.

Publishers Weekly

Mr. Hodgson has produced a... densely detailed and provocative record of Potter’s odds-defying climb to fame at a time when such accomplishments were rare for African-Americans... [A]n impressive chronicle of a remarkable individual whose life and career will not only enlighten readers about the origins of celebrity and the evolution of the illusory arts in America but also offer a glimpse at the illusory nature of race and racial identity in our country.

Wall Street Journal

By all accounts, Richard Potter (1783–1835) was the first successful American-born magician/conjuror.... Some 200 years after he won his rightful place in the history of early American itinerant performers (with truly no equal), Potter has been virtually forgotten, even in the historical annals of American amusements—until now, thanks to Hodgson's diligent research and his determination to correct numerous errors and misstatements regarding Potter's remarkable life, including the fact (discussed in length by Hodgson) that Potter was a mulatto, the son of a black mother and a white father.... Recommended. All readers.


Hodgson, the author of books on the Romantic poets, is not the first to be attracted to the story of the American entertainer Richard Potter, but he is Potter's first serious biographer. In this excellent volume, Hodgson reveals his meticulous and thoughtful research into Potter's career as America's first black celebrity entertainer...

Beverly Schneller, Kentucky State University · The Eighteenth Century Intelligencer

[An] excellent new book.... The original research featured in Richard Potter has brought his fame to life again. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizes in his foreword, Potter’s extraordinary career is 'essential to the longer African American journey, yet his story has too easily been obscured — and misconstrued.'... Hodgson [has] performed a great service by illuminating the extraordinary gift possessed by [his] subject.

Los Angeles Review of Books

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