Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin: How Blackface Became a ‘Thing’

Did you ever think that we would experience this sudden explosion of politicians exposed for once having appeared in blackface?

As my kids would say: What is up with this?

First, it was Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia. To quote the New Yorker: “Northam had featured, on his medical-school yearbook page, a photograph of a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam immediately apologized for appearing in the photo, but he then changed his story and said that neither person in the photograph was him; he did, however, say that he had once put shoe polish on his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.”

Then, it was Florida State Rep. Anthony Sabatini. As a teen, he appeared with darkened skin while wearing sunglasses, a New York Yankees cap, a do-rag and gold chains.

Let us bracket, for a moment, the question of whether it is “fair” to hold adults responsible for the stupid things that they did as teenagers. (Judaism’s answer? The age of thirteen is not only bar/bat mitzvah. It is the age when you should know the difference between right and wrong. And, when you should begin to understand the implications of your actions.)Let us also bracket the question of whether chimney soot on the faces of the characters in the original “Mary Poppins” filmconstitutes blackface. (My answer? This seems off to me, though sensitivities are so raw that people see bigotry that doesn’t necessarily exist.)

We need to ask, as a society: What was going on in the collective mind that prompted people to think that deliberate, willful appearing in blackface would have been acceptable — at any moment in history, and at any stage of life?

Isn’t this just another form of white supremacy.

Usually.

But, then, there is a rather bizarre chapter in the history of American Jewry — Jews performing in minstrel shows — pretending to be black.

As Eric Goldstein of Emory University describes in The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, the tradition of Jews appearing in minstrel shows goes at least as far back as 1898.

It happened in Atlanta, under the auspices of the Hebrew Association. Such “Jewish” minstrel shows occurred in the North as well, as early as 1902. Sometimes, the minstrel shows coincided with Purim.

Goldstein reproduces a photo from 1925. It is a group of Jews at a minstrel show, sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of Hadassah, and held at the Progressive Club, one of Atlanta Jewry’s elite gathering places. The Jews are in black face.

The question is: Why did minstrel shows become a (very minor) Jewish “thing”?

Eric Goldstein might have figured it out.

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Source: Religion News Service