How blackface became a "thing"

Did you ever think that we would experience this sudden explosion of politicians exposed for once having appeared in blackface?

As my kids would say: What is up with this?

First, it was Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia. To quote the New Yorker: "Northam had featured, on his medical-school yearbook page, a photograph of a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam immediately apologized for appearing in the photo, but he then changed his story and said that neither person in the photograph was him; he did, however, say that he had once put shoe polish on his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume."

Then, it was Florida State Rep. Anthony Sabatini. As a teen, he appeared with darkened skin while wearing sunglasses, a New York Yankees cap, a do-rag and gold chains.

Let us bracket, for a moment, the question of whether it is "fair" to hold adults responsible for the stupid things that they did as teenagers. (Judaism's answer? The age of thirteen is not only bar/bat mitzvah. It is the age when you should know the difference between right and wrong. And, when you should begin to understand the implications of your actions.)

Let us also bracket the question of whether chimney soot on the faces of the characters in the original "Mary Poppins" film constitutes blackface. (My answer? This seems off to me, though sensitivities are so raw that people see bigotry that doesn't necessarily exist.)

We need to ask, as a society: What was going on in the collective mind that prompted people to think that deliberate, willful appearing in blackface would have been acceptable -- at any moment in history, and at any stage of life?

Isn't this just another form of white supremacy.


But, then, there is a rather bizarre chapter in the history of American Jewry -- Jews performing in minstrel shows -- pretending to be black.

As Eric Goldstein of Emory University describes in The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, the tradition of Jews appearing in minstrel shows goes at least as far back as 1898.

It happened in Atlanta, under the auspices of the Hebrew Association. Such "Jewish" minstrel shows occurred in the North as well, as early as 1902. Sometimes, the minstrel shows coincided with Purim.

Goldstein reproduces a photo from 1925. It is a group of Jews at a minstrel show, sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of Hadassah, and held at the Progressive Club, one of Atlanta Jewry’s elite gathering places. The Jews are in black face.

The question is: Why did minstrel shows become a (very minor) Jewish "thing"?

Eric Goldstein might have figured it out.

The caption under the Jews in black face picture says, in part: “They [the Jews] frequently embraced black culture as a temporary escape from the pressures of conformity in white America.”

Hmnn. That gets me thinking.

For decades, there was an interesting and often uneasy relationship between Jews and black culture. Today, we might want to call it cultural appropriation, but it was there.

  •  Al Jolson in black face in "The Jazz Singer." You know the story. Jakie Rabinowitz, the cantor's son, leaves his provincial Jewish world, and becomes Jack Robin. It is a double assimilation -- changing his name, and "changing" his race. As Goldstein writes: "While Jolson's blackface scenes employ the racist stereotypes of the day, they also suggest the powerful emotional identification of acculturating Jews with African Americans."
  •  George Gershwin, who used black musical modes and created an African American story in "Porgy and Bess." (Did Gershwin base "It Ain't Necessarily So" on the melody of the Torah blessing, which is a blues riff?)
  • The presence of Jews in blues music, as in the late Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and others.

Apparently, for a time, Jews subtly understood that while the majority of them were "white," that was not how the gentile white majority viewed them.

Jews, along with southern and eastern Europeans, occupied a racial netherworld -- not quite white, and not quite black. Goldstein suggests that this realization might have been part of the minor Jewish interest in blackface.

For their part, blacks sometimes reciprocated the gesture -- not identifying urban Jews as "truly" white, which meant that they expected Jews to be more sympathetic to their plight. Which, as history records, they often were.
That being said, the sudden explosion of long-ago blackface appearances remind us that America's racial problems show no signs of abating. It is hard to imagine that white people appearing in blackface is anything other than racism.

I close with the following story.Judge Jerome Katz (1907-1998) served in West Virginia’s Mercer County Circuit Court for thirty years. He taught himself to play drums, and he formed a group called Katz and His Kittens.

One day, he got a call from the grand wizard of the local Ku Klux Klan. They had scheduled a parade, but the regular drummer was sick. Could Katz fill in?

Katz replied that everyone in town knew that he was Jewish.

“That’s OK," the grand wizard said. "No one will know who you are. You’ll have a sheet over your head.”

To which Judge Katz replied: “The answer is still 'no.' I don’t read sheet music.”

The sad, tragic, maddening truth is: There are still many people in American who are playing "sheet music."