“Is It ‘Cos I’s Black?” Jews and the Whiteness Problem
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The David W. Belin Lectureship in American Jewish Affairs provides an academic forum for the discussion of contemporary Jewish life in the United States. It was established in 1991 through a generous gift from the late David W. Belin of Des Moines and New York. Mr. Belin, a graduate of the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Business School, and Law School, had a distinguished career in law and public service. A true public servant, Belin served as counsel to the Warren Commission, which investigated President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and was executive director to the Rockefeller Commission, which investigated CIA activities in the United States. A founding chair of Reform Judaism’s Outreach Commission and founding member of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Belin served the American Jewish communities in numerous leadership roles. That service reflected his concern for the future of American Jewry and stimulated him to endow this lectureship in 1991 to provide a forum for the discussion of contemporary Jewish life in the United States.
Past Belin lecturers have included some of the most prominent scholars in the field of American Jewish studies. This year’s lecturer continues this tradition. Andrew Heinze is a foremost historian of contemporary American Jews, who made his mark as an historian of American Jews with his first book, Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption and the Search for American Identity (Columbia University Press, 1990). This innovative study of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York City proved conclusively that this teeming neighborhood still offered a rich field of research for young scholars. Over the course of the next decade, several additional books in the innovative footsteps of Andrew Heinze. His decision to approach Jewish immigrant social, economic, and religious activity through a study of consumer behavior stimulated a wealth of new scholarship, even contributing to feminist studies. Adapting to Abundance became a standard-setting volume in the field of immigrant and ethnic history, inspiring emulation as well as eliciting praise.
While teaching at San Francisco University, Heinze initiated research into another unusual subject for an historian of American Jews: the role of Jews in shaping the psychological imagination of Americans. He succeeded in this work, tackling a topic that on the surface seemed unmanageable but then turned out to be a window into provocative ways of studying American Jews. His most recent book, Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the Twentieth Century (Princeton 2004) is a big book, ambitious and bold. It uncovers the extraordinary impact of Jewish psychologists and “mass market rabbis” on America’s popular therapeutic culture, demonstrating how Jewish ways of thinking about human personality spread to millions of Americans. The book was named one of the best books of 2004 by Publishers Weekly, an accolade it well deserved.
In his Belin Lecture, Andrew Heinze addresses another contentious topic. His talk, “Is it ‘Cos I’s Black?’: Jews and Whiteness Problem” looks at current trends in “whiteness” studies. Heinze argues in his typically daring manner that many of these studies rest upon faulty assumptions and he analyzes the sources of their popularity.
Deborah Dash Moore
Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History
Director of the Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies
There are several defining paradoxes of American history, one of which, the paradox of Jewish freedom and African subjugation, is the backdrop for our topic tonight. How odd that the first society to offer Jews real citizenship and real power also invented the most total form of racial persecution in the history of the West. This unsettling awareness has affected American Jews more profoundly than we might think, because Jews projected such panoramic hope onto the American canvass. The story of Jewish success in America has always been a bit tarnished by the realization that the playing field on which it took place had never been truly equal or fair. No matter how honest and hard-working and deserving the individual, everyone who plays on a crooked field plays a crooked game.
The specific problem before us tonight is well introduced by Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen’s ingenious parody of a white wannabe-gangsta rapper who not only adopts all the appropriate clothes, gestures, and locutions, but convinces himself that he is black. This character, whose full name is Alistair Graham, hails from the London suburb of Staines and hosts an MTV-like show for British youth, for which he interviews all sorts of people, including famous politicians and pundits, to whom he addresses the most innocently idiotic questions in the history of television.
Ali G became an overnight hit in Britain in 1998, and then a sensation in the U.S. as well (after HBO produced two seasons of Da Ali G Show in 2002–2003), but he also stirred controversy. From within both the black and Jewish communities, there were those who felt Baron Cohen was ridiculing blacks. It wasn’t long before the press struck what now seems to be an inevitable comparison to Al Jolson. The Forward’s first report on Ali G was subtitled: “British Comedian Ali G Makes Waves as “The New Al Jolson.” For this comparison the paper cited an academic book which has become the touchstone for a certain type of critique about Jewish performers dealing with so-called “black” topics or material. “In his book Blackface, White Noise,” the Forward explained, “Michael Rogin posited that Jews performed in blackface in order to enter the mainstream: By performing as black, they were seen by their audiences as white — and no longer as Jews.”
Ali G raises two issues that cultural historians and critics have hotly debated. One involves the question of cultural appropriation; the other involves Whiteness, which is academic shorthand for “becoming American (or becoming mainstream) by emphasizing the fact that one is not black.” Cultural appropriation is an old issue within academic and artistic — especially musical — circles; Whiteness, though relatively new (it emerged in the 1990s), has been surprisingly influential among historians, and especially historians of American Jewry. I say “surprisingly” because the premise of Whiteness scholarship, at least within the field of history, is so weak as to be nearly ludicrous.
Before I explain what is wrong with the Whiteness hypothesis, and why it has done damage to the field of American Jewish history by preoccupying a generation of younger scholars with what is basically an historical fiction, I want to emphasize an all-too-real phenomenon of color in contemporary America.
The New York Times recently published a story on the tremendous difficulty middle-class African American parents face when seeking nannies for their children. Nobody, virtually nobody, wants to work for them. Even black nannies, whether American-born or immigrant, don’t want to work for them. The problem is so bad that these parents often give up altogether on nannies and enroll their children in group-daycare facilities that are much less convenient. What is the problem? For some nannies, especially those from eastern Europe, the problem is part racism (one interviewee described black children as monkeys) and part status anxiety: they recognize, accurately, that in color-conscious America white is prestigious, black is not. For nannies who are themselves black, the problem is part intramural tension (they claim black employers are tougher on them than on white employees) and part status anxiety: they recognize, accurately, that in color-conscious America, white is prestigious, black is not.
What these parents and nannies are facing in the 21st century is the legacy of the seventeenth. It didn’t happen overnight, but by the year 1700 the British colonizers of North America and their second- and third-generation descendants had created the legal framework for a rigid system of social separation and oppression. In that system, people who were identified as “black,” which meant they bore the look of African descent, could be bought and sold as slaves for life, a status that pertained also to their children. Whites, on the other hand, were free and could not be legally enslaved. They might serve a limited term of years as indentured servants, but their freedom afterward was assured. Who qualified as white? Anyone whose features were European. The majority of inhabitants of British America, including Jews, fit this description. By the time of the Revolution, there were only two sizable groups whose status within the new nation was insecure: African Americans and Native Americans. Virtually all others, including Jews and Catholics, were understood to be “the people” to whom the Constitution referred. Jews and Catholics experienced various forms of bigotry, but their legal status as free white citizens under the Constitution was never seriously challenged. In the South, Jews were often perceived as neither white nor black, but even there, where people’s lives ultimately depended on whether they were allowed entry to “white” facilities and institutions, Jews lived in the white world.
Unless we understand how uniquely rigid the American concept of race was (and still is, though to a lesser extent), we will fail to see why the status of European and Middle Eastern Jews in the U.S. resembled that of native-born, white Americans much more than that of African Americans. Unlike Latin America, where it was possible to migrate from non-white to white in four generations, the rule in the U.S. was that any discernible African ancestry stamped an individual as “black,” genetically inferior, and ineligible for the rewards of American individualism. (This was the reality behind the perverse success of Coleman Silk, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, and of his fictional predecessors in George Schuyler’s Black No More and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.) Some Southern legislatures, anticipating the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany, went so far as to decree 1/32 as the percentage of “Negro blood” that made someone a full-fledged Negro, with all the deprivations and humiliations thereof. Of course, that bizarre fraction was not meant to be taken literally; what it really signified was that any noticeable trace of Africa in a person’s physiognomy was enough, for all intents and purposes, to make that person Black.
When the courts were challenged to define whiteness in cases of immigrants petitioning for citizenship, the arbitrary role of color and appearance became only more pronounced. The Naturalization Act of 1790 had restricted citizenship to “free white persons.” (In 1870, as a result of the Civil War, Congress expanded this limitation to include people of African descent, but no others.) The question was, who qualified as “white” under the law? The Supreme Court answered in an important 1923 case. The plaintiff, Bhagat Singh Thind, a well-educated Sikh spiritual leader, had presented the clever argument that natives of northern India were technically Aryans, to which the Court unblinkingly responded: “Whatever may be the speculations of the ethnologist...what we now hold is that the words ‘free white persons’ are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man.” Whoever this common man was — and we can only guess that he was pale — this is what he understood:
It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.
Though the law excluded most Asians from “whiteness,” a racial loophole appeared for immigrants from the Middle East. In 1915 a Syrian successfully appealed a South Carolina district court decision that he, as an “Asiatic,” was ineligible for citizenship. In a more sophisticated ruling than the Supreme Court’s in Thind, the appellate court explained that existing statutes clearly indicated “that the inhabitants of a portion of Asia, including Syria, were to be classed as white persons.” Along with Arabs, who belonged to “the Semitic branch of the Caucasian race,” the court also specified Armenians and Persians as white under American law. If there had been any doubts about the legal whiteness of Middle Eastern Jews, Dow v. United States put them to rest.
Until recently all this was pretty well understood by historians. In the 1950s and 1960s, the two richest histories of American racism and nativism ever to appear — John Higham’s Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (1955) and Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (1968) — eloquently depicted the social and cultural background of the entire spectrum of prejudices to which Africans and Native Americans, Asians, Jews and Catholics, Latin Americans, Eastern and Southern Europeans and even, for a time, Germans, were subjected by Americans different from themselves. But by the 1990s, a group of historians had developed a new approach to race. Focusing on European immigrants, most notably the Irish and secondarily Jews, they claimed that these people occupied some sort of racial middle ground between black and white. Not really white, they feared that Americans would lump them together with blacks. In order to avoid this unpleasant outcome, they needed to make it clear to everybody that they were definitely not black, a goal they achieved by embracing the values of white supremacy. According to this school of thought, Jews proved their whiteness most conspicuously through popular entertainment. They turned themselves into white Americans by distancing themselves from blacks, either through blackface performance or through writing songs and scripts that made it clear they, the Jewish singers, actors, and writers, were not similar to African Americans, but were obviously superior to them — which is to say, obviously White.
Three years ago in a seminar on American culture, my students and I were discussing something about Jews — I no longer remember what — and a student made a surprisingly confident statement to the effect that Jews assimilated into America by exploiting blacks. Her statement wasn’t specific; she wasn’t speaking about a particular historical scenario in which this exploitation took place. She was making a categorical statement, a generalization which, she’d been taught, went a long way toward explaining Jewish life in America. Since we hadn’t read any Jewish history in our seminar, and the student was not Jewish herself, I was curious where she’d learned this. After class I asked her. She told me that in her survey course on U.S. History there was one book on Jews, Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise. I was surprised for two reasons: first, that a survey course in U.S. history included a book on Jews among the few required texts, and second, that, of all the books on Jews to assign, this one was chosen.
My student was not an anomaly. By the early 2000s, the Whiteness critique had gone public, spilling out of academia and into the mainstream of “literate” discourse. Writing about Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, a reviewer for Slate spoke with blissful assurance about the history of American popular culture: “The truth is Matisyahu isn’t really a novelty — his is the oldest act in the show-business book. Minstrelsy dates back to the very beginnings of American popular music, and Jews have been particularly zealous and successful practitioners of the art. From Irving Berlin’s blackface ragtime numbers to Al Jolson’s mammy songs...to Bob Dylan, who channeled the cadences of black bluesmen, to the Beastie Boys — successive generations of Jewish musicians have used the blackface mask to negotiate Jewish identity.” He’d read Rogin too. Blackface has apparently become the dominant metaphor of Jewish assimilation in America. It applies even to Bob Dylan, who, in fact, imitated Woody Guthrie more than he imitated black bluesmen. One wonders if blackface mustn’t be a universal metaphor; it would have to apply not only to Jews, but to everyone in the history of American popular music, from Elvis Presley to Beck, who has taken inspiration from the work of black singers. And as metaphors go, it is a perniciously shallow one, likening all musical interactions between white and black artists to a grotesquely derogatory act.
On that happy note, let’s turn to Michael Rogin’s much-referenced book, Blackface, White Noise. Rogin was for many years a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who had done no scholarship on the history of Jews until, late in his career, he decided to address what he took to be the fundamentally racist role of Jews in popular entertainment. His argument about Jewish assimilation was: “Jews acquired American credentials by, in this racially divided society, taking control of the black role.” In that statement, Rogin referred to the involvement of Jews in both blackface minstrelsy and the civil rights movement. Had he said that these were two of many activities that Jews took up as they assimilated into American society, there would be little to debate. Jews did gravitate toward popular culture, of which blackface was one form, and toward political activism for racial equality. But it is also true that as civil rights advocates, they were countercultural, while as blackface performers they were conventional (many singers and comedians did blackface). These distinctions are lost on Rogin, as is the distinction between literally taking over the stage role of a stereotypical black man, and taking part in a movement alongside black people. Jews took on many roles as civil rights activists. To suggest that, in some categorical way, they controlled their black colleagues — which is to say, controlled the course of the movement — is not merely incorrect; it is an insult to African American history.
About his primary subject — Jews in popular entertainment — Rogin argues that, through their control of the movie industry, “immigrant Jews were helping to produce a racialized twentieth-century mass culture in the United States.” Again, the devil is in the semantic details. Had Rogin said that Jews reproduced racist imagery in American culture, I’d agree with him. It wouldn’t be a new or surprising statement, but I’d agree with it. There’s a world of difference, though, between produce and reproduce. To produce implies to create. Jews certainly did not create American racism. They entered a society saturated with white supremacist attitudes and moved into powerful positions in the mass media of movies, broadcasting and music. Those media oscillated between conservatism and liberalism but were never radical; they simply were not geared, and could not have survived as popular entertainment, had they challenged the social order in any fundamental way. That said, the role of Jews in American entertainment was complex, not one-dimensional. Jews often purveyed timeworn racial stereotypes, but they also weakened them in subtle ways that are well known to historians and astute audiences of film, radio, television, and popular music.
Rogin’s overriding point is: Jews exploited blacks in order to prove their whiteness. It’s undeniably true that Jews enjoyed many of the privileges America offered whites and denied blacks. And it’s undeniably true that Jews felt they had to prove themselves to Christian America, to prove that they were good and productive citizens and that discrimination against them was un-American. But one thing they didn’t have to prove was that they were white. As we’ve seen, all that mattered was that they were taken for white, and their European features, even when tinged with the Semitic, guaranteed that they were. There is no historical evidence of a Jewish mass anxiety about being mistaken for black or being treated like blacks. Neither is there evidence of this type in the annals of other European immigrants, including the much-despised Irish. That is the cardinal offense of the Whiteness historians — they simply assume that these immigrants worried America would take them for black unless they proved themselves white. The opposite was true. Immigrant memoirs tend to link black people with the other new and strange sights of America, and how long could it have taken for a newcomer to figure out what was writ large all over the face of American life: that blacks were held in disrespect and contempt? European immigrants must have delighted in the discovery that in America, unlike their native lands, where they occupied the lowest social positions, they automatically assumed a position several niches above the bottom of the social hierarchy, which was reserved for African Americans. No doubt, they acquired the mentality of white superiority just as they acquired white bread and everything else in the package of American values. But there was nothing remarkable about that. For the Jew in America, in other words, there was no agon of whiteness. The answer to the question, “How did the Jews become white?” is simple: “By stepping off the boat.”
The Whiteness thesis originated among Marxist labor historians wrestling with an old problem: Why didn’t white American workers unite with black American workers on the basis of class? Why did they, instead, adopt racist attitudes and exclude black workers from unions, as the American Federation of Labor infamously did? After an initial generation of labor history that lauded the struggling white worker and emphasized the nobility of his, and to a lesser degree, her fight against a variety of inimical forces, historians became restless, as historians must, with the old school and its mild apologetics. Disillusioned by the racism inherent in working class history and not content with the well-established explanation for it — that immigrant workers adopted the mores of America, including racial mores, as they settled here — this contingent of historians launched the idea of Whiteness as something akin to a deliberate chess move in the game of Americanization.
In doing so, they saddled immigrants with an excessive burden of moral responsibility. Most of these people were simply struggling to survive and give their children a more comfortable life. They did not come to do battle against forces of iniquity. Neither did they face the choice that Whiteness historians have retroactively given them, of becoming White as opposed to something else that the historians haven’t specified — Gray? In the Whiteness scenario, there were only two “good” choices the immigrant could make: either become an activist for racial equality or not identify as White (whatever that would mean?). Yes, in the largest sense, white immigrants bore the burden of racism by not devoting themselves to its destruction (much as African Americans bore the burden of anti-Semitism by not similarly devoting themselves), but one doesn’t have to be an expert in moral philosophy to grasp the difference between active and passive participation in a corrupt system.
In addition to exaggerating the moral burden of European and Middle Eastern immigrants, Whiteness historians have misrepresented the obstacles faced by African Americans. If European immigrants were defined as not-white and whiteness was something they had to achieve, like an education or home ownership, then America’s white/black divide could not have been as oppressively fixed and narrow as historians had previously established and as African Americans have known it to be.
In American Jewish history, the Whiteness critique responds to questions that parallel those in labor history. After a generation that emphasized the somewhat noble struggle of Jews to survive and flourish in America, in the face of various inimical forces, historians became restless with these mild apologetics and hungry for answers to such disturbing questions as: How could Jews, having suffered a long history of persecution, identify with the wrong side, the white side, in a country that stigmatized blackness? And that stalwart minority of Jews who protested and fought racism...wasn’t their commitment far outweighed by the complacency of the Jewish majority, which acquiesced in the privileges of whiteness?
These questions are reminiscent of Maya Angelou’s observation, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, of African American indifference to the suffering of the displaced Japanese whose San Francisco neighborhood they appropriated. Why didn’t blacks, who’d suffered so much bigotry, stand up and protest this outrage against a vulnerable, nonwhite minority? How could they settle into a Japanese neighborhood as if nothing awful had happened there? The short answer, I’m afraid, for blacks and Jews and everyone else, is: human nature and social convention. Or, as Angelou described it:
The Black newcomer had been recruited on the dessicated farm lands of Georgia and Mississippi by war-plant labor scouts. The chance to live in two- or three-story apartment buildings (which became instant slums), and to earn two- and even three-figured weekly checks, was blinding. For the first time he could think of himself as a Boss, a Spender. He was able to pay other people to work for him, i.e. the dry cleaners, taxi drivers, waitresses, etc....Who could expect this man to share his new and dizzying importance with concern for a race that he had never known to exist? Another reason for his indifference to the Japanese removal was more subtle...The Japanese were not whitefolks...[and] since they didn’t have to be feared, neither did they have to be considered.
The second line of criticism directed against Jewish performers from Al Jolson to Ali G is much older than the Whiteness critique, though the Whiteness critics have appropriated it. It involves cultural appropriation, which can mean many things but in American cultural history has often referred to white performers adapting black music for a much larger white audience, and enjoying commensurate profits. Since the 1960s, music critics and cultural historians have written a lot about the exploitative relationship of a music industry that profited from the creativity of black musicians whose power, both commercial and social, was severely limited. That this massive inequity existed should come as no surprise; it was one more manifestation of a racist social system. But there were two other truths about race and music in America in the 20th century: 1) from the 1920s to the 1960s, popular music was the only venue in which African Americans attained more than token money and fame, as the careers of W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and many others testified; 2) the relationship of white and black performers has always been too complicated to be explained by any one-dimensional model of exploitation in which whites, or Jews, rip off and profit from black genius.
Perhaps more than any other cultural form, music belongs to the people. Songs — that is, lyrics — can be copyrighted, but sounds cannot. Cross-fertilization is the rule, not the exception. This is why it is a myth to speak of purity, and certainly of ethnic or racial purity, when speaking of music in any modern society, especially one as ethnically hybrid as America. The two most conspicuous examples of such myth-making in the American context involve blues/jazz and country/western music, the two great indigenous American styles.
One of our leading music historians, Bill Malone, has made it clear that even Country music, which is popularly considered to be “white” — of purely Anglo-Saxon or Celtic origin — is in fact a hybrid whose sources are too disparate to trace. Black fiddlers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Tin Pan Alley’s Jewish songwriters of the early twentieth century, and musicians of virtually every region and ethnicity in between, contributed to the music we identify as Country. Fans of Country & Western also have a long tradition of mythologizing the “folk” quality of the music, which is to say, they posit an “original” and “authentic” country music that had been non-commercial but ultimately became degraded by “commercialization.” Malone has debunked that misconception as well. Whether it was Hank Williams or the Carter Family or Dolly Parton who did the singing, vintage C & W has consisted primarily of commercially produced music, not of old ballads of unknown authorship. The phenomenon of Country & Western itself was the product of the recording industry of the 1920s; it did not exist before that. What Malone’s scholarship has done, beyond debunking myths of ethnic and folk authenticity, is highlight the fact that music, like culture itself, is organic. It grows and changes and mutates and adapts as society changes and as people come into new and unexpected contact with one another.
The same applies to blues and jazz, a tradition that has its own purists and mythmakers. Just as Country & Western was a product of the recording and broadcast industries of the 1920s, so was the hybrid music — rooted in a variety of styles as different as guitar blues and brass marching bands — that came to be known as jazz. Jazz depended for its survival and evolution on the urban entertainment infrastructure of the era — saloon concert halls, Tin Pan Alley, radio and movies. And innovators such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, to name two of the greatest, achieved their prime not in an ethnically segregated, noncommercial milieu but rather in racially mixed dance halls and through a multi-racial record-buying, radio-listening public. Nevertheless, since the racially Romantic Twenties, when Carl van Vechten and his elite, white-hipster coterie began criticizing black artists who sounded “too white” and claiming they’d betrayed the pure, primitivist roots of the music, there has been a notion of “authentic” jazz as a bluesy black folk music uncorrupted by either whiteness or commerce. The truth is otherwise. Just as the instrumentation and beat of jazz are a fusion of Europe and Africa, the music has always been sung and played by men and women of all backgrounds. This is not to diminish the music’s remarkable African American foundation; it is only to emphasize that white audiences, and their tastes, were as important as the taste of black musicians to the music’s astonishing success. It is also to emphasize that white and Latino and other nonblack musicians were collaborators in the history of jazz. Jewish bandleader Benny Goodman was, in other words, a legitimate figure in that history, not a pale reflection of a black ideal; and if Benny Goodman enjoyed success because his sound appealed to white audiences, his fate, like that of Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger, simply reflected the demographics of the American music audience.
So when Michael Rogin argues that Jews “revitalized popular culture with white versions of African American folk productions,” he demonstrates more than anything else his naivete about American music. “African American folk productions” is as mythical as “white versions of.” What exactly would a “white version” of music entail? The harder you think about it, the more your head hurts. And if Jews were not-quite-white, then their music would have been a “not-quite-white version” of jazz. What is that? What is the sound of not-quite-white? Or if it was through the process of performing “black” music that Jews became white, then the Jolson’s and Berlin’s and Gershwin’s must have sounded “not-quite-white” going into the music but “white” coming out. Inanities of this type only highlight the fact that popular music is by nature intermixed, collaborative, and hybrid.
If white audiences were essential to the growth of popular music in America, then how could it be wrong or corrupt or inimical to the spirit of music if a musician, whether black or white, appealed to white audiences as well as black? In this respect, then, “whiteness” had been integral to jazz — not tangential or superimposed — virtually from the beginning.
When considering the question of cultural exploitation, we should also be wary of anachronism, and not blithely equate America today with Al Jolson’s America. There was a huge, tacit arrogance built into a society that treated any second-rate white copyist of Louis Armstrong better than Armstrong himself. It was the same arrogance that supported the immense popularity of a Jolson, with or without blackface, while refusing in some sense to hear a black vocalist as anything other than a minstrel; and the same that allowed the phenomenal radio success of Amos ‘n’ Andy, provided the actors were white.
But today, when black musicians are powerful figures on the music and social scene in a way they could not have been prior to the 1960s, is there really any point in deriding someone like Matisyahu for adapting reggae to an audience of his own? If we convict him of cultural theft, we must also convict Bob Dylan for burgling the sound and image of Woody Guthrie. And why should black artists be exempt from the rules of purity? Why shouldn’t we challenge John Coltrane for covering “My Favorite Things,” the product of Jewish Broadway? Because it would be idiotic. That’s why.
The problem, really, was never in the borrowing. And it was rarely in the individuals who borrowed. Covering and sampling and riffing — all of which are forms of appropriation — are natural to music and culture. (Blacks and Jews, of all peoples, know this. Their respective survival depended on their ability to appropriate the culture of their oppressors, just as those oppressors appropriated from them.) The problem lay in structures of society, and structures of thought, that made life outside of art nearly unbearable.
In the 1990s TV show “In Living Color,” Daman Wayans developed a character who was a parody of a pretentiously ignorant African American prisoner. Coming from Wayans, audiences could accept that. If Ali G had been a parody of a pretentiously ignorant black TV host, it would have been mean and racist. Not that a white comedian should be forbidden to enact such a character, but why would he or she want to? What would be the motive? On the other hand, when the subject is a white wannabe, why shouldn’t a comedian parody the all-too-relevant, often ludicrous phenomenon of suburban adolescent posturing toward ghettoized machismo? And parody works best when it exaggerates to the limit of disbelief, which is exactly what Sacha Baron Cohen did in creating his clueless, insecure buffoon of a TV presenter. Perhaps his critics have a point. Maybe a character whose romantic posturing is so intense that he has convinced himself he is black will somehow convince others that he is black (although he convinces none of his interviewees of this, and the movie Ali G in Da House reveals Ali’s identity as a white suburbanite), and in that case they would be watching, or they would believe they were watching, a spectacle of black stupidity, a grotesque stereotype. But if comedy has to eliminate every possibility of being misread, it can take no risks, and without risks it isn’t really comedy, or if it is, it is comedy of the most banal kind. There are a few points on which I’d take Sacha Baron Cohen to task, but being today’s Al Jolson isn’t one of them.
“We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us” is the refrain of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, and so it is for Americans and race. The problem of whiteness in American history — and I believe we can fairly say that whiteness is the problem of American history — is both maddeningly simple and frighteningly complex. When solutions to our collective Whiteness problem have appeared, they’ve usually been in the arena of culture, and particularly popular music, which has had the unique power to bring people into aesthetic and spiritual contact despite conventions of racial separation. From the age of Al Jolson to the age of Michael Jackson — the transformational years of race and music in America — Jews have played so many roles as to defy historians who would sum them up, or sum them down. And so we wait for a magisterial history of Blacks and Jews in American music. But while we wait, we should at least be humbled by the magnitude of the story.
I thank Deborah Dash Moore and the staff of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies for their kindness and editorial work in the publication of this lecture.
The historical literature on racism, blacks and Jews in America is vast, but here are a few starting points for the general reader. A superb inquiry into the evolution of American concepts of race, “whiteness” and “blackness” is Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (University of North Carolina Press, 1968). For a different interpretation of the emergence of white freedom and black unfreedom, by another preeminent historian of colonial America, see Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (Norton, 1975). For a good summary of the new freedoms for Jews in British America, see Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America (Random House, 1992), 16–32. Though dated and preliminary, the first scholarly survey of the complex relationship between African Americans and Jews remains an interesting introduction: Robert G. Weisbord and Arthur Stein, Bittersweet Encounter: The Afro-American and the Jew (Greenwood Press, 1970). For a comprehensive history of race and ethnicity, including scores of primary documents in conjunction with chronologically-arranged chapters by nine historians, I am partial to a work in which I collaborated: Ronald H. Bayor, ed., The Columbia Documentary History of Race and Ethnicity in America (Columbia University Press, 2004); the abridged version is Race and Ethnicity in America: A Concise History (Columbia University Press, 2003).
For an overview of the status of Jews in the early republic, see the first volume of the four-volume history by Jacob Rader Marcus, United States Jewry, 1776–1985 (Wayne State University Press, 1989-1993); and Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654–2000 (University of California Press, 2004), 41–70.
On racial distinctions in Latin America, see Magnus Mörner, Race Mixture in the History of Latin America (Little, Brown, 1967); and the important comparative study, Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (Macmillan, 1971).
United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (261 US 204). On the development of citizenship laws, see James H. Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1608–1870 (University of North Carolina Press, 1978).
Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (University of California Press, 1996), 17. Two of the most recent academic books dealing with Jews, race and American music both subscribe to the Whiteness thesis, though they are more nuanced than Rogin and have much to say about music and culture. See “The Yiddish Are Coming,” one of the essays in Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race and America (University of California Press, 2005), 48–85; and Jeffrey Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song (Harvard University Press, 1999).
There are too many accounts of Jews in the civil rights movement to do them justice here, but two relevant scholarly studies are: Stuart Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (Columbia University Press, 1999); and Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2000).
For an understanding of the internal parameters of American broadcasting that both reinforced and restricted the rhetoric of racism, see J. Fred MacDonald, Don’t Touch That Dial! Radio Programming in American Life from 1920 to 1960 (Nelson Hall, 1979). Movies and theater were freer than radio and television to challenge the social order — e.g. the groundbreaking musical and 1936 film, Show Boat, which was authored, adapted and produced by Jews and wove an indictment of racism into a conventional love story. The subtle interactions of Jews and blacks in popular music during the 1950s and early 1960s, the formative period of R & B and rock, can be discerned in the excellent 10-part PBS documentary, The History of Rock and Roll, which profiles, among others, Carol King, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Phil Spector, and Leonard and Philip Chess. Jeffrey Melnick touches on some of the subtleties of Jewish-Black interactions in early twentieth century music in A Right to Sing the Blues, cited above.
The touchstone work is David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso Press, 1991). For further references, see the endnotes to Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination.”
Two good jazz histories that make these points clear are: Grover Sales, Jazz: America’s Classical Music (Prentice Hall, 1984) and James Lincoln Collier, Jazz: The American Theme Song (Oxford University Press, 1993).
The performers of Amos ‘n’ Andy, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, were not Jewish. On the racial dynamics of their phenomenally successful show, see Melvin Patrick Ely, The Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon (Free Press, 1991).