Lori Harrison-Kahan. The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Rutgers University Press, 2010. 248 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-4782-4; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-4783-1.
Reviewed by Stephen J. Whitfield (Brandeis University)
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Sisterhood is Powerful
The intersection of race and gender constitutes one of the hottest sites of cultural studies. There, in some of the latest fashions in American studies, can be found explorations of the failures of American society to approximate egalitarian ideals. While ensuring the solace of rectification, some of this academic effort is merely chic. It extends knowledge without really enriching it, with the consequence that the visibility of historical and literary figures is multiplied without reshaping the actual contours of the past. Women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans now jostle for scholarly attention; but the claims made for the importance of previously ignored artists and entertainers are usually predictable. The case for rectification is not necessarily illuminating.
The White Negress deserves to be spared from such skepticism. Start with the title, which is one measure of Lori Harrison-Kahan’s cleverness. The phrase “white Negress” comes from My Double Life, the 1907 memoir of a curiously non-Jewish Jew, the actress Sarah Bernhardt. But “The White Negro” was also the most resonant essay that Norman Mailer ever published. It discomfited Irving Howe, the co-editor of Dissent, where the article first appeared in 1957; for he realized that the outlaw blues that its author sang included a chilling invitation to violence as a way of achieving manhood. In celebrating the hipster’s aggressive, transgressive disdain for middle-class morality, Mailer also found himself accused of perpetuating the dangerous stereotypes of hyperactive black male sexuality that might disturb the Big Sleep of the 1950s.
Mailer’s yearning for subversion did not extend to radical feminism, however; and his conflicts with even moderate feminists need not be recounted here. In alluding to the title of his essay, Harrison-Kahan introduces the argument that her four brisk chapters (plus introduction and conclusion) splendidly substantiate. She claims that three Jewish women managed to show, earlier in the twentieth century, how the demons of racial and sexual animosity might be tamed. Whether in popular music (Sophie Tucker) or in popular literature (Edna Ferber and Fannie Hurst), a path was blazed toward a more pacific set of race relations. The White Negress contrasts the appeal of female friendship with the power plays to which white men seemed addicted in their relations with blacks or women (or both). The careers of these three Jews--whether as a music hall entertainer or as a pair of best-selling novelists--therefore suggested the promise of a more decent society, which would be less mired in the injustices rooted in race and gender. Harrison-Kahan nimbly situates her argument within the groove of recent interpretations of blackface, “whiteness,” and the relation of mass culture both to Jewish history and to “masculinist paradigms” (p. 179)--which she seeks to complicate rather than entirely dismantle.
Harrison-Kahan is careful not to overstate her case. “Appropriations of blackness in early-twentieth-century American culture produce and shore up white identity,” she acknowledges. Racism in that era came with the territory. But the Jewish participation in mass culture and the proclivity to paint it black also meant, the author insists, “troubling that self-same whiteness” (p. 2). The reinforcement of our understanding of the influence of racism and sexism would pose no scholarly surprise. What makes Harrison-Kahan’s book worthy of attention is that her cast of characters is so subversive. The least plausible of them might be expected to be “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas.” The White Negress nevertheless emphasizes the openness with which Sophie Tucker (born Sonya Kalish), through her songs and her persona, demanded greater equality between men and women. In an era when the hegemony of the Victorian codes of morality was so pronounced, she publicly insisted that her physical needs required satisfaction (admittedly by men). More than any woman besides Mae West, Tucker made it her vocation to reveal one of the epoch of Victoria’s best-kept secrets. In asserting her membership in a gender that felt lust as well as love, Sophie Tucker was a revolutionary, the Danton of desire, the Carnot of female carnality. She was too Jewish to conform to the ideals of femininity, but she was black enough to be billed as “A Manipulator of Coon Melodies.” A Jewish “coon singer” was ideally positioned to mount a direct assault upon the norms of gentility. Without forsaking her own ethnicity, Tucker championed the new black music. “My Yiddishe Mama” (1925), with music and lyrics by Jack Yellin, was only one of her signature songs. The other was “Some of These Days” (1911), an anthem of female autonomy, written by Shelton Brooks, who was black.
“Money whitens” goes the Brazilian saying; and few writers found the tastes of a mass readership more lucrative than two Midwestern Jews. Edna Ferber won a Pulitzer Prize for So Big in 1925 (the year that Theodore Dreiser published An American Tragedy, the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby), but critical attention never came close to matching the marketplace. Only one of Fannie Hurst’s novels remains in print (thanks to a university press), though the deaths of each novelist had been marked by front-page obituaries in the New York Times. Ferber’s Show Boat (1926) and Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933) also got lucky: in 1927 Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern made Show Boat a masterpiece of the musical theater, and in 1934 and 1959 Hollywood adapted Imitation of Life suggestively enough to sustain the fascination of film critics. Yet neither novelist saw any point to populating works aimed at middle-brow Middle America with Jewish characters. Neither author highlighted her own origins, or felt any attraction to Judaism. Neither however “denied” her ancestry (as the saying went at the time).
Both Ferber and Hurst were struck by the gap between the official commitment to racial purity and the actualities of crossing the color line, so that light-skinned Negroes could renounce a beleaguered community and join the majority. “Passing” is a fate that is portrayed in both Show Boat and Imitation of Life. But Ferber’s oeuvre testifies to a broader awareness of the colors of the American kaleidoscope and to the pain that bigotry can inflict. Hurst was an activist and something of a public figure in her fight against racial discrimination. In Imitation of Life the mulatto Peola makes what Harrison-Kahan regards as Hurst’s sharpest criticism of the pressures to which black Americans were subjected: “There’s nothing wrong in passing. The wrong is the world that makes it necessary” (quoted on p. 132). In an era when the Production Code prohibited movies from addressing the topic of miscegenation (much less proposing it as the solution to the race problem, as Norman Podhoretz was to do in 1963), characters like Peola and like Ferber’s Julie Dozier enabled their creators to challenge white hypocrisy.
The racial liberalism of their approach was nevertheless subtle enough for a scholar like Harrison-Kahan to offer extensive and convincing readings of the sort of popular fiction that never got canonized. To be sure, Ferber and Hurst belonged to the “damned mob of scribbling women” that aroused Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complaint as far back as 1855; and though The White Negress takes these two interwar novelists seriously, Harrison-Kahan advances no case for an aesthetic reconsideration. Neither feminist theory nor ethnic studies nor a desire for democratic inclusiveness can transform Ferber and Hurst into great writers. For all of its sophistication, this volume is largely indifferent to formal accomplishments, to the talent for characterization or language or novelistic structure that the two writers might have tapped. Jane Austen, they weren’t. The agenda of Harrison-Kahan is not aesthetic, but--for lack of a better word--ideological. She wants to show how Jews participated in the unjust hierarchy that marginalized and stigmatized blacks and yet also managed to humanize them. Sometimes the literary approach of Ferber and Hurst was empathetic (the mulatto characters know that the deck is stacked against them). Sometimes such fiction shades over into sociology (nobody knows the trouble they’ve seen, but being a Jewish woman writer helps).
Thus a fair inference from The White Negress is that Jews were less culpable than other whites in the grim history of black degradation. But this book does not come across as an exercise in apologetics. Where other scholars see theft, Harrison-Kahan sees ambivalence. Where others see Jews benefiting from their own whiteness to rip off a creative black culture, she sees reciprocity and “exchange and not simply unidirectional exploitation” (p. 142). If Tucker, Ferber, and Hurst are to be reckoned with, the role of Jews in the saga of American race relations is to “compel us the move beyond the critical tendency to reify the black-white binary, clearing a path for more nuanced accounts of the black-Jewish imaginary” (p. 184).
The fate of black women, who suffered from the impediments of both racism and sexism, serves as an especially acute stress test for the Jewish struggle to live up to the moral demands of enlightened dealings with others. The fourth chapter of The White Negress is devoted to one such black woman, a secretary to Hurst, and then a folklorist and novelist whose fame has eclipsed both Jewish novelists: Zora Neale Hurston. Her novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Harrison-Kahan reads as a partial repayment of the debt that blacks owed Jews. Their Book of Exodus helped inspire the slaves of the antebellum South to envision their own release from the house of bondage. No wonder then that Hurston’s ancient Hebrews speak in a Negro dialect. They also practice voodoo and express themselves in folklore. Published in 1939 (the same year as Moses and Monotheism), Hurston’s novel makes its eponymous protagonist an elusively “liminal” figure (p. 158), somewhere between an Egyptian and a Hebrew. Her book is a little too weird to yield to the meanings that Harrison-Kahan’s analytical powers elsewhere provide. But Hurston’s artistic goal “to write the story of the 3000 years struggle of the Jewish people for democracy and the rights of man” (quoted on p. 150) nicely caps the account that The White Negress gives of mutual recognition across the divide of race, with female solidarity serving as a touchstone to liberation.
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Stephen J. Whitfield. Review of Harrison-Kahan, Lori, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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