The Story Behind Blackface's Cover Boy

The Story Behind Blackface's Cover Boy

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

"Yeah."

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.

Cover Image Credit: quotesgram.com

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Why High School Musicals Should Be As Respected As Sports Programs Are

The arts are important, too.
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When I was in middle school and high school, I felt like I lived for the musicals that my school orchestrated.

For those of you who don't know, a musical is an onstage performance wherein actors take on roles that involve singing, and often dancing, to progress the plot of the story. While it may sound a little bit nerdy to get up in front of an audience to perform in this manner, this is something you cannot knock until you try it.

For some reason, though, many public schools have de-funded arts programs that would allow these musicals to occur, while increasing the funding for sports teams. There are a few things that are being forgotten when sports are valued more than musical programs in high schools.

Much like athletic hobbies, an actor must try-out, or audition, to participate in a musical. Those best suited for each role will be cast, and those who would not fit well are not given a part. While this may sound similar to trying out for say, basketball, it is an apples to oranges comparison.

At a basketball try-out, those who have the most experience doing a lay-up or shooting a foul shot will be more likely to succeed, no questions asked. However, for an audition, it is common to have to learn a piece of choreography upon walking in, and a potential cast member will be required to sing a selected piece with only a few days of preparation.

There are many more variables involved with an audition that makes it that much more nerve-racking.

The cast of a school musical will often rehearse for several months to perfect their roles, with only several nights of performance at the end. Many sports practice for three or four days between each of their respective competitions. While this may seem to make sports more grueling, this is not always the case.

Musicals have very little pay-off for a large amount of effort, while athletic activities have more frequent displays of their efforts.

Athletes are not encouraged to but are allowed to make mistakes. This is simply not allowed for someone in a musical, because certain lines or entrances may be integral to the plot.

Sometimes, because of all the quick changes and the sweat from big dance numbers, the stage makeup just starts to smear. Despite this, an actor must smile through it all. This is the part of musicals that no sport has: introspection.

An actor must think about how he or she would respond in a given situation, be it saddening, maddening, frightening, or delightful. There is no sport that requires the knowledge of human emotion, and there is especially no sport that requires an athlete to mimic such emotion. This type of emotional exercise helps with communications and relationships.

Sports are great, don't get me wrong. I loved playing volleyball, basketball, track, and swimming, but there were no experiences quite like those from a musical. Sports challenge the body with slight amounts of tactic, while musicals require much physical and mental endurance.

The next time you hear someone say that it's “just a musical," just remember that musicals deserve as much respect as sports, since they are just as, if not more demanding.

Cover Image Credit: Cincinnati Arts

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10 Shows To Watch If You're Sick Of 'The Office'

You can only watch it so many times...

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"The Office" is a great show, and is super easy to binge watch over and over again! But if you're like me and you're looking for something new to binge, why not give some of these a try? These comedies (or unintentional comedies) are a great way to branch out and watch something new.

1. "New Girl"

A show about a group of friends living in an apartment in a big city? Sound familiar? But seriously, this show is original and fresh, and Nick Miller is an icon.

2. "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"

Ya'll have been sleeping on this show. It's a musical comedy about a girl that follows her ex boyfriend across the country. I thought it sounded horrible so I put it off for WAY too long, but then I realized how incredible the cast, music, writing, and just EVERYTHING. It really brings important issues to light, and I can't say too much without spoiling it. Rachel Bloom (the creator of the show) is a woman ahead of her time.

3. "Jane the Virgin"

I know... another CW show. But both are so incredible! Jane The Virgin is a tongue-in-cheek comedy and parody of telenovelas. It has so many twists and turns, but somehow you find yourself laughing with the family.

4. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been in popular news lately since its cancellation by Fox and sequential pickup by NBC. It's an amazing show about cops in, you guessed it, Brooklyn. Created by the amazing Michael Schur, it's a safe bet that if you loved "The Office" you'll also love his series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine".

5. "The Good Place"

Another series created by the talented Micael Schur, it's safe to say you've probably already heard about this fantasy-comedy series. With a wonderful cast and writing that will keep you on your toes, the show is another safe bet.

6. "Fresh Off The Boat"

Seriously, I don't know why more people don't watch this show. "Fresh Off The Boat" focuses on an Asian family living in Orlando in the mid 90s. Randall Parks plays a character who is the polar opposite of his character in "The Interview" (Yeah, remember that horrifying movie?) and Constance Wu is wonderful as always.

7. "Full House"

Why not go back to the basics? If you're looking for a nostalgic comedy, go back all the way to the early days of Full House. If you're a '98-'00 baby like me, you probably grew up watching the Tanner family on Nick at Night. The entire series is available on Hulu, so if all else fails just watch Uncle Jesse and Rebecca fall in love again or Michelle fall off a horse and somehow lose her memory.

8. "Secret Life of the American Teenager"

Okay, this show is not a comedy, but I have never laughed so hard in my life. It's off Netflix but it's still on Hulu, so you can watch this masterpiece there. Watch the terrible acting and nonsense plot twists drive this show into the ground. Somehow everyone in this school dates each other? And also has a baby? You just have to watch. It might be my favorite show of all time.

9. "Scrubs"

Another old show that is worth watching. If you ignore the last season, Scrubs is a worthwhile medical comedy about doctors in both their personal and medical life. JD and Turk's relationship is one to be jealous of, and one hilarious to watch. Emotional at times, this medical drama is superior to any medical drama that's out now.

10. "Superstore"

I was resistant to watch this one at first, because it looked cheesy. But once I started watching I loved it! The show is a workplace comedy, one you're sure to love if you can relate to working in retail. If you liked the Office, you'll like Superstore!

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