Home Perspectives American Jews, Blackface, and the KKK

American Jews, Blackface, and the KKK

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Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (Wikimedia Commons photo - Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Commonwealth of Virginia is in turmoil. A media storm erupted with the revelation that Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page from 1984 contained a photo of a man in blackface and another in a white KKK robe. Northam admitted to being one of the men in the photo, but subsequently denied it. He confessed to having applied black shoe-polish to impersonate Michael Jackson that same year. Bipartisan criticism is raining down. He should resign, and he undoubtedly will. 

The sordid details of the Northam controversy provides an opportunity to examine American Jews’ complicated relationships with both blackface and the Ku Klux Klan. Jews, like many white Americans, partook in blackface entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most famous example occurred in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer when Jewish actor Al Jolson played the titular character and performs in blackface. 

Scholars are divided about the blackface scenes in The Jazz Singer. Some say by darkening Jolson, it showed sympathy and solidarity with African-Americans, implying that Jews too remained outsiders. Most, however, saw Jews donning blackface as a form of whitening themselves. According to the laws of the United States, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews had always been regarded as white, but many non-Jews around them questioned their whiteness. By mocking African-Americans through applying blackface, Jews more quickly assimilated into America’s colour-coded racial hierarchy. 

 If the Jewish relationship to blackface was complex, their relationship to the KKK is even more bizarre. The Klan emerged after the American Civil War, founded by Confederate veterans dedicated to overthrowing the new social order through vigilante attacks against newly freed African-Americans and anti-slavery Republican politicians. Jews were not among their targets. 

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 The American government quickly suppressed that first iteration of the KKK, but it re-emerged during the First World War. This time, the Klan targeted not only African-Americans, but also Jews, Catholics, and immigrants in general. They flourished with the rising tide of nativism in the 1920s and increasing anti-Semitism from Henry Ford and others.

 And yet, the relationship between the KKK and the Jewish community was not entirely hostile. On Sep. 1, 1926, in Arlington, Va., a Jewish baseball squad, the Hebrew All Stars, played a game against the local chapter of the Klan. The All Stars met at the local Jewish community centre before the game, with a roster including players like Nate Sauber, Abe Povich (uncle of talk show host Maury), “Ikey” Dreyfus, and a ringer named Flaherty, almost certainly Irish Catholic.

 This was not the only baseball game between Jews and the KKK. Povich recalled another contest where the defeated KKK team chased the victorious Hebrews across the field with bats. Nonetheless, the fact that they could play at all suggests the liminality of American Jewish racial identity in the 1920s: worthy of the Klan’s hatred, but not as loathed as African-Americans.

 The second iteration of the Klan faded through the Great Depression and the Second World War, but a third version emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. There would be no more baseball games with Jews. This version chiefly targeted blacks, but had Jewish victims too, including civil rights activists Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who along with African-American James Chaney were brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

Jewish Virginians should be calling for Northam’s resignation for failing to take responsibility for the hate that the Klan cloak symbolizes. But they should also seize this opportunity to support African-Americans, who have suffered far more from the violent bigotry of the KKK, and the humiliating prejudice of blackface performance, including blackface donned by Jewish entertainers. The KKK is a mutual enemy, but blackface is a symbol of white supremacy that still benefits American Jews, the vast majority of whom are white. Blackface once erased Jewish difference, now Jews can make a difference by helping to erase the legacy of blackface.