Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

Synopsis

A drunken Irish maid slips and falls. A greedy Jewish pawnbroker lures his female employee into prostitution. An African American man leers at a white woman. These and other, similar images appeared widely on stages and screens across America during the early twentieth century. In this provocative study, M. Alison Kibler uncovers, for the first time, powerful and concurrent campaigns by Irish, Jewish and African Americans against racial ridicule in popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Censoring Racial Ridicule explores how Irish, Jewish, and African American groups of the era resisted harmful representations in popular culture by lobbying behind the scenes, boycotting particular acts, and staging theater riots. Kibler demonstrates that these groups' tactics evolved and diverged over time, with some continuing to pursue street protest while others sought redress through new censorship laws.

Exploring the relationship between free expression, democracy, and equality in America, Kibler shows that the Irish, Jewish, and African American campaigns against racial ridicule are at the roots of contemporary debates over hate speech.

Excerpt

A male actor impersonates a drunken, clumsy Irish woman. A greedy Jewish pawnbroker lures his female employee into prostitution. An African American man leers at a white woman. For many Irish, Jewish, and African Americans in the early twentieth century, these images on stage and screen were harmful assaults on their reputations, and for some, they were matters of life and death. One hundred years ago, Irish, Jewish, and African American leaders believed that the representation of their race in mass culture helped determine their social status, their safety, and their political ambitions. In turn, they developed varied protest strategies—such as theater riots, boycotts, and backstage lobbying—to combat racial ridicule. Their critique of negative representations thus became a controversial element of nationalist and civil rights campaigns in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth. Irish, Jewish, and African American activists shared many goals. The leaders in these campaigns were cultural critics who theorized the power of images, sought positive representations, and demanded that American popular culture serve a multiracial democracy. They were also political strategists who often used the attack on images to advance the status of their minority group, to challenge their competitors for leadership of their group, and to establish coalitions with other immigrant or racial communities.

These campaigns reveal how particular Irish, Jewish, and African American spectators interpreted plays, movies, and vaudeville acts. Jewish leaders attacked images of Jewish crime, greed, and immorality. For example, they rejected a series of Montague Glass short stories about Abe Potash and “Mawruss” Perlmutter because Glass was a “Jew depicting his own fellow-Jew as sordid and grasping, with no thought except business and profit and occasionally of cheap pleasure, with no principles other than that everything that one can get away with without being caught is proper and honorable in business.” African Americans assailed sensationalistic depictions of lynching in plays and motion pictures, such as in The Birth of a Nation, in which Ku Klux Klan members murder an African American man . . .

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