cover image Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot

Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot

Michael Rogin / Author University of California Press $40 (336

As part of the interest in stereotypical depictions of African Americans after Reconstruction, there have been a number of books on the powerful tradition of blackface minstrelsy. But it didn't just inform popular stage and film representations of blacks, says UC--Berkeley political scientist Rogin (Ronald Reagan the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology). In a story with some similarities to that told in Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish became White, Rogin says blackface also served to ""Americanize"" or whiten immigrant Jewish blackface performers during a time of heavy domestic anti-Semitism. By donning blackface, immigrant Jewish performers could distance themselves from perceptions of ethnicity and position themselves as ""more white"" or ""American"" in a racist culture that viewed ""whiteness"" as the presumed goal of assimilation. Rogin documents the history of whites performing as blacks, from Queen Anne through Al Jolson. With chilling, bracing directness, he chronicles American culture's ""contaminated"" foundations in slavery and racism. He also observes that Jewish moguls in 1930s Hollywood evaded the subject of American anti-Semitism by ""eliminating Jews from the screen."" (At the time, Jews could play blacks, but they could not play themselves.) This is a complicated but revealing book which will be most profitably enjoyed by readers well-versed in the sometimes arcane historical celluloid material being discussed. (June)