Birth Name: Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry

May 30th, 1902 – November 19th, 1985

Bio by Jon C. Hopwood (Courtesy of

Stepin Fetchit remains one of the most controversial movie actors in American history. While Stepin Fetchit was undoubtedly one of the most talented physical comedians ever to do his shtick on the Big Screen, achieving the rare status of being a character actor-supporting player who actually achieved superstar status in the 1930s (becoming a millionaire to boot), his characterization as a lazy, slow-witted, jive-talkin’ “coon” offended African Americans at the time he was a major attraction in motion pictures (primarily the 1930s) and still offends African Americans in the 21st Century, some half-century after he had faded from the screen. Yet, some African Americans claim him as the first black superstar, and thus, a trailblazer for others of his “race.” The controversy over Stepin Fetchit remains very alive to this day, with two biographies published about him in 2005.

Stepin Fetchit was the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who claimed a birth-date of May 30, 1902 but may have been born as early as 1892. Perry was born in Key West, Florida to West Indian immigrant parents. Sometime in his teens, Perry became a comic performer. A literate and very intelligent man who wrote for the premier African American newspaper, “The Chicago Defender,” Perry evolved a character called “The Laziest Man In the World” as part of a two-man vaudeville act that broke through to play the white circuits. Eventually, he went solo. (Stepin Fetchit likely was the original name of the act covering both performers, as “Step ‘n Fetchit.” As a solo, he kept the name.)

While some believe that his stage name is a contraction of “step and fetch it”, implying a servile persona (the so-called “Tom”) that is synonymous with degrading racial stereotypes in popular entertainment in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Perry claimed he got the name from a race horse. However, it is important to make the distinction that African American cultural historians do (while at no time condoning Perry’s career) – rather than a servile Tom (named after Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s “Uncle Tom”), Stepin Fetchit was an evolution of a later construction, the “Coon” who undermined his white oppressors by denying his labor and cooperation through an act of defiance that included the appearance of being lazy and stupid. Essential to the “coon” persona was talking in what to white ears is gibberish (which Perry excelled at), but which to black folk can be understood and contains barbed insults to “The Man.” What rankles so badly (since the Coon remains a stereotype that resonates in African American culture) is that white audiences swallowed Perry’s Stepin Fetchit act whole, as a true representation of a “Negro.”

The “Coon” persona mitigated the low status accorded African Americans by whites by feigning near-idiocy in order to frustrate whites by ironically fulfilling their low expectations. (The “Tom,” by contrast, is praised by whites for his good work and loyalty. A parallel racial caricaturization of black men by whites, the “buck,” is the repository of their racial and sexual fears, and still can be seen in blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and currently, in the gangsta rapper.) Perry used this mitigation stratagem when dealing with whites in real life, allegedly maintaining a coon persona while auditioning for a role in the film “In Old Kentucky,” where he stayed in the Stepin Fetchit character before and after the audition. Often, while making movies in which he found the lines offensive, Perry would skip or mumble lines he did not like, pretending to be too stupid to comprehend the script.

The “Coon” stereotype existed long before Perry decided to adopt it (its prevalence as a defiance stratagem intensified after the gains that African Americans had made in the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era were rolled back by segregationist Jim Crow laws, when an “uppity” African American might find himself at the end of a rope). However, he was such a hit with white audiences that his Stepin Fetchit persona popularized the “Coon” image to an unprecedented degree in the medium of film, and many stereotypical black movie characters, including the child Stymie in the “Our Gang” comedy series, were based upon Stepin Fetchit to cash in on his popularity.

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