Academic journal article American Studies

THE WHITE NEGRESS: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

Academic journal article American Studies

THE WHITE NEGRESS: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

Article excerpt

THE WHITE NEGRESS: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. By Lori Harrison-Kahan. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2011.

Lori Kahan-Harrison's The White Negress-deserving winner of the American Studies Association's 2010 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Award-acts as a significant challenge to existing scholarship concerning whiteness, cross-racial performances, and black- Jewish encounters (3). Focusing her research on Jewish and black women's racial appropriations in literature and minstrelsy, Harrison-Kahan demonstrates that gender and sexuality complicate the "masculinist paradigms" that have long circumscribed scholarly explorations of blackface minstrelsy and "black-Jewish relations" (6).

In The White Negress, Harrison-Kahan analyzes the representation of a funda- mentally ambivalent female figure appearing in texts authored by Jewish and black artists during the interwar period. Her four substantive chapters act as case studies, exploring the portrayal of this recurrent character in Sophie Tucker's stage perfor- mances and autobiography Some of These Days (1945), Edna Ferber's Show Boat (1926), Fannie Hurst's Imitation of Life (1933), and Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). Harrison-Kahan names this figure "the white negress" after famed actress Sarah Bernhardt's self-description in her memoir My Double Life (1907). Associated simultaneously with Jewishness, blackness, and whiteness as well as "unconventional femininity," Bernhardt-known for her performance of the belle juive, or "beautiful Jewess"-cultivated a mysterious star persona that traded on her racial ambiguity and gender nonconformity (22). Harrison-Kahan argues that, like Bernhardt, the white negresses of Tucker, Ferber, Hurst, and Hurston's texts are racially ambiguous-Jewish, mixed-race, "racially indeterminate or ethnically unidentified"-New Women, "whose crossing of racial lines becomes intertwined with her defiance of gender and domestic norms" (2). Her central argument is that the white negress complicates the black-white racial binary.

By analyzing these artists' representations of the sexually and financially in- dependent white negress in minstrelsy and cross-racial narratives, Harrison-Kahan tests longstanding assumptions concerning the motivations behind male Jewish performers' decisions to "cork up." On the one hand, Irving Howe, in World of Our Fathers (1976), proposes that American Jewish performers donned blackface as an expression of their Jewishness, an identity conveyed partly through empathy and solidarity with African Americans and their freedom struggle. …

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