Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blackface White Faces

A friend alerted me to this the other day:

It’s an Israeli group called Kleibedik (it's a pun on Klezmer and leybedik [lively]) doing a “klezmer” medley. In blackface. With fake neon payes. The whole video is like a seven layer pie where every layer is “WTF.” I mean, the terrible arrangements of Barry Sisters and My Yiddish Mame and and and COTTON EYED JOE? Guys, shit goes deep and that’s BEFORE we even get to the blackface 

Which… I have no explanation for. Do you? It seems to be their shtik, as you can find videos online of Kleibedik performing live in the same get up. And the sad thing is that the audience is eating it up. It makes my heart hurt. It’s like multi-level minstrelsy. The blackface goes with the blackhat.. face. Oysh.

Israel has so much amazing Jewish culture, but when it comes to eastern European/Ashkenazi stuff too often it’s just a big box full of cringe wrapped up with a bow of horrible. I mean, is this truly how young Israelis process and relate to Yiddish? Don’t answer that.

It makes me wonder… why is blackface still so compelling to artists? And not just American artists or Jewish artists.  I’m not sure there’s one answer, but it gives me an excuse to talk about some of my favorite examples of modern blackface, both Jewish and non.

(For a really great, though academic, exploration of the history behind American pop culture, Jews and blackface, please read Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Melting Pot of Hollywood by Michael Rogin.)

But we're staying mostly in the recent-ish past and present now...


Taco, Puttin’ on the Ritz

Apparently this video had the blackface parts removed when it was first released, but you can find the original now on YouTube. What could blackface possibly have to do with anything here?

Two thoughts. First, when Irving Berlin originally wrote the song in 1929, apparently the original lyric referred to young fashionable Harlemites strutting up and down Lenox Avenue. According to Wikipedia, when it was recorded for the film Blue Skies in 1946, the lyrics were changed to “Park Avenue” and a whiter kind of image.

Second, Taco isn’t just Dutch, he’s Dutch-Indonesian. Perhaps Taco was attracted to the idea of first, reminding us of the original racial dynamics of the time and place where Puttin’ on the Ritz was written. And/or, as a bi-racial artist, perhaps he was intrigued by the ambiguity of blackface as a way of playing with race. Or, maybe, the video is directly referencing some movie I’m not familiar with. This is always a possibility. Feel free to educate me in the comments. 

So, I think I finally figured out what the deal is with Taco. Or at least, part of the deal. It's so obvious I can't believe it didn't occur to me when I first wrote this piece. But here's the thing: there's a Dutch tradition of blackface called Zwarte Piet. It goes back to the mid-19th century and is influenced by and parallel to our own. This is a National Geographic Article from 2018:

The character was popularized in a mid-19th century children’s book written by a man who was very interested in the Dutch royal family members, “one of whom bought a slave in a slave market in Cairo in the mid-19th century,” says Joke Hermes, a professor of media, culture, and citizenship at Inholland University. This slave, Hermes suggests, may have helped inspire the character of Zwarte Piet.
Before the Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, the country was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It grew prosperous by selling enslaved people to the United States or sending them to work in Dutch colonies, and some nobles “gifted” each other with enslaved black children, who are shown in paintings wearing colorful, Moorish clothing 
The exaggerated appearance of Dutch Zwarte Piet costumes may have also been influenced by American blackface minstrel shows, which toured throughout Europe in the mid-19th century. “The Dutch tend to argue that Black Pete is a Dutch thing, and other people outside the Netherlands don’t understand our culture,” says Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of New Urban Collective and Kick Out Zwarte Piet. “But it is part of an international tradition of racial stereotyping.”

Culture Club, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me

Boy George is on trial and a whole jury of black face Jolsons are there to render a verdict? Again, Boy George strikes me as an artist who is playing with sexuality/gender and perhaps is attracted to blackface as akin to his own trademark ‘drag.’ I’m not sure. What do you think?

Two icons of Jewish male sexuality: Elliott Gould and Neil Diamond. Both Diamond and Gould were very conscious of their Jewishness and never shied away from it, though Gould, being a much more talented actor, has played a much wider variety of parts.  Nonetheless… it makes sense that even in the 1970s, the shadow of Al Jolson crept behind both performers- both as products of American pop culture and as out Jewish men in the public eye.

Neil Diamond, The Jazz Singer
Neil Diamond tackles the Jolson legacy, straight on, by remaking the Jazz Singer in 1980. (I'm counting this as 1970s. Too bad.) Was The Jazz Singer 1980 a disaster on pretty much every level? Yes. Was it so bad it’s good kinda bad? I’d say yes. And that’s exemplified by the way Diamond works blackface into the modern setting. See, Neil and his band are playing at an uptown club and they can’t have no white man on stage. Hence the need for black face. It's so gloriously cheesy you can't help but enjoy the appalling spectacle.
For comparison, here's some Jolson:
Elliott Gould, The Long Goodbye
A modern (1973) remake of Raymond Chandler's LA noir. I can’t find a clip of the scene I’m thinking of, so you will have to see the movie yourself. You’ll thank me. 
But here’s an image of Elliott Gould in the scene I want to talk about. He’s playing detective Philip Marlowe and he’s been brought in for booking at the police station. After being finger printed he smears ink on his face and breaks into a sardonic version of Jolson’s ‘Swanee’. It's his way of expressing his contempt for the corrupt police who know they've arrested an innocent men.   According to Gould, the whole thing was improvised on set, which only adds another layer of intensity to his performance. 
(He was a damn good looking man, right?) And some more Jolson, for good measure. What do you think about contemporary blackface? Do you see it around? Is it ever appropriate? Can it be a legitimate part of American-Jewish culture?


  1. Blackface is so politically loaded that it's difficult to talk about sensibly. In the US, it was used on one hand to reinforce and mock the worst black stereotypes; but on the other hand a lot of now traditional American music was introduced in blackface on the minstrel stage. Indeed, the minstrel show was the major American popular entertainment for a good portion of the 19th century until being overtaken by vaudeville. And even then, on the vaudeville (or music hall and beer garden) stage, a number of the best known Jewish entertainers made their debut in burnt cork. If there's any truth to the idea that blackface held on a bit longer with Jewish performers than with other performers, could it have been a way of identifying with the majority white population, by saying "Since I have to put on make up to be black, I must be part of the white race"?

    Kleibedik can, I guess, get away with it today because they're working in Israel, where there's not much of a black presence and not as dramatic a history of black oppression as here. But they certainly are working, consciously or not, in the tradition of the minstrel show. The neon colors they wear even reflect the off tastes of the "negro dandy" ... note Jolson's gold lame frock coat in the one clip, and the oversized bow ties and collars on the side men.

    Contemporary blackface, in the US anyway, is almost always considered outrageous and most usually linked with undergraduate hijinx. But even (or perhaps particularly) in fringe productions, it comes across as a shocker. The last big show to use a minstrel theme, Kander and Ebb's Scottsboro Boys, was with black performers appearing in minstrel costumes for a story-telling purpose and even that received protest. So I'm not sure how it can be claimed or reclaimed as part of American Jewish culture except in essays. Although: Dov Hikind.

  2. I suggest that blackface persisted with jewish performers, whether consciously or not, because even though their skin was white, they did NOT identify with the majority culture, they understood themselves to not really be white.

  3. What do you think about contemporary blackface? Is it ever appropriate?

    Probably people shouldn't be doing this. It's always very risky to play with the subject of race. Even if an actor or an author has the best of intentions someone might be offended. So I agree here with the author of the first comment.

    Do you see it around?

    After reading your text Rokhl I was thinking if I could find an example of blackface in Poland (it's the country I'm writing from) i.e. a country without a significant black population. Of course, my intention was to see if/how it differs from the examples presented by you. And actually there is one from TV-Series titled Alternatywy 4, which was produced in the 80s. If I may, here is the link to a short scene: This character (Harvard academic on a scholarship in Poland named Abraham Lincoln) is played by Polish actor Ryszard Raduszewski. This guy is a complete idiot, who takes seriously everything he is seeing around in the almost falling apart communist Poland, than standing on its last legs. My simple question is: why is he black? Is it so because white American couldn't be tricked so easily? And if it wasn't sufficient, just look at his gold bracelet...
    I think nowadays such a presentation of black person wouldn't be possible here. At the same time however this TV-Series has a cult status and I've never heard anybody complaining that with this charcter the authors of the screenplay went a bit too far...

    When it comes to Kleibedik.

    The video was produced by Shaiba Productions. In Polish Shaiba (szajba) means craziness, so maybe this is the key to this stuff? It's so horrible that it verges on the insane.

    Finally, my question. Sometimes people argue that blackface served as a promotion tool for the genuine black culture. Do you think such an argument does make sense?

  4. I had been considering the Jewish use of blackface from the perspective of Jewish assimilation in America, but I like Jordan's comment that it could more easily be read as a way to dissociate from the majority white culture and preserve Jewish specificity. Indeed, it could point up that the performer is neither white NOR black, but something else entirely.

    I'd be curious what you make of blackface when held up against the trope of Yiddish speaking "Indians"? There's a famous old cartoon of a Native American greeting Jewish immigrants with a wave of the hand and a "Sholem Aleichem". In Whoopee, Eddie Cantor evades his pursuers not only with a blackface scene, but also by disguising himself as a Native American peddler who bargains mayse Lower East Side with the sheriff, dropping Yiddish curses in with the negotiations. Of course, Mel Brooks has his scene in Blazing Saddles, but there are plenty of other little examples of the trope: Mark Slobin's article on "Minikes Among the Indians"; W.C. Fields' intended biography indicates he intended using the gag numerous times, but it was always cut from his films; S. J. Perelman has a couple of Yiddish speaking Indians in his early stories; somewhere on youtube there's an old black and white Gold Rush scene that begins with the performer shooing a Yiddish speaking Indian out of the bar; etc etc.

    Back on thread, whether or not they ever appeared in blackface (and I believe Soph having done so at one point), both Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice started out as "coon shouters" (pardon the term, but that was the nomenclature), ie whites singing songs on "black" topics (love of the South, Mammy, and love gone wrong) in the "black" style.

  5. I had been considering the Jewish use of blackface from the perspective of Jewish assimilation in America, but I like Jordan's comment that it could more easily be read as a way to dissociate from the majority white culture and preserve Jewish specificity. Indeed, it could point up that the performer is neither white NOR black, but something else entirely.

    Could you (or Jordan) please elaborate a bit on this subject? Why blackface was necessary in this respect? Wasn't the performer himself sufficiently 'different'? And why to use a convention produced by the dominant culture? Finally, wasn’t Al Jolson praised for his understanding of black culture and for the skillful way in which he was able to stress the sufferings of both blacks and Jews (and thus not separating himself from the others but noticing important common experiences)?

  6. Thanks for bringing up such a richly complex subject! I wonder if, in some cases, Jews doing blackface is the shadow side of the genuine connection  some Jewish  performers and composers felt with African American music -- from Gershwin to Bloomfield, Dylan and Randy Newman. It's interesting that, at least according to Wikipedia, Gershwin wrote "Swanee" in 1919, when he was 20, as a parody of Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home." It first appeared in a forgettable review called "Demitasse" but Al Jolson heard Gershwin play it at a party and used it in a review of his own, "Sinbad," and was identified with it for the rest of his career. It was Gershwin's most commercially successful song, though hardly among his best.

    By suggesting the blackface is the "shadow" of something arguably more substantial, I mean to characterize it as a kind a feeble remnant, a distorted echo that smells of failure, misprision and collapse. 

    The video examples (couldn't see the one from Culture Club on my iPad) -- especially the one from Israel -- are pretty lame. Kleibidik is, to my taste, really awful. Bad playing, bad choreography  badly performed, hideous design. I hope people don't think this is representative of Israeli Eastern Europian-inspired music. Check out Trio Carpion,  Udi Horev Quartet, Habiluim, and anything by American-Israeli Klezmer/Jazz/Middle-Eastern violinist Daniel Hoffman.

    The only "legitimate" use of blackface I can imagine would be as historical example or as satire. I bet Randy Newman could come of with a pretty devastating blackface "minstrel show." 

    Only the last Jolson clip qualifies, IMHO, as historical recreation. How accurately, I couldn't say. I noticed, though, that in the "Swanee" production number, the blackface gave the male chorus line a rather abstract, iconic, de-individualized look, similar to the effect of whiteface in Butoh dance.

  7. Hi Corey, Thanks for giving more historical context. The more I think and read about it, the more it seems to me we NEED to be talking about blackface. And you're right, it's probably only ok in an historical context or satire.

    I recently watched Spike Lee's 'Bamboozled' and was deeply disappointed. Here's a subject begging for contemporary satirical treatment and it just fell flat. I hate to say it, but Mel Brooks should've made Bamboozled. You have to have a sense of humor to make good satire, righteous anger and cinematic style alone won't cut it.