- Making White, Making Black
At its best, political theory elaborates strategies, opening discussions that would otherwise be mired in inevitability. In American politics, this project may well be most needed on the opaque field that continually characterizes the discussion of race. More than other issues, the question of race is so heavily coded—so overdetermined—that it seems solid. Conservatives blast away at multicultural exceptionalism and essentialism, but avoid confronting more sophisticated arguments that have already refuted their caricature of left thought on race. Multicultural advocates sometimes fall into the trap set by conservative opponents, arguing the issue on grounds determined by their adversaries. The analytical discussion of racial politics often seems stuck in its own shadow, blocked from revealing the detail and range that such a crucial issue demands.
This is doubly odd since, as Judith Butler has noted, the politics of race always demands interpretive intervention. Even the beating of Rodney Glenn King—so brutal an act that it seems, on video, somehow fully revealed—required interpretation, as the police officers’ defense lawyers understood and used to their clients’ great advantage. 1
Michael Rogin studies a crucial pop culture form, blackface and its predecessor, minstrelsy, to show how social constructions of race, in practice, overwhelm the questions of brute representation that dominate much public discussion of racial politics from either the left or the right. Focusing on representation, defenders of blackface saw it as manifestation of racial solidarity and concern. Rogin responds that the effect was the opposite: “in the making of American national culture, whites in blackface acted out a racially exclusionary melting pot” (p. 8). At the level of practice, the melting pot was exclusive and groups struggled to join it, sometimes by maneuvering to keep other groups excluded. “Racial masquerade did promote identity exchange,” Rogin argues, “but it moved settlers and ethnics into the melting pot by keeping racial groups out” (p. 12).
If we try to understand blackface out of its context, we miss an important dynamic. Blackface did often try to imply the existence of some common experiences, but it always accomplished that outcome by excluding black performers (and limiting the range of ways in which blacks were portrayed). At the same time, blackface allowed the performers who “corked up” (i.e., blackened a white face with burnt cork) to enter the American mainstream. These performers, many of them Jewish, launched themselves into the American melting pot by vaulting over those they represented. In the process, the centrality of blackface in popular culture ensured that American identity would be built on attitudes toward race and exclusion. Rogin argues that this relationship complicated the relationship between Jews and blacks, who might seem to be obvious allies in the struggle for American racial equality. “Jewish blackface and civil rights spoke from the shard position of Jews and African Americans. Both practices emerged from white supremacist conditions, however, in which Jews could represent blacks but not the other way around” (p. 251). That alliance sometimes worked, was sometimes blocked, and eventually informed the awkward and complex relationship that now pertains between African Americans and Jews. In Rogin’s telling, blackface sits at a crucial fulcrum in the development of that relationship.
Rogin examines the structure and product of early Hollywood at length. The large studios in the new movie industry were nearly all managed by immigrant Jews (p. 78). And several of their most important films were blackface films, including Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture. Likewise, several of Hollywood’s early stars were Jews in blackface, including Eddie Cantor, whose dramatic publicity photo graces the cover of Rogin’s book (“There is a primal scene in every blackface musical: it shows the performer blacking up.... The scene lets viewers in on the secret of the fetish: I know I’m not, but all the same....” p. 182).
The era of blackface then began to end after...