I remember going through an old record collection, when I was a child, and seeing an album cover with the picture of a man with what appeared to be a very dirty face. His face was black, except around the eyes and mouth, as if he had just emerged from a coal mine or had rubbed his face with black mud. I had never heard of entertainers performing in blackface and since the man has caucasian features and his makeup did not resemble any natural skin tone, I did not know what this was all about until I turned the album over and read the description on the back. The man was Al Jolson, the entertainer who was famous in the early twentieth century for performing in blackface.
What are we to do with Al Jolson today? His performances are undoubtedly offensive to today’s more racially aware audiences. Perhaps his present-day obscurity is deserved. Maybe Al Jolson ought to disappear down the memory hole along with so much of our shameful past. Then again, maybe not. I am not a fan of airbrushing away historical figures just because they offend contemporary sensibilities. I think the past ought to be remembered. Al Jolson was the most famous entertainer of his time. He definitely had talent. Moreover, his relationship with the African-American community was not as straightforward as we might expect.
Who was Al Jolson anyway? Al Jolson was born to a Jewish family as Asa Yeolson, on June 8, 1886, in the village of Srednike in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. Yeolson’s father, Moses Rubin Yeoson, was a rabbi and cantor or Hazzan who immigrated to New York in 1891. In 1894 he was able to bring his family to the United States and they settled in Washington DC, where the elder Yeolson found work as a cantor. Young Asa seemed to have inherited his father’s singing voice, and he and his brother Hirsch begin singing on street corners for money in 1897, using the names, Al and Harry. Asa Jeolson began working in show business in 1902, with his name anglicized to Al Jolson. After a somewhat fitful start. Jolson’s career in vaudeville and musicals took off, particularly after he started performing in blackface in 1904. By the 1920s, Al Jolson was one of the most successful entertainers in the United States.
In 1927, Al Jolson began acting in movies, starring in The Jazz Singer, generally regarded as the first talkie. Jolson went on to star in a number of successful movies. His career and personal life went into something of a slump in the late 1930s but after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Jolson was the first star to entertain for the troops, before the USO had even been organized. He was praised for the service he provided for American soldiers fighting overseas, but Jolson also contracted malaria and had to have a lung removed. Jolson was also the first entertainer to perform for the soldiers fighting in the Korean War. Al Jolson’s service in Korea proved to be exhausting for him and he died of a heart attack in San Francisco on October 23, 1950
This biographical sketch might give the impression that Al Jolson was the worst sort of racist who made his fortune exploiting the most degrading negative Black stereotypes. What else are we to think of a man who was most famous for performing in blackface? Should Al Jolson be relegated to obscurity as a forgotten relic of America’s racist past? Not quite. As is often the case, the truth is not what it seems at first glance. The fact is that Al Jolson used his position as America’s highest-paid entertainer to fight against discrimination against Blacks. He insisted on equal treatment for his Black co-stars and consistently stood up for the rights of Blacks at a time when this was, by no means, a popular position to take.
So, how do we resolve this paradox? Al Jolson was an entertainer who made millions by wearing blackface and demeaning African Americans, yet was an undoubted benefactor of the Black race. How do we reconcile these two very different sides of this man?
I would suggest that Al Jolson did not put on blackface to insult or demean Blacks. Al Jolson had many Black friends in his youth and later and it is hard to imagine that we would have knowingly done something that they might have found insulting. Blackface was an accepted genre of entertainment at the time, and not necessarily seen as degrading to Blacks. I suspect that Al Jolson might have believed that his blackface performances were a sort of tribute to his Black colleagues. He might have found something in African-American culture that was lacking in his own Jewish-Russian heritage and putting on blackface might have been his way of celebrating the culture of his Black friends. In fact, if you think about it, the practice of White performers blackening their faces and pretending to be Black was a sort of backhanded compliment to Blacks. Yes, these performers disseminated demeaning stereotypes about Blacks, yet they had to believe something was appealing about African American culture for them to pretend to emulate it. We ought to look on Al Jolson’s performances, and perhaps those of other entertainers in blackface as celebrations of African American culture rather than deliberate insults.
Now the reason I am writing this, aside from the fact that I find Al Jolson’s life and career to be interesting, is that I have found it helpful to try to impute the best possible motives for the actions of the people I run into. That is to say, rather than assuming they are acting from rudeness or malice, I try to think of good reasons for why people do what they do. I cannot say that I am very accomplished in this way of thinking. It seems to run against human nature. It is natural for us to make excuses for our own actions while judging others more harshly. I am trying to reverse this natural tendency by trying to make excuses for others while judging myself more harshly, or at any rate more honestly. Some might say that if I succeed in this endeavor I might become something of a Pollyanna, but I think that it would be worth risking becoming more naive to become more tolerant and charitable in my thinking. I might manage to make myself a genuinely good person.
I think that our country as a whole might be better off, especially in racial matters, if we applied this method to each other. What if, instead of seeking out evidence of racism everywhere, we focus on the real progress in racial relations we have made over the last decades? What if instead of canceling people for a bad joke or unfortunate remark made years ago, we accept that they made a mistake and have moved on? What if, in other words, instead of believing the worst of our fellow Americans, that we are a people seething with systemic racism, we assume the best, that we are human beings and like all human beings we make mistakes but we are trying to do better? We might actually make this country a better place.