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58 The First Word in Whiteness: Early Twentieth-Century European Experiences DAVID ROEDIGER A character in Chester Himes' 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, has a "funny thought." He begins to "wonder when white people started to get white-or rather, when they started losing it." The narrower question of when new immigrants "started to get white" and of what they lost in doing it has received passionate and varied treatment within African-American thought. That treatment provides the best points of entry to the question of white identity among new immigrants to date. The simplest and perhaps most celebrated answer to how the whiteness of new European immigrants came about appears in the epilogue to Malcolm X's Autobiography. His collaborator , Alex Haley, describes being in a U.S. airport with Malcolm and admiring an arriving family of European immigrants. They are, Malcolm predicts, about to learn their first word of English: nigger. Malcolm's one-liner, which recalls images of the Gads Hill minstrel show, is so precisely repeated (without credit) in the works of black artists from John Oliver Killens to Richard Pryor-and Toni Morrison counts nigger as the second word in the immigrant's English vocabulary, with only okay coming before-as to raise the possibility that each teller of the joke drew it from black folk humor. Like the most en-. during folklore, it distills a sharp point and operates on a variety of levels. Pessimistic to the point of rancor, the joke's logic resembles that of African-American usages of hunky and hanky, the mixing up and evolution of which imply that the new eastern European immigrants slurred by the former term could come to exemplify the white oppressors identified by the latter in a remarkably short time. But however bitter, the joke does not make immigrant racism a product of the essential "white" characteristics of the newcomers. The weight of u.s. racial division must be learned-and the immigrants' beauty, or as Baldwin has it "soul," lost-on this view. The tragedy arises from the knowledge that American realities were such brutal and effective teachers of that division and that immigrants were such apt and ready learners of it. Coexisting with the bitterness of Malcolm's joke is a much more lyrical tradition of black commentary on new immigrant whiteness-a tradition which is, however, equally premised on a deep sense of tragedy. In William Attaway's soon-to-be canonical 1941 proletarian novel, Blood on the Forge, Melody and his half-brother, Chinatown, disagreed on the merCopyright © 1996 David Roediger. From SHADES OF PALE (New York: The Free Press, 1997). Reprinted by permission . Copyrighted Material The First Word in Whiteness 355 its of the music made by Slavic immigrants with whom they worked in Pittsburgh's steel mills. Chinatown heard nothing in it but a "yowV' adding that "a man can't understand one word they yowlin' " But Melody, who lived to play the blues and who could "hear music in a snore/, knew better. He had heard some of these people from the Ukraine singing. He hadn't understood one word. Yet he didn't have to know the words to understand what they were wailing about. Words didn't count when the music had a tongue. The field hands of the sloping red-hill country in Kentucky sang that same tongue. Hearing the wails of his (and Chinatown's) old Kentucky home in Ukrainian music, Melody echoed Frederick Douglass' observations of almost a century earlier. During his 1845-46 tour of Ireland, Douglass heard the "wailing notes" of the music of the oppressed and famished Irish people as close kin of the "wild notes" of the slaves' sorrow songs. For the jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, it was weeping and wailing that united black and new immigrant musics. In a remarkable section of his autobiographical Really the Blues, Mezzrow recalled a prison term he served for selling drugs. Having convinced himself that, despite Jewish-American origins, he was in fact black Mezzrow likewise convinced prison officials, who allowed him to be confined in the segregated African-American section of the prison. Nonetheless, when white Catholic prisoners organized Christmas caroling, the response of Jewish inmates was to ask Mezzrow to lead them in song. Professing surprise that he, "a colored guy/' would be chosen to direct a Jewish chorus, Mezzrow learned "once more how music of different oppressed peoples blends together." He did not "know the Hebrew...


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