by Guest Contributor Wendy Elisheva Somerson
“I remember your grandfather leaving the house in blackface to perform at the local Jewish community center,” my mom told me. “They just didn’t know what it meant back then,” she explained, “not until after WW II.” As an activist involved in contemporary solidarity work across racial lines, I was shocked to discover this racist history in my near past. As an Ashkenazi Jew* (of European descent) whose grandparents immigrated to the US around the turn of the century, I don’t always see myself implicated in the American legacy of slavery, but I was forced to reconcile the fond memories of my jovial grandfather with this haunting image of him performing racial minstrelsy. Trying to make sense of this image, I began researching the history of Jewish blackface between WWI and WWII and was surprised to discover a connection between my current activism and this history of blackface: When we are not rooted in our Jewish identities, we risk stereotyping, appropriating, and over-identifying with other cultures.
To understand the complicated history of alliance, disconnection, and overlap between Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans in between the world wars, I turned to Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, which considers how Jews negotiated competing claims on their identities and Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, which looks more specifically at the role of blackface in Americanizing Jews. As European Jewish immigrants arrived in the US, their presence intersected with the dominant black/white system of racial relations in various ways. At different times, Jews and African Americans were linked tightly together in American consciousness as evidenced by the case of Leo Frank (1913-1915), which sets the stage for Jewish-Black relations in between the wars. A Jewish factory manager in Georgia, Frank was accused of raping and murdering a white girl who worked in his factory. Frank was found guilty (in spite of flimsy evidence) and sentenced to death, but the Governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. A journalist warned in a headline: “The next Jew who does what Frank did is going to get exactly the same thing we give to Negro rapists” (Goldstein 43). Frank was then kidnapped from prison and lynched by a white mob.