Who’s Afraid of George Walker?
George “Nash” Walker (1872-1911) was born in the aftermath of The Civil War in Lawrence, Kansas, the launching point of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in the fall of 1859 and site of Quantril’s Raid in the summer of 1863. The post-Civil War demographics and abolitionist politics of the region empowered Walker in historically unprecedented ways and compelled him to transcend the limited expectations of Black people in the United States. He left Lawrence in 1893 with a medicine show and met Bert A. Williams (1874-1922) in San Francisco, California later that year. Soon after forming a partnership that would last seventeen years, the two were hired to appear as Africans in what was essentially a human zoo as part of the Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco until the “Real” Africans arrived from Dahomey.
In meeting the Dahomeans, George Walker and Bert Williams experienced majesty, sovereignty and beauty from an African point of view, one that did not acknowledge White exceptionalism or superiority. This inspired them to, in the words of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “wear the mask,” and embrace the moniker of, "The Two Real Coons." In place of the luxury of preference, this choice was designed to draw in crowds and utilize the liminality of the dramatic stage to subversively exploit the contextual difference between the satire of their brand of comedy and the mockery of the minstrel tradition. Under the cloak of entertainment, this philosophy provided space to erode White exceptionalism that was/is a feedback loop of ignorance informed by the arrogance of unearned privilege. When people paid to see minstrel-style cooning, they surely got it and much more. The “more” was George’s understandably problematic, yet unprecedented insistence that audiences receive curated, Black entertainment that was full of universal examples of the human condition told from a uniquely Afro-American perspective.