The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelry and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelry and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelry and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelry and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

Synopsis

During the first half of the twentieth century, American Jews demonstrated a commitment to racial justice as well as an attraction to African American culture. Until now, the debate about whether such black-Jewish encounters thwarted or enabled Jews' claims to white privilege has focused on men and representations of masculinity while ignoring questions of women and femininity. The White Negress investigates literary and cultural texts by Jewish and African American women, opening new avenues of inquiry that yield more complex stories about Jewishness, African American identity, and the meanings of whiteness.

Lori Harrison-Kahan examines writings by Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst, and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the blackface performances of vaudevillian Sophie Tucker and controversies over the musical and film adaptations of Show Boat and Imitation of Life. Moving between literature and popular culture, she illuminates how the dynamics of interethnic exchange have at once produced and undermined the binary of black and white.

Excerpt

In 1922, Jewish American writer Fannie Hurst published “The Smudge,” a short story about an aging blackface actress in the process of confronting her unrealized ambitions. Having once dreamed of playing Shakespeare’s Juliet, Hurst’s protagonist, Hattie Bertch, finds herself irretrievably typecast as a “buxom negro” maid. Despite her discomfort with such comedic supporting roles, Hattie perseveres as a blackface performer for the sake of her illegitimate teenage daughter, Marcia, who is described, in contrast to her mother’s on-stage persona, as “the color and odor of an ivory fan that has lain in frangipani.” Unable to subsist on her meager stage income alone, Hattie supplements her earnings with a more lucrative pursuit: she cooks up black makeup in her kitchen and sells it to other actors. The profits from Hattie’s “Guaranteed Color-fast” black cold cream enable Marcia’s upward mobility, allowing her to enter an upper-class milieu of finishing schools and dinner dances that is unmistakably coded as white. As Hattie puts it, “It’s my blackface that has kept her like a lily!” Yet by the story’s end, Hattie relinquishes the independence afforded by her blackface enterprises when she reluctantly agrees to marry—and presumably turn her business over to—Marcia’s wayward father, who had abandoned mother and unborn child years earlier. This denouement comes about because Hattie realizes that the traffic in blackness can have the opposite effect as well: it has the potential to darken Marcia’s reputation and thwart her ascent into white high society. In the moment that gives the story its title, Hurst describes what . . .

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