The Story Behind Blackface's Cover Boy

The Story Behind Blackface's Cover Boy

"Folks, you ain't heard nothin' yet."

I remember the first time my mother caught me listening to Al Jolson.

To say the very least, I have a strange taste in music. It consists largely of English tunes from the 1900's - 1940's and folk music (mainly Portuguese, Polish, and Finnish). As my eclectic interests would have it, I was listening to some old singer's station on Pandora when Al Jolson came on. I didn't know anything about him at the time. I shrugged and kept listening.

One day, my mother walked in on me listening to him. She frowned, accustomed to me listening to weird stuff, but apparently disturbed that she recognized the singer. "Are you listening to Al Jolson?"

"Yeah... Why?"

"Like, Mammy, Blackface Al Jolson?"


There was this awkward silence before she pointed out once more that he did blackface and that he must have been horribly racist. We left the conversation at that. For months afterwards, I felt terrible listening to Al Jolson. Whenever a song of his came on Pandora, I would skip it. With that disgusting "blackface" image planted in my brain, his singing had begun to sound dirty and skeevy. Was this person really as bad as my mom said he was?

For some crazy reason, I was at the mall (in Zara, specifically) when I started researching. I wanted to look past Al Jolson "the-racist-blackfaced-pig" to find Al Jolson "the-average-person."

Al Jolson, born Asa Yoelson, was born in present-day Lithuania. He moved to Washington D.C. at a young age, and during this time, he found his passion for singing and dancing. In a bout of what one can only assume was teenage angst, he and his brother Harry rebelled against their religious, conservative father. They changed their last name to Jolson and moved to NYC to start a vaudeville act.

In New York, Al Jolson was in several musicals and performances, always managing to find his way to the center of attention. His personality and stage presence quickly caused sparks in the community. Jolson's enthusiasm and friendliness while performing were contagious. Oh, yeah, and somewhere along the way, he picked up the art of blackface.

That's where the whole topic becomes a bit controversial.

Blackface has its roots in minstrel shows which date back hundreds of years ago. Yes, the original intentions of blackface are exceptionally racist. Minstrel blackface shows sought to poke fun at black people while simultaneously elevating the status of the privileged whites even further. No, you can't take blackface out of the time period it was popular in. It's important to note when discussing it that racism was exceedingly common in every aspect of life. Yes, the standard blackface is degrading, humiliating, and downright disrespectful for black people throughout time and across the world. No, this is not how Al Jolson used it.

Al Jolson came from a Jewish immigrant family. He knew very well what it meant to be part of an oppressed minority. As many oppressed minorities will tell you, they're likely to be accepting of others who are treated the way they are.

That being said, Al Jolson was no racist. Actually, after an extensive search on my end, there are no accessible resources available that show Jolson ever making a racist remark of any sort.

Don't get me wrong, Al Jolson was a total asshole. Stories tell of him being short and curt. He was so deeply insecure, as Groucho Marx once recounted, that he would leave the faucet in his dressing room running before he went on stage—for the sole purpose of not hearing the applause for the previous acts. There are plenty of other instances of Jolson being an all around asshole, but not a racist asshole.

As a matter of fact, Jolson helped to spearhead the early civil rights movement in America.

He was infamous for sticking his neck out for the equal treatment of black performers (such as Cab Calloway), promoting local black playwrights and dancing troupes, and being "the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem." You heard that right. The black community accepted Jolson with open arms as an ally, a friend, and a voice.

Jolson undeniably introduced the world to black culture through his music and his performances. In a world that knew nearly nothing about the average black man, he helped to represent the community. His blackface character was not the standard, bumbling, stupid servant; Gus, or Jolie (I've seen both in use), often outsmarted his white "superiors" and helped them out of the problems that they created for themselves, debasing the reigning idea of white supremacy.

His music, some of which he wrote by himself, was laced with traditional Jewish and African American patterns, techniques, and rhythms. On stage, Jolson was electrifying and sentimental, lacking the sort of sarcasm and bitterness that one telling a racist joke would possess. Actually, many of his performances have been described as "a lovefest." He was a kind, open person onstage, even if offstage he became cold and somewhat rude.

In the 1930's, he was the highest paid actor (and the most famous) in America, earning himself the title of "The World's Greatest Entertainer". He's remembered today as the star of the world's first "talkie," even though The Jazz Singer was not the first talking film produced. He was simply so popular and revolutionary in his art that this is the way history has remembered it. Jolson literally changed history.

The Jazz Singer, to my knowledge, only features Jolson in blackface for a small portion of the film, and I've heard exceptional things about the movie, his performance, and what it has done for the industry and the world.

If you take the time to do the research, there are dozens and dozens more examples of how Al Jolson spoke out against racial bigotry. One of my favorite stories is how he took two black men out to eat after they were denied service at a restaurant. He was reported to have told them that he would "punch anyone in the nose that tried to kick [them] out." With his music and personality, Jolson completely altered what modern-day jazz and ragtime mean.

How does a man like this get the bad reputation for "being nothing more than a racist who did blackface," when more popular artists like Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Shirley Temple did blackface as well?

I'm glad to have gotten that all off of my chest. I can finally listen to his music in peace.

But hey, that's just one blackface performer out of many. Don't even get me started on Eddie Cantor.

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8 Reasons Why My Dad Is the Most Important Man In My Life

Forever my number one guy.

Growing up, there's been one consistent man I can always count on, my father. In any aspect of my life, my dad has always been there, showing me unconditional love and respect every day. No matter what, I know that my dad will always be the most important man in my life for many reasons.

1. He has always been there.

Literally. From the day I was born until today, I have never not been able to count on my dad to be there for me, uplift me and be the best dad he can be.

2. He learned to adapt and suffer through girly trends to make me happy.

I'm sure when my dad was younger and pictured his future, he didn't think about the Barbie pretend pageants, dressing up as a princess, perfecting my pigtails and enduring other countless girly events. My dad never turned me down when I wanted to play a game, no matter what and was always willing to help me pick out cute outfits and do my hair before preschool.

3. He sends the cutest texts.

Random text messages since I have gotten my own cell phone have always come my way from my dad. Those randoms "I love you so much" and "I am so proud of you" never fail to make me smile, and I can always count on my dad for an adorable text message when I'm feeling down.

4. He taught me how to be brave.

When I needed to learn how to swim, he threw me in the pool. When I needed to learn how to ride a bike, he went alongside me and made sure I didn't fall too badly. When I needed to learn how to drive, he was there next to me, making sure I didn't crash.

5. He encourages me to best the best I can be.

My dad sees the best in me, no matter how much I fail. He's always there to support me and turn my failures into successes. He can sit on the phone with me for hours, talking future career stuff and listening to me lay out my future plans and goals. He wants the absolute best for me, and no is never an option, he is always willing to do whatever it takes to get me where I need to be.

6. He gets sentimental way too often, but it's cute.

Whether you're sitting down at the kitchen table, reminiscing about your childhood, or that one song comes on that your dad insists you will dance to together on your wedding day, your dad's emotions often come out in the cutest possible way, forever reminding you how loved you are.

7. He supports you, emotionally and financially.

Need to vent about a guy in your life that isn't treating you well? My dad is there. Need some extra cash to help fund spring break? He's there for that, too.

8. He shows me how I should be treated.

Yes, my dad treats me like a princess, and I don't expect every guy I meet to wait on me hand and foot, but I do expect respect, and that's exactly what my dad showed I deserve. From the way he loves, admires, and respects me, he shows me that there are guys out there who will one day come along and treat me like that. My dad always advises me to not put up with less than I deserve and assures me that the right guy will come along one day.

For these reasons and more, my dad will forever be my No. 1 man. I love you!

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From One Nerd To Another

My contemplation of the complexities between different forms of art.


Aside from reading Guy Harrison's guide to eliminating scientific ignorance called, "At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life" and, "The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer" by Charles Graeber, an informative and emotional historical account explaining the potential use of our own immune systems to cure cancer, I read articles and worked on my own writing in order to keep learning while enjoying my winter break back in December. I also took a trip to the Guggenheim Museum.

I wish I was artistic. Generally, I walk through museums in awe of what artists can do. The colors and dainty details simultaneously inspire me and remind me of what little talent I posses holding a paintbrush. Walking through the Guggenheim was no exception. Most of the pieces are done by Hilma af Klint, a 20th-century Swedish artist expressing her beliefs and curiosity about the universe through her abstract painting. I was mostly at the exhibit to appease my mom (a K - 8th-grade art teacher), but as we continued to look at each piece and read their descriptions, I slowly began to appreciate them and their underlying meanings.

I like writing that integrates symbols, double meanings, and metaphors into its message because I think that the best works of art are the ones that have to be sought after. If the writer simply tells you exactly what they were thinking and how their words should be interpreted, there's no room for imagination. An unpopular opinion in high school was that reading "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne was fun. Well, I thought it was. At the beginning of the book, there's a scene where Hawthorne describes a wild rosebush that sits just outside of the community prison. As you read, you are free to decide whether it's an image of morality, the last taste of freedom and natural beauty for criminals walking toward their doom, or a symbol of the relationship between the Puritans with their prison-like expectations and Hester, the main character, who blossoms into herself throughout the novel. Whichever one you think it is doesn't matter, the point is that the rosebush can symbolize whatever you want it to. It's the same with paintings - they can be interpreted however you want them to be.

As we walked through the building, its spiral design leading us further and further upwards, we were able to catch glimpses of af Klint's life through the strokes of her brush. My favorite of her collections was one titled, "Evolution." As a science nerd myself, the idea that the story of our existence was being incorporated into art intrigued me. One piece represented the eras of geological time through her use of spirals and snails colored abstractly. She clued you into the story she was telling by using different colors and tones to represent different periods. It felt like reading "The Scarlet Letter" and my biology textbook at the same time. Maybe that sounds like the worst thing ever, but to me it was heaven. Art isn't just art and science isn't just science. Aspects of different studies coexist and join together to form something amazing that will speak to even the most untalented patron walking through the museum halls.

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