Blackface as Religious Expression

By Brenner, Lisa Silberman | Cross Currents, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Blackface as Religious Expression

Brenner, Lisa Silberman, Cross Currents

This past year, two young Jewish men toured North America with a seemingly odd pairing for a musical: the Book of Job and the politics of hip-hop's meteoric rise to power in the entertainment business. In their original production Job: The Hip-Hop Musical, Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil retell the Biblical story, playing all the parts including Job. his wife, God, Satan, and Job's peers. To bring the ancient text into line with the Def Jam generation, Batalion and Saibil perform the entire tale dressed in Adidas warm-up suits and doorags, with break-dancing and original hip-hop songs. In their adaptation, God becomes the C.E.O of a record company, and Job becomes one of his employees. Such a show could be called both racist and blasphemous. What entices these Jewish performers to imitate African--Americans--and why would they do so to explore a religious text?

While few, if any, Jewish performers have combined midrashic commentary on the Torah with hip-hop, Batalion and Saibil's mixing of a Black aesthetic with the Jewish religion actually has a precedent that dates back to the early part of the twentieth century. In 1917, a young Jewish man covered in burnt cork astonished audiences with his performance as "Friday" in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. Among the spectators was an aspiring writer named Samson Raphaelson. Watching the performance and hearing the man's voice, Raphaelson immediately saw a connection between the blackface minstrel and the religious singers of his childhood: "My God, this isn't a jazz singer," he thought. "This is a Cantor!" (1) Such a realization led the young writer to create a short story entitled "The Day of Atonement" based on the life of this budding star named M Jolson. Raphaelson would later adapt the story into a commercially successful play, The Jazz Singer. Although Jolson did not get to star in the show, as he had hoped, his desire was soon fulfilled when the Warner Brothers cast him as the lead in their film adaptation of The Jazz Singer--the movie that initiated the sound revolution in motion pictures. Raphaelson's vision of a blackfaced Jewish performer as the modern cantor would soon be seen--and heard--by millions of Americans.

Today, the legacy of The Jazz Singer makes many Americans cringe with its associations of Jews imitating, perhaps even stealing or distorting, Black culture. This is the response of the late Michael Rogin, whose Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, claims that Jews, who in the early twentieth century faced "nativist pressure that would assign them to the dark side of the racial divide," used blackface to assimilate into White America. (2) By mimicking African--Americans, Jews were able to separate themselves from this subjugated group and elevate themselves to the status of White Americans. By performing Blackness, Jews indicated to their audiences that they were not actually Black.

Although Rogin is the most cited authority on the subject of Jews and Blackface, recent scholars have begun to challenge his theory, including Stephen Whitfield, who questions why Jews would try to lay claim to Whiteness by highlighting their ability to "slip through the color--line." (3) Rogin's assessment is also based on his own psychoanalytic readings of the film The Jazz Singer. His theory is too simplistic: not only does he overlook the play upon which the film was based, but he also overlooks or dismisses historical data of the time, including reviews by the mainstream, Jewish, and Black press.

In a lengthy prologue the playwright Samson Raphaelson clearly explains his intention behind the use of blackface in The Jazz Singer:

   In seeing a symbol of the vital
   chaos of America's soul, I find no
   more adequate one than jazz. Here
   you have the rhythm of frenzy staggering
   against a symphonic background--a
   background composed
   of lewdness, heart's delight, soul-racked
   madness, monumental
   boldness, exquisite humility, but
   principally prayer. … 

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