I remember watching Sammy Davis Jr. on television while growing up in the 1970s and early ’80s, most memorably during charity telethons. He routinely showed his entertainer’s instincts for, first, making the song-and-dance look easy and, second, looking exhausted when addressing the cameras after hours of work without sleep. Ease and exhaustion also characterized Davis’s efforts to dance, sing, act, write, and live his own story during the drive for civil rights that crested near the peak of his popularity. Davis could do it all, could make dynamic entertaining look like breathing, but as he did so, he was only a tap step or two removed from the long minstrel tradition from which this child vaudevillian emerged. In Matthew Frye Jacobson’s new book on Davis, we see one of the most famous African Americans of his time struggle and often fail to connect the example of his own talent to...

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