Recalling Al Jolson

With all the witless huff-and-puff about Ralph Northam’s appearance in blackface in a dance contest, and perhaps in an undated photograph, it’w worth taking a few minutes to understand the story of blackface.

Back in the days of minstrel shows, when it was unthinkable to allow a black person to be a member of the troupe, and in the early days of burlesque, black characters were portrayed by white people wearing black grease on their face. Usually, but not always, the portrayal of black characters was demeaning; they were stupid, superstitious, shiftless, on and on. There is an important distinction to keep in mind here: It is not the wearing of blackface per se that was racist; it was the associated theatrical portrayal of black people.

This matters. The American entertainer Al Jolson, at one time the most highly paid entertainer in the country, spent much of his career in blackface. And yet, according to Wikipedia:

His performing style was brash and extroverted, and he popularized many songs that benefited from his “shamelessly sentimental, melodramatic approach.” In the 1920s, Jolson was America’s most famous and highest-paid entertainer.

[ … ]

Jolson has been called “the king of blackface” performers, a theatrical convention since the mid-19th century. With his dynamic style of singing jazz and blues, he became widely successful by extracting African-American music and popularizing it for white American audiences who were otherwise not receptive to the originators. Despite his promotion and perpetuation of black stereotypes, his work was sometimes well-regarded by black publications and he has sometimes been credited for fighting against black discrimination on Broadway as early as 1911. In an essay written in the 21st century, Ted Gioia of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia remarked, “If blackface has its shameful poster boy, it is Al Jolson”, showcasing Jolson’s complex legacy in American society.

Again, it’s important to make distinctions. Blackface per se is not racist; it’s merely a tool for portraying a character. It’s the portrayal of those characters that was often, but not always, racist. That’s too much to pack into a Tweet, or a Facebook post directed at people who just want to look at pictures of cats or last night’s dinner, but it must be borne in mind if we’re ever going to have thoughtful public conversations in this country.

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