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The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945 by George Bornstein (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 392-395 | 10.1353/jjq.2012.0012

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Notwithstanding the comparative insights into colonialism and racism supplied by Fionnghuala Sweeney, Eric J. Sundquist, and Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, most critics study Irish, African-American, and Jewish-American cultural products in isolation, adhering to “the shallow and arbitrary nature of narrow identity politics,” according to George Bornstein (xi).1 Drawing upon an impressive array of evidence from literature, sociology, politics, film, and theater, The Colors of Zion interrogates such assumptions, bringing an explicitly transatlantic and intercultural approach to bear on cultural formations emerging from the Irish, African, and Jewish diasporas from 1850 to 1945. Above all, Bornstein seeks to avoid “misreadings” that stem from a tendency to “projec[t] our current conceptions of race and ethnic groups back onto the past” (xi).

For Bornstein, concepts of cultural appropriation, or “love and theft,” formulated by such critics as Eric Lott and David Roediger, are symptomatic of an emphasis upon interethnic antagonism that has obscured a parallel history of sympathy, cooperation, and affiliation.2 If Irish-Americans and Jewish-Americans “[b]ecame [w]hite,” to borrow Noel Ignatiev’s famous phrase, by differentiating themselves from African-Americans,3 members “of these groups regularly invoked the others in analogy, support, and empathy” (14). To underline the pervasiveness of such affinities during the period, Bornstein attends to racialized constructions of Jews, Blacks, and the Irish in transatlantic racialist science at the turn-of-the-century, which defined all three groups as “primitive,” dark-skinned peoples firmly positioned outside modernity. Although affiliations between ethnic groups could be “sympathetic or hostile” (37), the primary focus of this meticulously researched monograph is how such analogies, alliances, and substitutions were incorporated into Irish, African-American, and Jewish-American narratives of cultural and political self-definition. One strand of this investigation involves a detailed reconstruction of historical encounters and cultural collaborations between Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, and African-Americans in such diverse cultural spheres as Tin Pan Alley, jazz, vaudeville, Broadway shows, and publishing. In a study that gains weight through its juxtaposition of numerous illustrative examples, Bornstein also documents instances of political sympathy, with leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Michael Davitt, and the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky drawing inspiration from nationalist resistance across the globe.

Attention to a dynamic flow of ideas across cultures is supplemented by comparative analysis of common tropes–race, the diaspora, the melting pot, and the exodus–that feature prominently in Irish, Jewish, and African-American culture. Taking his cue from Alain Locke’s call to “‘do away with the idea of proprietorship and vested interest–and face the natural fact of the limitless interchangeableness of culture goods’” (133),4 Bornstein contends that a shared history of “exodus, oppression, and diaspora” (7) paved the way for formulations of cultural hybridity that rejected what James Joyce called “the old pap of racial hatred” (SL 111). To some extent, reading tropes such as exodus follow a well-trodden path–one thinks, for instance, of Werner Sollors’s landmark study Beyond Ethnicity–but Bornstein generates significant new insights by exposing the frequency with which writers as diverse as Joyce, George Eliot, James Weldon Johnson, and Emma Lazarus juxtaposed Irish nationalism, Zionism, and African-American liberation, moving from “the linkages of Black, Jewish, and Irish suffering and oppression . . . to broader nationalist emancipatory projects” (84).5 In this context, Ulysses serves as a paradigmatic example of “[t]he confluence of Irish, Jewish, and Black nationalisms,” not least because Joyce’s revisions of the manuscript emphasized “racial and cultural congruencies” between oppressed groups (102, 58).

A significant element of Bornstein’s recovery of “lost intergroup connections” (2) is his detailed reconstruction of the reception of such diverse modernist cultural products as Locke’s landmark anthology The New Negro, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the film The Jazz Singer.6 Engagement with an extensive archive of reviews enables Bornstein to demonstrate the shaping influence of current interpretive frameworks that privilege separatism over interconnection. In a related discussion of the rise of Jewish publishing in early-twentieth-century America, Bornstein not only illuminates how pioneering publishers such as B. W. Huebsch developed lists that celebrated the galvanizing effect of cultural interchange in the period, but he also points the way...


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