Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jewesses in Blackface. The White Negress.

I have always shuddered at the idea of people in blackface. Blackface, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, was a style of entertainment called a minstrel-show, where white people corked their faces dark and performed in stereotypical styles that mocked African-Americans as stupid, lazy, lascivious, etc. It was not only a Southern tradition, but was performed all over. Even black people performed in Blackface, and Al Jolson became famous for his "Mammy."

Jews in Blackface. Yes. And some of the most successful ones in the first part of the 20th Century. Perhaps it was a way to identify with the dominant culture and mock a subservient one, as Jews tried to become The Color of Safety. Perhaps it was a way to remain connected to the non-dominate culture, with "blackness" standing in for a connection to Judaism, as in The Jazz Singer, where Jolson is leaving behind his rabbi father's culture, but is still, via singing in blackface, remaining connected to it--and Jolson's "Mammy," like many Jewish blackface performers, was a more positive version of Blackface than many. 

Now, a lovely librarian recommended I take a look at a book by Lori Harrison-Kahan called White Negress:literature, minstrelry, and the Black-Jewish imaginary. Rutgers University Press 2011.

What Harrison-Kahan suggests is that for Jewish women, Blackface might have had a different meaning. Blackface was used in lit by Jewish women writers like Fanny Hurst, Edna Ferber, and Jewish singers like  Sophie Rucker, Fannie Brice, Sophie Mayhew and Nora Bayes all "blacked up" at some point. Harrison-Kahan suggests that Blackface was a way that Jewish women could break away from idealized female behavior. If you look at Sophie Tucker, who was forced into Blackface because producers thought she was too big and ugly to sing with her own face, blackface allowed her to perform at all, and may gave helped her create her public persona which was big, loud bawdy and allowed to seek sexual pleasure despite gender, looks or size. 

I don't know if Harrison-Kahan says this, but Eastern-European Jewish women (as opposed to German Jews) had come from a culture where women were expected to be active outside the home and were being shoved into the dominant culture's idea that women raised kids, created the home and that was that. It may be that the imagery of blackface was appealing because here was another group allowed to be alive and lovely outside their homes.   

Whatever the case, I am eager to read her book. When the budget allows!
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