A biography well done - Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity | Mechanics' Institute

You are here

A biography well done - Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity

by John A. Hodgson

Because I am a stalled biographer I have become a voracious reader of biographies. I read and read and read - to learn about the lives of the subjects but mainly to glean writing technique. I want to learn how to present history when the chronology isn't perfect, when the facts don't line up, and when the subject seems to have deliberately obfuscated the part of his life most tantalizing.

One recent book has astounded me, John A. Hodgson's masterpiece, Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity. This affectionate work details the shadowy life of Richard Potter (1783-1835), a celebrated magician, ventriloquist, and extraordinarily popular performer who dazzled audiences young and old, and just happened to be black.

The son of Guinea born slave Dinah Swain and a white father, Potter grew up in the Boston area on the estate of a British colonial official. As a teenager he traveled to Europe with a gentleman and became entranced by magic and tightrope walking. Upon his return to America he apprenticed himself to the celebrated Scottish brother magicians and ventriloquists, John and James Rannie, who taught Potter their secrets. Potter would eventually describe himself as the “Emperor of Conjurors,” and for many years he was the foremost ventriloquist and magician in America.

Hodgson brings Potter's fascinating life to light, using a variety of source material including Masonic Lodge records (Potter was an active Mason in the "first Lodge of blacks in America") and an impressive collection of broadsides that advertised Potter's numerous performances. As Potter lived a public, chaotic, and mythical life, Hodgson helps the reader make sense of it all by providing a meticulous chronology, notes on the illustrations, and extensive discussion about Potter anecdotes and claims that have flourished since his death 183 years ago.

While the book is dense, the prose moves swiftly. In the introduction, Hodgson declared his mission "to discover, as far as I possibly could the essential facts of Richard Potter's life… and my deepest scholarly obligation is to do this right and get it right and ideally to tell Richard Potter's compelling and moving life story in a compelling and engaging way."  I found Hodgson's style to be very readable and his skill at weaving his suppositions unobtrusively within the narrative to be revelatory.

Richard Potter: America's First Black Celebrity will please scholars of black history and that of the mystic arts and performance in America. Tortured historians like me who are seeking guidance on how to present material cogently when there are gaps in the historical record will find the book a welcome gift; one full of lessons on writing and on honoring one's subject. Hodgson clearly admires Richard Potter and provides a clear discussion of a lost chapter of American history and a distinct portrait of "the most wonderful man in the world".

Posted on Apr. 14, 2018 by Taryn Edwards