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?"
"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.