- Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930 by M. Alison Kibler
As L. P. Hartley remarked in the Preface to his novel The Go-Between (1953), “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Among the most different is race. When minority literatures crashed into the literary canon of largely white higher education fifty years ago, they concentrated on showing their distinctiveness, that there were such things as black tradition, women’s tradition, Jewish tradition, and the like. More recently, with their separate status firmly established, their links to other traditions have emerged. Taking their cue from African American scholars of hybridity like Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, recent critics stress connections as well as contrasts, similarity as well as separateness. “From the very beginning we must call into question any notions of pure traditions or pristine heritages. . . . Every culture that we know of is a result of the weaving of antecedent cultures,” argued West in an observation not cited by M. Alison Kibler. Yet her recent Censoring Racial Ridicule belongs to that newer work, even if some of its other roots go back to Michael Rogin, Eric Lott, and more recent “whiteness” scholars like David Roediger.
Kibler studies primarily works for stage and screen during the forty years between 1890 and 1930. She finds affinities between Jewish and black issues during the period, as well as tensions especially between blacks and Irish. Keenly aware that “groups in this study are not monolithic or unified” but rather riven by gender and class (8), she notes that all three were considered separate “races” at the beginning of the twentieth century, before evolution toward “a black/white binary” still familiar today (4). Internal divisions include “lace curtain” versus “shanty” Irish (35), mid-nineteenth-century German Jews versus later East European ones, and even rural versus urban African Americans. Yet all three groups protested against caricatures on the vaudeville and “legitimate” theater stages (86). An editorial in the Jewish B’nai B’rith News from 1910, for example, saw respective campaigns in similar terms: “Now we have a protest against the ‘stage Jew.’ Some time ago a crusade was made against the ‘stage Irishman.’ The colored people have from time to time protested against the ‘stage Negro’ ” (6).
The first chapter invokes minstrel shows and vaudeville melees, and accepts Michael Rogin’s assertions of such works as devised by the Irish and showing that the latter were really white, a claim later glanced at for blacks and Jews in the film The Jazz Singer. Except for one citation from an article, earlier claims, like Irving Howe’s for cross-racial sympathy, or later invocations of the enormous popularity of that film with African American audiences, receive little mention. So too do references to “coon songs,” a term more shocking now than then. The analysis of Ernest Hogan’s hit tune “All Coons Look Alike to Me” scants awareness of the speaker’s being an African American woman and of the composer’s being an African American man. Kibler does point out that theater managers and critics “used the term ‘racial comedy’ (or dialect comedy) to refer to the Jewish, African American, and Irish impersonators” (30). [End Page 165]
Subsequent chapters march in loose chronological order. First come the Irish theater riots about McFadden’s Row of Flats and vaudeville’s “The Irish Servant Girls,” then racial ridicule in legitimate theater with The Clansman attacks in 1905, and the American tour of The Playboy of the Western World in 1911. Focus then shifts from stage to films, especially for African Americans and Jews, and the rise of the Anti-Defamation League against discrimination featuring such signs as “No Hebrews Taken” or “No Jews and Dogs Allowed,” while the NAACP and others opposed similar antagonism against blacks. Film censorship in Chicago claims a whole chapter to itself, including the role of the curiously named and eventually deposed police censor Major...