Black People : Learning from Jewish Blackface in History

Discussion in 'Black People Open Forum' started by oldsoul, Nov 17, 2011.

  1. OldSoul

    OldSoul Permanent Black Man PREMIUM MEMBER

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    The Line Between Solidarity and Appropriation:

    Learning from Jewish Blackface in History


    “I remember your grandfather leaving the house in blackface to perform at the local Jewish community center,” my mom told me. “They just didn’t know what it meant back then,” she explained, “not until after WW II.” As an activist involved in contemporary solidarity work across racial lines, I was shocked to discover this racist history in my near past. As an Ashkenazi Jew* (of European descent) whose grandparents immigrated to the US around the turn of the century, I don’t always see myself implicated in the American legacy of slavery, but I was forced to reconcile the fond memories of my jovial grandfather with this haunting image of him performing racial minstrelsy. Trying to make sense of this image, I began researching the history of Jewish blackface between WWI and WWII and was surprised to discover a connection between my current activism and this history of blackface: When we are not rooted in our Jewish identities, we risk stereotyping, appropriating, and over-identifying with other cultures.
    To understand the complicated history of alliance, disconnection, and overlap between Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans in between the world wars, I turned to Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, which considers how Jews negotiated competing claims on their identities and Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, which looks more specifically at the role of blackface in Americanizing Jews. As European Jewish immigrants arrived in the US, their presence intersected with the dominant black/white system of racial relations in various ways. At different times, Jews and African Americans were linked tightly together in American consciousness as evidenced by the case of Leo Frank (1913-1915), which sets the stage for Jewish-Black relations in between the wars. A Jewish factory manager in Georgia, Frank was accused of raping and murdering a white girl who worked in his factory. Frank was found guilty (in spite of flimsy evidence) and sentenced to death, but the Governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. A journalist warned in a headline: “The next Jew who does what Frank did is going to get exactly the same thing we give to Negro rapists” (Goldstein 43). Frank was then kidnapped from prison and lynched by a white mob.
    In the wake of the Frank trial, Jews who followed the case became “increasingly sensitized both to the danger of comparing blacks and Jews and the possibilities of deflecting anti-Semitism by emphasizing their whiteness” (Goldstein 65). During the trial, Frank’s legal team repeatedly emphasized Frank’s whiteness by downplaying his Jewishness and tried to shift the blame onto a black janitor who was also implicated in the murder. Even as they tried to underscore their whiteness in this time between the wars, Jews were being held responsible for a variety of issues that troubled Americans including communism, immigration, and the rising tide of war in the 1930’s. Articles about “The Jewish Problem” proliferated in the press, and quotas and restrictions were enacted to limit the number of Jews allowed into universities, clubs, and neighborhoods.
    Not surprisingly, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants had a contradictory relationship to African Americans. On the one hand, identification with whiteness allowed Jews to experience “what it was like not to be the focus of national hostility and resentment” as they were in Europe (Goldstein 145). On the other hand, Jews identified with the suffering of African Americans and continued to display empathy for them. The most assertive statements of identification with African Americans in the US occurred in the Yiddish press where non-Jewish readers could not chance upon them. The Yiddish press roundly condemned segregation and racism by comparing race riots against African Americans to the pogroms against Jews in Europe. At the same time, the Yiddish press read Jewish blackface solely as a means of identification by saying about that Jews “knew how to sing the songs of the most cruelly wronged people in the world’s history” (Goldstein 154)...
    As Goldstein observes, Jewish blackface became a means to express emotions that could not be expressed as Jews; blackface obscures the performer’s Jewishness through stereotyping African Americans who became a mask for Jewish expression. This performance blends identification and admiration with racism. Many of the Jews, including Jolson, who performed in blackface, began their careers as Jewish comedians and turned to black material as their urge to assimilate made it less desirable to do comedy about Jewish themes and personas. Of course what they end up taking on isn’t actually African American material, but the white culture’s nostalgia for an even more racist past of very clearly defined racial roles. The “Mammy” stereotype grew out of the reality that African American mothers were often forced to nurse the master’s children during slavery (and then, post-slavery, forced to take care of them as servants) often at the cost of their relationships with their own children. This reality translated into the stereotype of the happy, loyal, desexualized “mammy” whose happiness made white people feel that slavery was a benevolent institution.
    The image of Jews doing blackface represents a sad and pivotal moment in Ashkenazi Jewish American identity. At various moments because of historical cycles of anti-Semitism, Jews have been bribed with material privileges and public positions of limited power to appear as the visible face of an oppressive system. What does it mean that this time the face that they put on was blackface? In these exchanges, Jews are often encouraged to take on a middle “buffer” position, and thus get pitted against other oppressed groups. With blackface, Jews occupied the middle ground once again, this time the ground between African Americans and white Christian culture. We both chose and were encouraged to choose whiteness that came at a cost to our relationships with African Americans and disconnected us from our own culture...
    The image of my Grandfather doing blackface embodies a moment when Ashkenazi Jews exchanged our deep connection to our cultures, histories and families in order to gain whiteness. While I want to be clear that blackface has obviously been the most damaging to its targets, African Americans, there has also been a cost to Ashkenazi Jews as well. We have inherited the privileges of assimilation—class and race privilege—as well as some incalculable losses–of culture, community and solidarity/connection with other oppressed people.
    Through my involvement in Jewish anti-racist organizing over the last decade, I have come to realize that as Ashkenazi Jews who identify as white, we still face the dual dangers of distancing ourselves from other oppressed groups or over-identifying and appropriating their struggles. Jews doing blackface is an extreme example of this tendency: Ashkenazi Jews moved toward whiteness at the expense of African Americans while using the mask of “blackness” to explore alternative ways to express their emotions from the dominant white Christian culture. Because Ashkenazi Jews have more or less “achieved” whiteness, there is clearly still a tendency to distance ourselves and ignore other oppressed groups’ struggles.
    The rest: http://www.racialicious.com/2011/11/17/the-line-between-solidarity-and-appropriation-learning-from-jewish-blackface-in-history-essay/
     
  2. wetac0s

    wetac0s Well-Known Member MEMBER

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    Ashekenazi(europeanized) Jews are the most powerful and rich group in the US. They monopolize the media and banking institutions. They always try to milk the holocaust while ignoring other people's plight. I have no empathy or solidarity for them.
     
  3. AACOOLDRE

    AACOOLDRE Well-Known Member MEMBER

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    Right on
     
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