- The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945
Bornstein’s wide-ranging study of Black-Jewish-Irish relations in America has two targets. One is the popular view that those races do not like one another, a view relying on cases such as the Black Power movement’s anti-Semitism and the Jewish participation in Southern slavery. The other target is an academic one: a generation of scholars who have projected post–Civil Rights judgments (and resentments) upon past figures and pronounced them good or bad. Both render a simplistic story, Bornstein maintains, and he summons authoritative voices from the past to prove it. We read of nineteenth-century Irish nationalists who denounced American slavery, turn-of-the-century black intellectuals describing [End Page 141] pogroms across the ocean as a mirror of life under Jim Crow, and Jews devoted to “heroes of the Irish revolution.” The three races share a condition—at the time, Irish and Jews were understood as distinct races as much as African Americans were—and they draw strength from one another; for instance, all of them adopting the Exodus story as their own. This is a counterhistory, one of cooperation, not antagonism. Take the case of Al Jolson, whose performance of “Mammy” in blackface (as “Jakie Rabinowitz”) causes today’s scholars to recoil. But black audiences and commentators at the time did not do so. They respected his performance as transcending a belittling stereotype. Jolson himself was progressive, too. When he heard that black musicians Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle were denied seating in a Hartford restaurant, Jolson invited them to dinner, “offering to punch anybody who dared to exclude them.” Much of this is well-worn material, but the anecdotes and citations make Bornstein’s book a worthy corrective, not to mention a rich mine of race relations in their better form.
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and former director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, is the author of Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906; Literary Criticism: An Autopsy; Whitman and the American Idiom; and The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief.