Al Jolson and the burnt cork brigade

Blackface, White Noise
August 23, 1996

The first white European in recorded history to black her face was Queen Anne, wife of James I," Michael Rogin tells us in his stimulating new book Blackface, White Noise. But neither Queen Anne nor the long history of blackface is the subject of this book. What interests Rogin is the use that "Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood melting pot" made of burnt cork in the 20th century.

Rogin argues that the roots of motion pictures, "the dominant popular cultural form of the first half of the 20th century" lay in "the first and most popular form of 19th-century mass culture, blackface minstrelsy". Rogin maintains that immigrant Jews turned themselves into "Americans" by "blacking up," and that white actors like Al Jolson in blackface helped prevent blacks from playing themselves in Hollywood films. "Driving free blacks from the stage, burnt cork substituted for African American entertainers."

It is true that blackface was central to The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie". It is also true that in that film black actors had only fleeting peripheral roles (a maid and an acrobat). But one cannot blame the erasure of blacks in Hollywood films on blackface, any more than one can blame the degradations of Jim Crow on blackface. Racism, rather than a particular cultural form, was responsible for both.

The story that preoccupies Rogin in this book is the story of how "Antebellum blackface minstrelsy grounded American popular culture in expropriated black production". But American popular culture defies such simple description. When black singer Cab Calloway revives his flagging postwar career with his famous rendition of George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" - a jazzy and blues-inflected song whose melody and cadences Gershwin himself may have taken from the blessing chanted multiple times in every synagogue every Saturday morning before the reading of each passage from the Torah - is the question, "who was stealing what from whom" even remotely relevant? I am indebted to my colleague Seth Wolitz for pointing out this connection between Gershwin and this familiar chant. Is "expropriation" an accurate term to describe the complex negotiations and exchanges that take place at the sites where culture is formed - or is it too reductive to explain the "something new" that so often emerges from the cultural cauldron?

If Rogin is uncomfortable with seeing crosscultural syntheses as anything other than expropriation, he is also uneasy about acknowledging aspects of the black/Jewish relationship that are anything other than exploitative. But he is too responsible a scholar to excise them completely. "The Yiddish press," he notes, "protesting against lynchings and other antiblack violence, likened race riots against blacks to pogroms against Jews." Elsewhere he observes: "Like the Jewish struggle for racial justice, the black-inspired music of urban Jews was a declaration of war against the racial and ethnic hierarchy of Protestant, genteel culture." He also observes that "Jolson himself was never an African-American target," and that the leading black newspaper in New York called The Jazz Singer "one of the greatest pictures ever produced" and wrote of Jolson, "Every colored performer is proud of him". And he acknowledges that "Jews opposed racial prejudice in greater numbers, proportionately, than did any other white ethnic group." But this is not the story he wants to tell: it is the story he has to tell despite himself.

Rogin, who is a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, defines a niche for his own study in part by faulting scholars like Eric Lott and W. T. Lhamon for being too "anxiousI to find points of identification across racial lines" in their recent studies of blackface minstrelsy. But in his efforts to differentiate his own work from theirs, Rogin goes too far in the opposite direction, burying "points of identification across racial lines" that are crucial to his story.

Rogin's argument and the challenges to it that his sense of integrity as a scholar force him to include alongside it make this a book that sometimes seems to be at war against itself. Indeed, some of the most eloquent passages are those in which Rogin suggests the pitfalls of fully accepting the argument that he himself has been making. "Just as no group spins its culture out from a hermetically-sealed interior, neither is any culture the exclusive possession of a single group, a pure product that can be contaminated by borrowing and influence." His statement that "racial hierarchy, unequal rewards, and the stereotypes carried by appropriated forms make cultural expropriation a legitimate concern" - is more compelling than his more strident versions of the same point.

Rogin could not do everything, and indeed the swathe of material he includes is already quite large, ranging from the advent of the first "talkie" in 19 to the top-grossing movies of the 1940s. It is a measure of his success in pulling together all this material that he makes the reader ask questions that push well beyond the boundaries of the study. His discussion of The Jazz Singer would have been richer and more nuanced had he been able to situate it in the context of the New York Yiddish stage (and the klezmer music that pervades the sound track). The fact that Rogin misidentifies the term Yahrzeit as "the anniversary song for the dead" suggests that he is less steeped in Jewish traditions than he is in film history. The challenges modern American culture posed to traditional values were a staple theme of the Yiddish stage, as were the melodramatic ways in which these conflicts were explored and resolved; affectionate songs about the mother were common, as well. Acknowledging the resonances between the Yiddish theatre and The Jazz Singer does not diminish Rogin's central thesis: that Jewish performers staked their claim to being "Americans" in part by blacking up. On the contrary, it might help explain some of the appeal of what today strikes us as a repugnant and embarrassing practice. "A Yiddishe Momma" could not yet make the hit parade, but "My Mammy," sung in blackface, could.

Rogin should be applauded for his efforts to disentangle some of the most complicated conundrums of American popular culture. Yet one leaves his book with the sense of having read just the prologue to a study rather than its culmination.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is professor of American studies and English, University of Texas at Austin, and the author of Was Huck Black?

Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot

Author - Michael Rogin
ISBN - 0 520 20407 7
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 339

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