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The White Negress

The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The White Negress
    Book Description:

    During the first half of the twentieth century, American Jews demonstrated a commitment to racial justice as well as an attraction to African American culture. Until now, the debate about whether such black-Jewish encounters thwarted or enabled Jews' claims to white privilege has focused on men and representations of masculinity while ignoring questions of women and femininity. The White Negress investigates literary and cultural texts by Jewish and African American women, opening new avenues of inquiry that yield more complex stories about Jewishness, African American identity, and the meanings of whiteness.Lori Harrison-Kahan examines writings by Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst, and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the blackface performances of vaudevillian Sophie Tucker and controversies over the musical and film adaptations of Show Boat and Imitation of Life. Moving between literature and popular culture, she illuminates how the dynamics of interethnic exchange have at once produced and undermined the binary of black and white.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4989-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-IX)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    In 1922, Jewish American writer Fannie Hurst published “The Smudge,” a short story about an aging blackface actress in the process of confronting her unrealized ambitions. Having once dreamed of playing Shakespeare’s Juliet, Hurst’s protagonist, Hattie Bertch, finds herself irretrievably typecast as a “buxom negro” maid. Despite her discomfort with such comedic supporting roles, Hattie perseveres as a blackface performer for the sake of her illegitimate teenage daughter, Marcia, who is described, in contrast to her mother’s on-stage persona, as “the color and odor of an ivory fan that has lain in frangipani.” Unable to subsist on her meager stage...

  5. 1 From White Negress to Yiddishe Mama: Sophie Tucker and the Female Blackface Tradition
    (pp. 16-57)

    “The Smudge,” Fannie Hurst’s little-known tale about an actress’s dead ambitions, was inspired by the author’s attendance at a play in which a white woman performed in blackface.¹ Although Hurst did not specify the ethnicity of her blackface protagonist, in the early decades of the twentieth century some of the best-known female performers to draw on black culture for their material came from Jewish backgrounds. The list includes singers and comediennes Sophie Tucker, Stella Mayhew, Nora Bayes, and Fanny Brice, who all blacked up—or, slightly more subtly, “tanned up”—at some point in their careers and whose style of...

  6. 2 The Same Show Boat? Edna Ferber’s Interracial Ideal
    (pp. 58-95)

    While the heterogeneity of the early-twentieth-century stage opened spaces for the construction of new models of racial and gender identity, popular literature of the time offers another venue for exploring such shifting ideologies as they relate to the black-Jewish imaginary. The work of Jewish American writer Edna Ferber bridges the realms of literature and mass entertainment, and it was in minstrelsy that Ferber found one of her earliest sources of creative inspiration. In the first volume of her autobiography,A Peculiar Treasure(1939), Ferber added detail to her portrait of the artist as a stage-struck youth by describing her childhood...

  7. 3 Limitations of White: Fannie Hurst and the Consumption of Blackness
    (pp. 96-142)

    Published in 1926, Edna Ferber’sShow Boatwas quickly overshadowed by its groundbreaking musical adaptation. At the beginning of the following decade, Fannie Hurst’s racially themed novel,Imitation of Life, similarly became a casualty of its author’s tremendous popularity when it was snapped up by Hollywood filmmakers. First serialized inPictorial Reviewin 1932 under the title “Sugar House,” Hurst’s narrative was published in novel form in 1933 and renamed, in accordance with its author’s wishes,Imitation of Life—a title that has come to bear enormous weight in cultural and critical responses.¹ Ferber’s induction of the businesswoman as a...

  8. 4 Moses and Minstrelsy: Zora Neale Hurston and the Black-Jewish Imaginary
    (pp. 143-176)

    Zora Neale Hurston came to Fannie Hurst’s defense whenImitation of lifefaced charges of racism, but in an unpublished 1934 article, titled “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” Hurston made what sounds like a veiled jibe at the white author’s inauthentic rendition of black life: “Whenever I pick up one of the popular magazines and read one of these mammy cut tales, I often wonder whether the author actually believes that his tale is probable or whether he knows it is flapdoodle and is merely concerned about the check.” Hurston’s use of universalizing masculine pronouns helps to shield Hurst from...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 177-184)

    Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel,Caucasia, narrates the coming-of-age story of a mixed-race protagonist named Birdie Lee. The offspring of a civil rights movement union between a black intellectual father and a white activist mother, Birdie appears white, but actively identifies with her dark-skinned sister and openly embraces her African American heritage. When the onset of the Black Power movement leads to the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, Birdie and her paranoid mother leave their Boston home to go underground, eventually re-creating lives for themselves in predominantly white small-town New Hampshire. According to Birdie’s mother, the fact that her daughter could...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 185-220)
  11. Index
    (pp. 221-229)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 230-230)