Born in Richmond, Virginia, Bill Robinson began dancing in local
saloons at the age of six. He became a popular fixture on the vaudeville
circuit just two years after that. While still a child, he was given
the nickname "Bojangles," although even Robinson himself
was unsure of the origin of that moniker.
In 1905, Robinson forged a partnership—lifelong, it turned
out—with agent Marty Forkins, who got the dancer a golden opportunity:
the chance to develop a solo act. (African-American dancers of the
time appeared exclusively in pairs.) Robinson made the most of it,
touring the United States and Europe until the late 1920s.
Robinson took up residence in Harlem in 1928. That was the year he
landed a role in the all-black musical revue Blackbirds of 1928,
which was staged by a white producer for white audiences. Robinson's
Tap-dancing high on his toes and moving his upper body with understated
grace, Robinson displayed a lightness and finesse never seen before.
He shunned the frantic style of his predecessors for a more elegant,
precise form of tap.
Robinson's talent gave him entrée to two worlds—white
entertainment and black—yet he was never completely accepted
in either one. White audiences adored the films in which he co-starred
with Shirley Temple or Will Rogers, but his commercially successful
roles were modeled on racist stereotypes, such as that of the genial
black servant. Though artistically satisfying, his few forays into
black films—notably Harlem Is Heaven—didn't make
him much money.
Robinson began performing at Harlem's Cotton Club in the mid-1930s.
In 1939, he joined the Broadway cast of an African-American musical
called Hot Mikado. The white establishment, meanwhile, cemented
his celebrity status by naming him honorary mayor of Harlem—and
mascot of the New York Giants baseball team. Many prominent African
Americans, however, found these distinctions to be demeaning and paternalistic.
Despite the racial tension that dogged his career, Robinson revolutionized
his art, conquered both stage and screen, and triumphed as a Harlem