Land Of The Chief & Home Of Modern Blackface Minstrelsy

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enjoying a nice little comeback, a quarter
of a century after his death. Members of
the marching band might recognize the
name. A song that he co-authored in the
1920s has recently turned up and undergone
a revival with, as the University’s
website reports, the band featuring it this season, after
points after touchdowns.
You surely have heard “Fight Illini: The Stadium Song”
if you go to games. Playing it is appropriate enough. After
graduating during World War One, Raphaelson stayed on
to play a leading role in the fund-raising for Memorial Stadium,
wrote the first account of the stadium’s story, and
orbited around the marching band, as the figure of “Chief
Illiniwek” took shape in the 1920s to the strains of songs
like “Fight Illini.”
Beyond the cornfields, none of those accomplishments
account for the extent to which Raphaelson’s name has
recently resurfaced. He is discussed, instead, for his role in
bringing into being the foundational talking film, The Jazz
Singer. The film, which also is the critical link between
blackface minstrelsy and modern U.S. culture, turned
eighty this year.
The story of Raphaelson as the U of I football fan, and
that of Raphaelson as the sophisticated writer responsible
for the play on which The Jazz Singer was based, is in fact
the same story. This reality greatly complicates the ways in
which the University ought to think about its own racialized
past, about its students’ present flirtations with blackface
and other racial impersonations, and about its inability
to let go of “Chief Illiniwek.”
At about the same time that Raphaelson wrote Day of
Atonement, which would become The Jazz Singer, a lynching
occurred on the edge of the University of Missouri
campus. The great African American writer, W.E.B. Du
Bois, wrote that Missouri could claim the dubious honor of
being the first university to offer a course in racist atrocity.
University of Illinois could similarly cast itself as the academic
home of modern blackface minstrelsy.
The story is sadly fascinating. In 1917, Raphaelson saw
a performance of the imperialist classic Robinson Crusoe
in Champaign-Urbana. Al Jolson, the eventual star of The
Jazz Singer, headlined in multiple roles, one of them—
think about this!—in blackface as the “native” character
Friday in the Crusoe story. Dazzled by Jolson, Raphaelson
remembered hearing not so much jazz as the sounds of
Jewish religious music in the blackface performance. This
was clearly evident in his response to Jolson’s performance:
“My God, this isn’t a jazz singer, this is a cantor!”
The horrors and history of white performance in blackface
here fully gave way, before an opportunity to use racial
disguise, as if it had nothing to do with anti-black racism. On
this view, blackface could even be said to pay respects to jazz
and to combat racism, in the form of anti-Jewish sentiments.
Coincidently, Days of Atonement appeared in Everybody’s
Magazine in 1922, at about the same moment that Raphaelson
wrote “Fight Illini.” Dramatizing something of Jolson’s
own life, the play followed the Americanization-throughmusic
of a young entertainer and the ways in which his Jewish
roots both were transcended and survived. Jolson and
George Jessel, then the bigger star of the two, pitched hard
the production of the play on stage and film.
Approached early on, D.W. Griffith rejected making a
movie of the play as too “racial.” Presumably this meant
too Jewish, as Griffith’s vicious use of blackface performance
in the service of antiblack racism in Birth of a
Nation, had already linked the minstrel tradition and U.S.
silent film, just as The Jazz Singer was to do for “talkies.”
When the film finally appeared in 1927, the victimization
of African Americans by blackface was so off the studio’s
radar that it was considered to be “for the sake of racial tolerance,”
since it allegedly critiqued anti-Semitism.
With Samson Raphaelson in mind, the persistent confusion
and racism of young white partygoers on campus
and the reappearance of Chief Illiniwek at this year’s University
homecoming parade become two sides of a weighty
coin. Those blackfaced partygoers are routinely criticized
as representing a departure from the traditions of a liberal
and inclusive university. They ought to be criticized. But so
should the traditions, which are, in truth, anything but
inclusive or antiracist.
Samson Raphaelson was far from conforming to the
academic and Hollywood stereotype that has conservatives,
blue collar workers and hicks doing all the heavy lifting
required for building and rebuilding white racism. Jewish
and urbane, he lived as an undergraduate with the great
founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day.
After Illinois, he joined forces with the director Ernest
Lubitsch in Hollywood, writing such witty and marvelous
films as Heaven Can Wait and Trouble in Paradise.
During the post-World War 2 Red Scare in Hollywood,
his politics earned him the enmity of Red Channels, the
anti-Communist scandal sheet that insisted he should be
blacklisted as a radical. When he returned briefly as a
celebrity to teach writing at Illinois his star pupils included
that embodiment of U.S.-style cosmopolitanism, Playboy
founder Hugh Hefner. Just before Raphaelson died, the leftliberal
journalist Bill Moyers filmed a warm tribute to him.
Alexander Saxton, an important historian of 19th century
blackface, insisted that the very form of the act undermined
any potential for it to carry progressive messages,
within a white supremacist social order. Indeed, the very
claim to control race and to decide if blackface or Indianface
are well-meaning, admiring, honoring, or somehow
not about race is itself an act of white privilege. When the
contemporary students, who party in blackface or mimic
anti-Mexican stereotypes, offer the same justifications for
their behavior, they act up within a tradition.
It pains me, coming from really southern Illinois, to hear
people in the university imagine that the ‘small-town people’
are a reason that the University cannot do the right
thing and acknowledge “Chief Illiniwek” as a lengthy and
racist mistake. Mostly, none of us down there cared about
the Chief as I grew up and do not care now. The real truth
is that the Chief was made, endlessly marketed, and scandalously
held on to for fifteen years by the most powerful
trustees and administrative forces, despite years of intense
anti-chief protests.
These are the same powerful forces that are now
unable to acknowledge that the “Chief” was both their
individual and institutional mistake. Instead, they resort to
all sorts of fancy footwork discussing whether the eighty
years of selling it—not “him,” as a symbol of whiteness the
“Chief” requires an impersonal pronoun—was a mistake at
all, or just a phase we all needed to go through.
Given all this, perhaps our reflections on the
uncomfortably close histories of modern blackface minstrelsy
and of “Chief Illiniwek” in Illinois will lead students,
if not administrators and trustees, to a little more
clarity on these issues.

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