Was Jolson's persona racist?

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films
Date: Thursday, April 02, 1998 3:12 PM

Last night, just before and just after TCM ran the 1927 version of "The Jazz Singer," when Robert Osborne delivered his remarks about the landmark Al Jolson picture, he said nothing about Jolson's blackface appearances during the film. This is in stark contrast to his remarks about the film last year, at the time the film was shown on the 70th anniversary of its premiere on October 6, 1997; at that time, Osborne devoted airtime to statements of blackface being an unfortunate part of the earlier era of showbiz. (That same month, TCM's website had scholarly articles about "The Jazz Singer"; they diminished the positive words for this first-of-its-kind film by inveighing against its alleged stereotypes.)

It has seemingly become mandatory for the popular media of today to accompany any reference to blackface performances with denunciations of the racism allegedly inherent in the tradition. At the time that Ted Danson was excoriated for performing in blackface for Whoopi Goldberg, the "Los Angeles Times" wrote: "But there was Danson on the Saturday news, looking his Al-Jolson best with blackface and larger-than-any-black-person's-lips-I've-ever-seen lips. …

"Since when does blackface in the United States in 1993 become defensible? Since when is it OK for some 20th-Century white guy to prance around in makeup that was some 19th-Century white guy's inaccurate version of some 19th-Century black guy?

"… But blackface is Hollywood tradition. And a deplorable one.

"… Or was he [Danson] shooting for the uncut, pre-Al Jolson blackface of the 19th Century, when white performers with faces painted black went around the country singing about Mammy and jumping up and down in praise of those cotton fields back home. Their performances for the white masses were never meant to be accurate portrayals (just like those of their later white brothers, who starred as blacks in such films as 'Birth of a Nation' and 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' because black actors were excluded)." [Actually, black actors were excluded from theater, which meant that trained black actors were in short supply for movies.] (from "Ted and Whoopi's Outrageous Adventure," Los Angeles Times, Thursday, October 14, 1993, by Michelle Williams, Times Staff Writer; Home Edition, View section, page 1, pt. E, col. 5)

A stronger view still came from a letter to the editor: "I'm an African-American woman with a European husband, and had he even thought of doing something along those lines--hurtful, harmful, disheartening, debasing, insensitive--he too would have had a couple of black eyes to match his soon-to-be skin tone.

"This obscene act by Whoopi and Ted does today what it did in the 19th Century--damper spirits, arrest development, hinder courage." (signed Kara-Gail Meredith, Oceanside; "On Danson: In Defense, and More Offense," Los Angeles Times, Sunday, October 24, 1993, Home Edition, View section, page 5, Pt. E, Col. 2)

In the first article quoted, Jolson's name was equated with the blackface tradition (exception is made for the more animated versions which are therein called "pre-Jolson," although only those versions are exonerated as having not been meant to be accurate). The second piece extends the argument against blackface in the manner that is often delineated upon mention of Jolson.

But does Jolson deserve this backlash? This question is separate from the one of whether black people have suffered discrimination, defamation, belittlement and ridicule. The methods and persons responsible for those things should be held up to scrutiny and denunciation. What should be asked and answered is: does Jolson belong in their company?

I submit that anyone who believes he does is basing his conclusion on "prima facie evidence" (if I may use that expression in this context).

Consider some facts about the real person who was Aysa Yolson (Al Jolson):

* * * * * * *

Al and his brother Harry were struggling teenagers trying to make their way in show business away from the home of their father and step-mother. They recently had been out of work for so long that they shared one actor's room with so many others that "[a]s many as possible piled into a bed, and the others slept on the floor," recalled Harry, as quoted in "Jolson: the Legend Comes to Life" (by Herbert Goldman, 1988).

A well-liked Yiddish-dialect comedian of the time was Joe Palmer, who had been stricken with an illness that confined him to a wheelchair. Thirty-two years of age, he had to be helped to be fed, washed, dressed, and put onto the toilet. His show-business friends took turns taking care of him.

A well-connected showman who was a friend of Palmer and the Jolsons made them an offer: if the Jolson brothers would take care of Palmer, this mediator would write an act for the trio and get them started. A good act resulted without any payment requested, and Palmer's reputation got them a week's booking.

There was a problem: the script made Al the comic and Harry the straight-man. This reversed the brothers' customary roles. Given Al's youth, he couldn't convincingly play the straight role of doctor; Palmer's role couldn't be traded with either of the others because there was only one role to be played in a wheelchair. The writer, rather than overhaul the act, would prefer to arrange for two other starving and aspiring youths to take the parts.

Al was terribly nervous about enacting the comic role, but a blackface monologuist on the same bill suggested to Al that wearing burnt cork would make him feel he was someone else. Al tried it, and the resulting persona was exciting, spontaneous, joyous. The dull, self-conscious kid was on his way to becoming an electrifying presence.

* * * * * * *


A controversial event of 1910 was the professional fight between white man James J. Jeffries and black man Jack Johnson. The bout and the defeat of the white fighter by the black one reverberated across the United States. (The 1970 movie "The Great White Hope" would depict the story.) Jolson was a spectator at the event, and wrote an account of it for "Variety."

Jolson was remarkably objective, not kowtowing to the racial climate at the time:

"Johnson just played with him as a cat does a mouse. It's all right to say that, if Jeff were in his prime, what he would have done to Johnson, but believe me, it would have been just the same.

"The majority at the ringside must say that Johnson is the greatest fighter that ever lived. Jeffries did not hit him one good punch.

"George Little, Johnson's ex-manager, bet me $400 to my $200, after the first round, that Jeffries would win. After the fifth round, I bet (another) $200 that Johnson would win. That made me break even, as I had bet $600 (on Jeffries) before the fight." (published "Variety," July 9, 1910)

* * * * * * *


Did black people mind Jolson? Goldman reports that a particular black cabaret in Harlem, Leroy's, during its five years of existence (which were the five years starting from the year of the Johnson-Jeffries fight), admitted just one white man: Jolson.

David Hayes

Return to Table of Contents

Go to next article