Al Jolson in Twenty-First Century Perspective
Washington Post columnist Jamelle Bouie, writing about the political crisis engulfing Virginia, where 10 percent of whites in a new poll admit to wearing or knowing someone who wore blackface, argues that burnt-cook minstrelsy was “the worst of American racism.”
The new African-American columnist at the Post, Bouie’s editors chose a picture from Vanity Fair in the 1920s of Al Jolson for his column. But there is not one word about the controversial subject of Jewish performers in blackface
Bouie and the Post may not have wanted to stir up antisemitism. However, as a knowledgeable Jewish historian, I am revisiting this subject before someone less familiar with the subject does so.
Born in Lithuania, the son of a rabbi and cantor, Jolson grew up in Washington DC and Baltimore where he spent time (as did slugger Babe Ruth) in the Xaverian Brothers’ home for orphans and delinquents. Young Jolson met his enduring friend, African-American tap dancer Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson, on the streets. Sensitive to charges that blackface minstrelsy promoted white racism, Jolson in 1911 campaigned to integrate the Broadway stage. This was four years before Rabbi Stephen S. Wise picketed the racist film The Birth of a Nation. In 1918, Jolson wrote an essay trying to persuade readers that — compared to old Irish minstrel men — he had made blackface more subtle, nuanced, and less prejudiced.
Currently, there is a school of historians — mostly white, politically-left Jews — who specialize in “Jewish whiteness studies.” They argue American Jews have, so to speak, risen on the backs of African-Americans by becoming “white” in the eyes of American society and their own. Their exhibit number one is Al Jolson in blackface because, according to them, Jolson “blacked up” only to show his audiences that, underneath, he was really white.
Irving Howe countered that Jolson’s blackface was “a mask for Jewish expressiveness.” Howe echoed the judgment of the Forvertz newspaper about Jolson: “The son of a line of rabbis well knows how to sing the songs of the most cruelly wronged people in the world’s history.” If this was racially condescending, why did Harlem’s Amsterdam News say of Jolson “every colored performer is proud of him”?
Harlem’s Lafayette Theater showed The Jazz Singer with a floor show around the movie featuring a cantor singing “Eli, Eli” and “Kol Nidre,” and a black performer singing Jolson’s jazz songs. Remember this was an era when African-American comedian Bert Williams and young Eddie Cantor — both wearing blackface — played father and son in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Unlike Jewish performers Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor, Jolson never ceased blacking up. He started before 1908 when he left the Dockstadter Minstrels because they would not allow him to perform jazz music.
In the 1920s, restaurants would not serve Eubie Blake and Noble, African-American Jazz Age musical comedy innovators. Jolson took them to a delicatessen to eat pastrami sandwiches and said he would punch anyone in the nose who didn’t serve them. Jolson was the only white man admitted by Leroy’s, an all-black Harlem cabaret.
African-American architect Paul R. Williams designed Jolson’s mausoleum at Hillside Memorial Park, including a sarcophagus inspired by the historic 1822 design of Napoleon’s tomb. Inside the dome stands Moses holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Jolson is identified as “The Sweet Singer of Israel.” His black friends attended Jolson’s star-studded 1951 funeral, although they were invisible in the newsreels. African-American pop singer Jackie Wilson recorded a tribute album to Jolson in 1960. Jewish rappers, though not in blackface, still pay tribute today.
Jewish blackface performance is a perplexing part of America’s problematic racial history. This is no excuse to stereotype a complicated human being and performer like Al Jolson.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, African Americans (Africa World Press. 2015).