- Representing Race on Stage and Screen in Early Twentieth-Century America
Almost from the beginning of the American republican experiment, there has been a problem with how to represent the nation, its people, and its culture. As a “creole nation”—to invoke Benedict Anderson’s term—the United States relied on print culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to create the “imagined community” needed to forge disparate groups into a nation. By the end of the nineteenth century, after a bloody civil war and the onset of dramatic industrial and technological shifts, the matter of U.S. identity and social representation had reached a crisis point. As Barrett Wendell confided privately to Horace Kallen at the dawn of the twentieth century, the influx of immigrants had so altered the country that “the very name of us means something not ourselves.”1 For cultural commentators in the mainstream of U.S. life, it was the racial and ethnic diversity that upset the nation’s culture; but the issue was considerably more complicated than that. The emerging urban, industrial society produced in large part by white entrepreneurs and civic leaders advanced new technologies that multiplied the venues in which “Americanness” could be performed. The venues in which the nation and its people could be represented had expanded exponentially, thanks to the emergence of motion pictures, sound recordings, and ethnic and racial stages for performance in towns and cities across the nation. The crisis arose from the [End Page 320] question of what it would mean to be “American” in this brave new world of mechanically reproducible images and sounds produced, at least in part, by ethnic and racial minorities. In this rapidly changing culture, would all Americans be represented equally?
Three fine new studies take up important aspects of this question, looking at the matter from the perspectives of groups on the margins of American life. They would all agree that the simple answer to the question of equal representation in an image-driven U.S. culture is that the new technologies and performance venues did not result in equal treatment of African Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, and other racial or ethnic minorities. But each of the books considered here offers a nuanced understanding of how different groups engaged with new media and culture industries. Even as film, popular music, and the vaudeville stage could reinforce unflattering stereotypes, they also provided opportunities for self-creation and social activism on the part of groups seeking acceptance as full-fledged Americans.
M. Alison Kibler’s Censoring Racial Ridicule explores strategies used by Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, and African Americans between 1890 and 1930 to combat damaging stereotypes that appeared on stage and screen. Drawing upon scholarship on the process by which immigrants became “white” in America, she reminds us that this very struggle for inclusion into the mainstream meant, perforce, that groups rarely worked in concert. She writes: “In their campaigns against racial ridicule, Irish, Jewish, and African American leaders sometimes made similar demands for a pluralist popular culture in which no race was maligned, and sought to defend their particular group by reforming representation. But they also retreated from these inclusive statements to blame each other for their plight” (p. 44).
Irish Americans, Kibler argues, were least likely to work with other mal-represented groups and most apt to resort to direct confrontation and violence. In the early 1900s, Irish Americans purposely attended such shows as McFadden’s Row of Flats and the Russell Brothers’ skit, “The Irish Servant Girls,” in order to punish those performers seeking to demean...