- The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish, from 1845 to 1945 by George Bornstein
The search for a lost moment of cross-racial solidarity is the "grail quest" of American history, shaped more by contemporary myth and fantasy about a better past than by the literature's oversight of material remains. At moments where the present day circumstance of race relations seems just plain awful, it can be soothing to look for evidence of a moment when things were different, neither mean nor untrusting. But, despite its wide-eyed ethos, this is also a productive quest because it exists in tension with its exact opposite, a serious, dour, historical cynicism, which offers only the story of the bloody struggle not to be at the bottom of the social ladder. And that tension, in turn, has more clearly revealed a series of great turning points and consistent plotlines. [End Page 317]
George Bornstein's book is a perfect example of this long-term search for connection and dialogue and shared struggle. Drawing from a vast range of sources and crisscrossing periods and genres, he engagingly stitches together a history of black, Irish, and Jewish solidarity. There are sections on jazz, on the Harlem Renaissance, on nationalisms, and on literary culture, each revealing the widespread sense of alliance and common cause. There are close readings of deeply symbolic, if rare, expressions of sympathy. The heroes of the book—and they are presented as such, and blessed at the end for their contributions, include Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong, James Joyce, Al Jolson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston, all champions, for Bornstein, of cosmopolitan links across racial lines.
Bornstein writes—politely, elliptically, and poetically—against the literature generally known as "Whiteness Studies." Emerging out of the riotous early 1990s and becoming ever more dominant over the 2000s, this loosely cohered field argues that race has been a source of unbridgeable division and that whiteness in particular has made the absorption of some immigrants possible, even as it effectively keeps others—and African Americans, too—outside of what is normal, or "American," or privileged. The difficult relations of these three groups (blacks, Jews, and the Irish) are the centerpiece of Whiteness Studies, but the emphasis is invariably on their falling out and not their coming together—on the way, that is, that power of whiteness in American political culture makes it impossible for any long-term coalitions, partnerships, or sympathies across the color line.
Whiteness Studies has transformed the way we see interracial relations. Every story that begins, for example, with Frederick Douglass touring Ireland and noting the synergies between the famine and slavery ends in a riot back home, with Irish Americans refusing to accept any outstretched hand from a "fellow" oppressed group. This trans-Atlantic disconnect—between, say, the Irish in Ireland and the Irish in America— reveals the dark back story of the melting pot myth, in which the alignments of "ethnic" nationalisms were transformed, through American alchemy, into competing minority petitions for rights and resources. But Bornstein is determined, against this heavy grain, to recover nostalgically the first part of this story alone, underscoring merely that once, long ago, things were different. Indeed, after referencing Douglass's tour in his introduction, Bornstein skips (he does this often) over all the messy black-Irish conflicts between 1850 and 1920 and jumps right to Marcus Garvey, who, like Douglass, envisioned a strategic parallelism between black, Irish, and Jewish struggles. Using many of the same examples as his cynical opposites, Bornstein stresses connection over disconnection, [End Page 318] homage where others see theft, idealism instead of opportunism, support but never exploitation, small gestures of sympathy but never micro-aggressions.
It should not surprise anyone that Bornstein draws from the philosopher Anthony Appiah, who has labored to restore the collaborative virtues of cosmopolitanism, or that he sympathizes deeply with literary historian George Hutchinson's The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, which chronicles the extraordinary efforts to make cross-racial connections not...