Saturday, June 13, 2009

#218. Al Jolson

Al Jolson might not be a household name anymore, but at one point in American history, he was the most popular comedian in the nation. The openly Jewish comedian, who had numerous hit-songs, was also a major proponent of Black-face comedy - the art of a White comedian donning Black paint on his face to give the impression he was a Black person - and is fondly remembered for his performances while appearing blackened in the face.

Born Asa Yoelson, Jolson was instrumental in bringing Black musicians and entertainers into mainstream White America - remember, up until 1964, the United States was 90 percent White - at a time most White people were reluctant to listen to "darkies" sing.

The problem is that Black people view anyone who wears Black face now, as a vehement racist and a deplorable person. Wearing Black face is a cardinal sin, punishable only by ostracism and, potentially flogging. So to Black people, Al Jolson is a notorious racist.

Nevermind that Al Jolson, according to was:

-at a time when black people were banned from starring on the Broadway stage," he promoted the play by black playwright Garland Anderson, which became the first production with an all-black cast ever produced on Broadway;
-he brought an all-black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to feature in his Broadway show;
-he demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie The Singing Kid.
-he was "the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem;"
-he once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and NobleSissle,neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner "insisting he'd punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!

Despite Al Jolson's sterling record of working witht he Black community, his history of Black face places him firmly in Stuff Black People Don't Like.


Anonymous said...

Black people do not seem to like quiet very much!

Anonymous said...

Well I'm a Black man and think that Al Jolson was one of those people that was needed during the time to help with the increase of black music into the mainstream of a time of white America. I don't see anything about him being racist at all (though I believe my mom thinks so because of the blackface paint). We have to look at the time period and what was going on then. I try (and if you're reading this and getting ticked off, you try) to look through the other person's eyes for each situation instead of my own interpretation of history.. Look at their time, lifestyle, things that mapped their heart in life that we cannot see, and find out if that helps open our own understanding of people.

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason Jolson performed in blackface was because he wanted the audiences to know that the jazz music he was performing came from african-american culture. Blacks were not allowed to perform in front of white audiences in the 1920's. Part of the reason why blacks respected Jolson and let him into nightclubs was because Jolson actually let audiences know they existed and that Jazz music came from their culture. Once the late 30's and 40's rolled around, blacks actually could perform for white audiences, but still couldn't stay at segregated hotes or eat at segregated restaurants. By that time Jolson no longer performed in blackface since Americans at the time were aware that Jazz music was rooted in African-American culture and the African-American Jazz musicians could perform the music themselves for white audiences.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to say this over and over again freedom of speech should work today. I dont care if its a black man or a white man talking, but if you don't like what they say if they are referring to black or white people don't SCREAM RACISM. It's retarded.

Anonymous said...

if you disagree with racism you should make note of and call out racism when it is validated as such by someone's actions or expressed beliefs.

people should be free to say what they want including being free to call others racists when they are.

Ploni said...

I think it is obvious that he did blackface to poke fun at the audiences racism or their uncomfortable issues regarding race, rather than using it to poke fun at african americans. I think like most things, in context there are exceptions to nearly all the rules and generally black face was perhaps used to belittle african americans, however I sincerely think he did it ironically. To belittle the racists themselves... Maybe one of the first "hipsters" to use irony, like an indie band wearing Ron Paul T-shirts to a gig.

Anonymous said...

This blog is seriously one of the most hateful and disgusting things that I have seen on the internet and that is saying a lot. Al Jolson DID NOT help black people. He mocked them by dressing up in an exaggerated outfit and adopting exaggerated mannerism and speech. Contrary to your hateful beliefs, blackface was not used to honor black people but to mock them as stupid as amusement for a mainly white audience. If you are going to be a racist, at least be courageous enough to say it directly, you COWARD!

Anonymous said...

In regard to this last post ... on Jan. 2, 2010 ... this person would refuse to see the truth under any circumstances. I agree that the black-face tradition seems abhorent now. However, it was a common convention of the time. Even a small amount of research proves beyond doubt that Jolson was the opposite of a racist. This person's post is comparable to dismissing our early presidents because they owned slaves, which, sadly, many people do.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mental Midgets,

You are fond of calling others racist so you must define the term. Practice some introspection while you are at it.


Anonymous said...

Nigras shouldn't be angered about this. They are parodies of themselves by getting in a jungle tizzy about it. Mannerisms that are race specific have been comical subjects for a long time. Chill out, knowumsain?

Anonymous said...

This blog is disgusting. How pathetic and small minded do you have be to waste your life on racist garbage. Enjoy what is left of your pitiful existence.