Al Jolson Wasn’t Racist!

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In 1919 Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle were refused service in a Connecticut restaurant. Jolson heard about this and promptly tracked them down and told them that he would take them back there and he would “punch anyone who tried to stop us.�

Re: What’s Quinn’s Problem

AL JOLSON DEFENDED


I read your article concerning New York City Council Speaker Christin Quinn and the street re-naming in honor of Al Jolson.  While I have no opinion about Sonny Carson I have strong ones about Al Jolson's having spent the better part of 15 years researching his life and career.  

Unfortunately, your opinion mimic the uninformed, and revisionist history that equates black face with bigotry. This is not so. Mr. Charles Barron referred to Mr. Jolson as racist to the bone. I would like submit these fact to you and ask you if you really believe the man to have been a racist:
 
1) Covering the Jack Johnson—Jim Jeffries boxing match of 1910 for Variety he was of very few reporters who had the courage to say that Johnson won the fight on his own merit and boxing ability. Other reporters, more concerned about the fighters color, made excuses for Jeffries, refusing to give Johnson full credit for his victory. Jolson was one of very few reporters to accurately credit Johnson’s superior boxing talents. This is forgotten or ignored.
 
2) As early as 1911 Jolson fought for equality on the Broadway stage. On his return from San Francisco, he brought with him to New York the Black dance team of Johnny Peters and Mary Dewson, whom Jolson wanted to feature in his next show, something that had never been done on Broadway. The Shubert Brothers, his producers, said “No.� This is forgotten or ignored.
 
3) Perhaps as a result of this, perhaps not, but it remains that Al Jolson was the only white man allowed into Leroy’s, an all Black nightclub in Harlem. This is no small honor. This is forgotten or ignored.
 
4) In the 1920’s, Garland Anderson, a porter who was a fledgling playwright, approached Jolson about a play he had written. He was a Black man. Thanks to Jolson’s efforts on his behalf the piece became the first drama with an all-Black cast ever produced on Broadway. This is forgotten or ignored.
 
5) In 1919 Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle were refused service in a Connecticut restaurant. Jolson heard about this and promptly tracked them down and told them that he would take them back there and he would “punch anyone who tried to stop us.� Blake and Sissle never forgot Jolson’s thoughtfulness, and they remained his friends for the rest of his life. Noble Sissle represented the Negro Actor’s Union at Jolson’s funeral. This is forgotten or ignored.
 
6) Al Jolson’s final resting place and memorial were designed by a prominent Black architect.
 
I ask you, sir, are these the acts of a "racist?"  There are a multitude of additional instances I could site—the mutual affection and respect of many prominent Black performers whom Jolson demanded equal treatment for, including Cab Calloway—and Jolson's commitment to equality and fighting for the "underdog."

A word on "black face."-- One must be careful not to equate the use of "blackface" with "Minstrelsy"--they are very different animals. By 1900, minstrelsy was dead. Blackface was around long before minstrelsy and became prominent during a time when poor theater lighting called for exaggerated make up. This was not always black. It could be green, or involve exaggerated eyes, ears or any feature a performed wished to exploit. Jolson's black face was common and used by a myriad of performers including Black ones who saw it a convention of theatricality, not a means to mimic or stereotype a race of humans. 
 
It is difficult for us today to appreciate these facts. But they are true. If you do not believe me I suggest you speak to other experts of theatrical history. 
 
The subversion of truth is never the way to assuage opinion. It will lead to disaster. Better you aim your anger at Rap "artists" who continue to corrupt the Black youths as I have first hand knowledge of in my teaching and training work in Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York. 
 
Your comments were arbitrary and ill-informed.
 

The author is at The New School University in New York. He can be reached via 

aciolino@nyc.rr.com


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