In the 1960’s when America was painfully desegregating, Sammy Davis Jr. had a great tension relieving joke. “My mother was born in San Juan. So I’m Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored, and married to a white woman.” He’d pause for a moment and then deliver the punch line, “When I move into a neighborhood, people start running in four ways at the same time”. The joke got great laughs; Sammy was black, his marriage and religion were public knowledge, and no one ever questioned his mother’s heritage. I recently came across a book, Wil Haygood’s “In Black and White: The Life and Times of Sammy Davis Jr”. The book is an honest, thoroughly researched biography of Davis. The author interviewed family members, professional colleagues, and former lovers to find the man behind the show business legend.
It turns out that Sammy lied about his heritage because the anti-Cuban sentiment in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis made him nervous. He was afraid of losing admirers and fans. His mother, Elvera M. Davis was born in New York City, the youngest child of Luisa Aguiar and Marco Sanchez; they were Cuban, not Puerto Rican.
His family history is fascinating; there’s his great-grandfather, Enrique Aguiar who had to choose between his homeland–Cuba–and his daughter, Sammy’s grandmother, Luisa Sanchez. She was a beautiful and independent woman who when faced with racism would respond, “I don’t speak English, I’m Cuban.”
He was a man of contradictions, he never really identified with Black America, and they often reviled him as a Nixon-hugging Uncle Tom who associated with those “Rat Pack” white guys. It wasn’t until after his death that his contribution to the civil rights movement was recognized. Sammy did not have a normal childhood, both his parents were entertainers and he grew up mostly under the care of his father working in vaudeville halls around the country.
Special thanks to Carl McGill.