Category Archives: identities

Some Messy Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “cultural appropriation.” The point tends to be that it is appropriate for some people to wear certain costumes or perform certain kinds of music because that is part of their culture, but it is appropriation for other people to wear those costumes or perform that music, because it is not part of their culture.

Having spent much of my life as a white guy playing and writing about blues, this conversation is very familiar to me, and I recently have been thinking, reading, and talking with people about it more than ever.  So I was interested when a news story broke about Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, darkening his skin and donning a robe and turban to go to a costume party as Aladdin, and that sparked the following meditation.

A lot of people have referred to Trudeau’s makeup as blackface, and my first reaction was to say, “No, it’s not.” Because blackface is not just white people darkening their skin; it is a quite specific kind of makeup.

Both of these performers are in blackface. On the left is Bert Williams, an African American singer and comedian born in the Bahamas and raised in California, who was one of the most brilliant and influential Black performers of the early twentieth century. On the right is Al Jolson, a Jewish singer born in Lithuania and raised in New York.

In modern US racial terms Williams was Black and Jolson was white, but it would be ridiculous to argue that the make-up was not racist when Williams wore it. The tradition of blackface makeup is racist, whatever the ancestry of the person wearing it, and the fact that for many decades Black comedians had to use that make-up to have successful careers is at least as ugly as the fact that white comedians used it. Indeed, most Black comedians stopped wearing it by the 1940s — when many white comedians were still wearing it — because they were particularly aware of what it represented.

But this stuff can get complicated…

Sammy Davis Jr. recalled in his autobiography that when he was three years old and started working in vaudeville with his father and uncle, his uncle helped him put on blackface makeup, then told him: “Now you look like Al Jolson.”

Jolson had just hit internationally in The Jazz Singer, the first successful movie with sound, and for a while he was the most popular stage performer in the United States. So in that context you could say Davis wasn’t made up to look like a Black person, or even as the racist stereotype of a Black person — you could say he was made up to look like a Jewish movie star. As he tells the story, he seems to have thought it was fun to look like a Jewish movie star, and throughout his later career he continued to feature impressions of white singers and movie stars in his act.

This is the only picture I’ve found of Davis in that makeup, and I’m not even sure he’s wearing black make-up — he describes his uncle applying burnt cork to his face, but in this photo the most obvious makeup is the white greasepaint around his mouth. So, in a weird way, you could argue he’s actually wearing whiteface…

…though, obviously, in a larger sense it’s still blackface.

My point is not that a Black kid wearing white makeup to look like a white performer in blackface makes the makeup less racist or offensive. My point is is that a Black kid performing in that makeup, in that context, was unquestionably racist, and also weird and complicated.

Getting back to the Trudeau/ Aladdin story: when I read what everyone had written about it I found that most writers do not describe his make-up as blackface—

They describe it as brownface, a recent term for white actors making themselves up as Arabs, Latinos, and other people whose ancestry is neither African nor European.

For example, there were protests against the new live-action Disney production of Aladdin for using brownface, because some of the actors and extras are Europeans made up to look like Arabs.

An odd twist to those protests is that a lot of people argued that the production should have hired Pakistani, Indian, or Bangladeshi actors — which is odd because the original Aladdin character was from somewhere in the region of present-day Iraq or Syria. The historical source of his story seems to have been a Syrian Maronite Christian and, in terms of ancestry and phenotype, Syrians and Iraqis are closer to Greeks or southern Italians than they are to Indians or Pakistanis.

That does not necessarily mean the protesters were wrong, because whatever we are talking about when we discuss race, it is not simply a matter of ancestry or phenotype.

I recently heard Imani Perry give a talk at the Philadelphia library, and she made the point that whiteness in the sense we use that term in the United States or Europe is not a color: it is the absence of color. It is not a particular ethnicity: it is the absence of ethnicity.*

If that is what we mean by “white” — that it is what people in Europe and the United States call those of us who are not marked as “ethnic” — by this Eurocentric standard it makes perfect sense to argue that Iraqis, Syrians, Indians, and Pakistanis are in a single category, all regarded as brown ethnics, while Greeks and Italians are white.

There is no better way to illustrate that point than by showing a picture of Trudeau at the notorious costume party:

Because the two men with him look like they could well be Syrian or Iraqi, and whatever the point of his make-up, it clearly does not make him look like them.

This raises an obvious question: of course it was bizarrely racialist for Trudeau to wear dark brown make-up to look like a character who, in real life, probably had roughly the same skin color as Trudeau. It is a weirdly extreme way of exaggerating and marking the character as non-white…

…but would it have been ok for Trudeau to go to a party in that robe and turban if he had not worn any make-up?

Or would it have been like Katy Perry’s geisha costume?

Perry was widely criticized for performing in this costume, and many people described it as yellowface, another recent coinage applied to white performers who masquerade as Asian.

The logic of this criticism is obvious, but the odd thing in this instance is that, in terms of its actual color, Perry’s make-up made her skin whiter than normal, because Japanese geishas traditionally whiten their faces with rice powder. If we agree that Perry is white, in color-swatch terms it would seem ridiculous to protest against her wearing white make-up…

…but, as we all know, this is not about color in the color-swatch sense.

Which said, the subject of white make-up takes me down another odd historical rabbit hole:

Many of you will recognize this singer from the movie Casablanca

His given name was Arthur Wilson, but he was known as Dooley Wilson. He got that nickname when he was working in African American vaudeville as an Irish imitator, featuring a popular Irish dialect song, “Mr. Dooley.” For that act he wore what some modern writers call “whiteface” makeup, which makes sense because it made him look like an ethnic European…

…but scholars of ethnic vaudeville often refer to the comic Irish acts of this period as greenface, because those performers weren’t imitating ordinary white people — they were specifically imitating Irish immigrants, who were racially defined and comically stereotyped ethnics. In fact, a lot of blackface minstrel comedy was adopted from “Paddy” acts, which remained popular in Britain and the United States through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The two stereotypes occasionally overlapped, as in this comic song from 1898:

Gussie Davis, who composed the melody, was a well-known African American songwriter, and I have no information about Dan Packard’s ethnicity, but he wrote several popular “coon songs,” as blackface songs were labeled in the ragtime era.

A lot has been written about the racism of the blackface tradition, but virtually nothing about African American entertainers who performed other ethnicities. That is an omission worth correcting, since although Wilson’s choice to perform his Irish character in white make-up seems to have been relatively rare,  “ethnic delineators” were almost as popular in Black vaudeville as in white vaudeville.

An ad from 1900 in the Indianapolis Freeman — one of the main African American newspapers — touted Louis Vasnier, a singing and dialect comedian who presented “Natural face expressions in five different dialects, no make up – Negro, Dutch, Dago, Irish and French.” It described him as “the only colored comedian who can do this,” but he soon had plenty of competitors. John Moore, for example, whose range included “Italian, Hebrew, Indian, Chink, Turk, villain (high and low class), straight man and blackface.”

There are very few surviving images of these artists, but here is a photo of the popular duo of Fiddler and Shelton, who were popular for what we would now call a yellowface act, and a cartoon with a portion of their routine:

As with Vasnier, they were by no means unique. A review of Pinkey & Walker said: “As delineators of oriental characters they go to the head of the class. ‘Chinee’ Walker has already won his laurels as a ‘chink’ impersonator… His ‘Dago’ is equally as strong.” Chinese acts seem to have been particularly popular in Black vaudeville: I’ve found mentions of ten men who did them, including the jazz clarinet virtuoso Sidney Bechet, as well as couple of women.

Most comedians in Black vaudeville were men, and relatively few women seem to have specialized in ethnic material, but Lena Henderson was commended for her “splendid interpretation of Irish character singing,” the reviewer noting she “looks Irish all right, and dressed in green,” and Margie Crosby performed songs in Yiddish and was billed as “the girl with the Jewish face.”

H. Qualli Clark, an associate of W.C. Handy who composed the jazz standard “Shake it and Break It,” was likewise known for “Hebrew” imitations, one reviewer writing: “At times it was hard to believe he was a colored man, so perfect was his accent and so realistically faithful were his portrayals of a real Jew.” Among his competitors, Leroy Gresham was so successful that he was known for the rest of his career as “Kike” Gresham, though he also did blackface, Italian, and female impersonations.

A lot has been written about Irish and Jewish performers who worked in blackface, and a fair amount about those who did Irish or Hebrew acts, but I’ve never seen even a substantial paragraph about Black ethnic imitators. One reason is that there has been relatively little research on African American vaudeville in general, and another is that the study of Black performers has tended to ignore or gloss over people whose work does not fit within categories marked as Black culture. There is a great deal of writing on Black artists who performed ragtime, blues, and jazz, but the deep history of African American classical music has had far less study, and likewise the many Black singers and musicians who performed in other styles that were not marked as Black, such as mainstream pop, hillbilly, Hawaiian, Italian, and so forth.

Another reason is the extent to which blackface minstrel shows have overshadowed all the other kinds of ethnic comedy. Along with professional minstrel troupes and solo stars like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, thousands of amateurs blacked up with burnt cork and did songs and comedy in exaggerated “darky” dialect. In comparison, the number of artists who explicitly imitated other ethnic groups was smaller, and the number of African American artists who did that was smaller still — besides which many (perhaps most) of them seem to have worked in blackface even when they were playing Europeans. Dooley Wilson was not the only one to use white make-up — a review of a Chinese impersonator named George Catlin actually criticized him for making up “too white” — but early mention of Qualli Clark’s act refers to his “blackface Jewish and Italian dialect character singing,” and Hen Wise was likewise noted for his appearance as a “blackface Hebrew…”

…which makes exactly as much sense as Justin Trudeau appearing as a blackface Syrian or Iraqi.

The fact that so many Black performers did ethnic acts does not make those acts less offensive. The portrayals of Irish, Jews, Chinese, and Italians as comical foreigners  went along with discrimination in housing and employment, and by the 1920s ethnic stereotyping led to tight quotas on immigration from eastern and southern Europe, while by the 1880s Asians had been excluded both from entry and US citizenship.

It is common for people who have few victories to savor those few, and for people with little power to exercise that power on those with still less. In the battle to be recognized as full citizens, it was natural for African Americans to join in mocking immigrant outsiders, just as it was natural to join with immigrants when their interests intersected. By the same token, it was natural for immigrants striving to become fully American to assimilate American racial prejudices.

Periods of high immigration and intense anti-immigrant agitation come and go, but the bedrock of anti-Black racism remains. The Black ethnic delineators  are an interesting byway of US culture, but their history does not in any way mitigate the enduring racism of blackface minstrelsy. On the contrary, the fact that you could perform pretty much any kind of ethnic caricature in blackface underlines the extent to which racism directed at African Americans has served as a more general paradigm.

That is what it means when recent historians describe Irish, Italians, or Jews as “becoming white” — not that they  came to be considered Anglo-Saxon, but that they ceased to be racialized the way African Americans are racialized. Native Americans were the defining “other” of the colonial period, but for the last two centuries the opposite of white in the United States has been Black, and other ethnicities have been able to blend into an American norm  because Black Americans remained outside — as Toni Morrison reframed the melting pot metaphor, other people could melt because “[Black people] were the pot.”

That is one of the tricky things about the current term “people of color.” It implies a unifying category that includes everyone not marked as “white,” but to be “colored” in the United States has traditionally meant to be Black, and blackness continues to play a unique role in the American imaginary. That is in part because African Americans have such a deep history of oppression, discrimination, and stereotyping in the United States, but also because they have played such a central role in shaping American culture.

As a historian of popular music, I’m intensely aware of the way other groups have become “American” by emulating Black culture —  “becoming white” by first becoming somewhat black. The original blackface minstrel stars were often Irish immigrants or their offspring; the early “white” jazz musicians who came north from New Orleans were mostly Italians, as were the “white” urban rock ‘n’ rollers. I live up the street from a mural of South Philadelphia singers of the 1950s, and aside from the Jewish Eddie Fisher and the Black Chubby Checker, all the others are Italian (though many changed their names to play down their ethnicity, Bobby Ridarelli becoming Bobby Rydell, Jimmy Ercolani becoming Jimmy Darren).

Some people argue that those young Irish, Jewish, and Italian artists were expressing their love of Black culture, not appropriating it — and taken one by one, as individuals, that makes sense. But they weren’t taken one by one: in both the jazz age and the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, the American mainstream consistently welcomed them into venues and played their recordings in situations where Black artists were not heard — and that contrast with Black artists cemented their status as members of the white mainstream.

There is obviously far, far more to be said about all of this, but for now I’ll leave it there. I am trying to complicate some familiar discussions, but inevitably have simplified others, and will go on to explore all of this in more depth. For the moment, these are a few unfamiliar facts and passing thoughts. For the future, I look forward to many more conversations.

[Thanks to Lynn Abbott for introducing me to the subject of ethnic delineators in African American vaudeville.]

*I took notes during Imani Perry’s talk, so am reasonably sure she said this, but I recently checked with her and she says it doesn’t sound familiar. If I reworked or misunderstood her ideas,  I nonetheless got this impression from hearing her, and since I find the formulation useful I’m crediting her, with this caveat.

Visiting the Village of Alexandre Dumas

I’m writing this post in Villers-Cotterêts, a small town about an hour outside Paris on the road to Laon. Like most tourists I came here because of Alexandre Dumas, France’s most famous writer, thanks to The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and dozens of other books. The walk from the center to the hotel where I’m staying led past the royal palace that inspired young Alexandre with dreams of derring-do, then down a wide and grassy lane bordered with towering trees to narrower path along an ancient, moss-covered stone wall. It felt like Dumas scenery, except on the other side of the wall was a modern low-income housing estate. The streets and buildings in it are named for places and characters in Dumas’s novels, the people are the mix typical of modern France: some look like native Picards, some look West African, some wear Muslim headscarves.

The connection between that mix and Dumas is what brought me here. I’ve been reading his novel Georges, published in 1843, about a heroic young man who is, in the terms of the time, a Mulatto (mulâtre), of mixed European and African ancestry. He is from the Island of Mauritius and the action involves his romance with a lady from the island’s ruling class of French plantation owners. It’s an interesting book in a lot of ways, and one is Dumas’s insistence that the prejudice Georges faces from the wealthy French planters is a quirk of the colonial slave system. At the governor’s ball, his lady love is pleased to see him seated between two recently-arrived English ladies, since “she knew that the prejudice which pursued Georges in his native land possessed no influence on the minds of foreigners, and that it required a long residence in the island to cause an inhabitant of Europe to adopt it.”

I was struck by the claim that nineteenth-century Europeans had no race prejudice until they acquired it in the colonies, and would likely have dismissed this passage as naive if Dumas had been a white European—but it is harder to discount the observation coming from someone who had experienced the situation firsthand. Dumas’s mother was the daughter of a prosperous French innkeeper here in Villers-Cotterêts; his father was born a slave in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

This is a complicated story, with plenty of contradictions. Dumas occasionally described himself as Mulatto, but more often was cagey and at times misleading. He always referred with great pride to his father, a general in the French army and hero of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, but tended to gloss over the details of his father’s youth and wrote in his memoirs that his father was known to the Austrians as “the Black Devil,” and owed “his brown complexion…to the mix of Indian and Caucasian races.” (That is “Caucasian” as in from the Caucasus, and a print in the Dumas museum here shows Dumas himself in traditional Caucasian garb.)

As to his father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, that story is crazy and far too long to tell here, but to give an example: Thomas-Alexandre’s father was a French aristocrat and slave owner in Saint-Domingue, who fell on hard times and paid his way back to France by selling off his slaves, including his own children—except that the sales contract for Thomas-Alexandre included a clause allowing his father to buy him back within five years. His father exercised the clause, brought him to France as his legitimate son, sent him to the best schools, and raised him as a French aristocrat. His siblings were never heard from again.

Thomas-Alexandre changed his name when he entered the army, choosing the surname of his African-born mother, Marie-Cessette Dumas. One of the pleasures of the museum is its multiple portraits of General Dumas, all showing him in heroic situations and none in any way concealing or downplaying his African ancestry. Notably, none of the documents preserved from his military and civilian life make any mention of his race.

The general’s biography is a complicated and interesting story, well told in Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, and it brought me to Villers-Cotterêts because one of the things I’m exploring in my current project is shifting views of nationality and immigration. I was curious to see who is living here today, how the town recalls Dumas, and if people here connect his ancestry with the increasingly heterogeneous ancestral mix of modern France.

The answer turns out to be exquisitely complicated, and it’s going to take more than this visit to make any sense of it. On the one hand the town has a grand statue of Alexandre Dumas on the main square, and a Dumas museum with rooms dedicated to the general, the novelist, and Alexandre Dumas, fils (junior), who was likewise a famous writer. The stone plaque on the house where General Dumas died notes his African ancestry and his birth in Haiti, and the street in front of it has been the site of an annual celebration on May 10, the anniversary of France’s passage of a law abolishing slavery.

On the other hand, since 2014 the town has elected its mayor from the Front National, the far-right, anti-immigrant party, and the first FN mayor quickly made national news by denouncing the annual celebration of abolition as a display of permanent “auto-culpabilisation,” intended to make French people feel guilty and hence sympathetic to newcomers from its ex-colonies, and declaring that the town government would no longer take part. All the news stories about this incident noted the irony of anti-immigrant activists standing under the statue of Alexandre Dumas and lamenting the demise of an ethnically homogeneous France.

The town’s population is clearly changing, and some previous residents are clearly upset. Picardy is a famously poor region, and it’s easy to stir up anger against newcomers for taking the few existing jobs. But the obvious newcomers—the people clearly of African ancestry or speaking to one another in Maghrebi Arabic—are going about their lives here, and I saw about as much social mixing as I’m used to seeing in Boston or Philadelphia, and less apparent residential segregation. At the fire station, the three uniformed firefighters sitting outside were a woman who looked French, a man who looked West African, and a man who could have been from anywhere on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Obviously this is a very cursory view and I don’t have any idea what’s going on here. But it was interesting to sit at a table in the Brasserie Alexandre Dumas, looking across the square at the large building that used to be the inn where Dumas’s parents met… and to think that a marriage between the daughter of the Brasserie’s owners and a Haitian immigrant army officer would almost certainly be more controversial here now than it was in 1792… and also a lot more likely.

Communing with Julian Tuwim

I recently spent a couple of days in Łódź (which due to the oddities of Polish orthography is pronounced woodge, hence, as seat of the Polish film industry, Holly-Łódź), mostly to commune with the memory of Julian Tuwim. Tuwim is a major figure in Polish literature, a poet, songwriter, and author whose songs and children’s poems are still widely known and performed, but I came across him because of one piece that  – not accidentally – was left out of the official five-volume edition of his collected works.

It was an impassioned essay called, “We, Polish Jews,” published in 1944 on the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in a Polish-language newspaper in New York, where Tuwim was living in exile. (He described the city to a friend as “Łódź, but with elephantiasis.”) It was dedicated, “To my mother in Poland or her most beloved shade.” His mother had been shot in August 1942 during the extermination of the Otwock Ghetto, though I’m not clear whether he knew that when he wrote.

I ran across Tuwim’s essay while traveling in Israel/Palestine, and have run across it a couple of times since. The section that caught my attention, and that tends to get quoted is about his Jewish identity. He wrote that he was a Jew because of “blood” – not, he immediately added, in the sense of race, but “Exactly the opposite.” As he explained:

“There are two kinds of blood: blood in the veins and blood from the veins. The first is a bodily fluid; therefore its study is properly the province of the physiologists. Whoever ascribes to this blood any special attributes and mysterious powers other than its organic ones in consequence, as we are now seeing, turns cities into ruins, slaughters millions of people, and ultimately, as we shall see, will bring down slaughter upon his own tribe.”

The other kind of blood was what the Nazis were spilling, “not blood concealed in the arteries but blood on display.” And, he wrote, it was that blood, “the blood of the Jews (not ‘Jewish blood’),” that made him write as a Jew.

I’ve found myself repeating that formulation in various conversations, because I am working on a project on immigration, nationalism and borders, and didn’t want to write simply as a white American defending the rights of people from the southern hemisphere. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Vienna, my father’s parents were immigrants from Central Europe. I grew up on those stories, and I’m tracing them now, which means I’m thinking a lot about my own family history, and about the history of Jews in Central Europe – and the diaspora from Central Europe – and about the question of what it means if I say I am Jewish, and what it means if someone else says that.

Re-reading Tuwim’s essay, I’m struck by my original focus on the part about being Jewish, and the extent to which other writers have highlighted the same sections and phrases. Because that is not how Tuwim starts his piece. He begins by addressing the question of why he claims the pronoun “WE” for both Jews and Poles, writing, “Jews, whom I have always assured that I am a Pole, ask it of me; and now Poles, for the majority of whom I am and will remain a Jew, will ask it of me.” And, he wrote, “Here is my answer for all of them:

“I am a Pole because that’s how I like it. This is my completely private affair which I have no intention of explaining, clarifying, demonstrating or justifying to anyone. I do not divide Poles into ‘pure’ or ‘not pure,’ but leave that to the pure racists, to native and not native Hitlerites. I divide Poles, just as I do Jews and other peoples, into wise and stupid, polite and nasty, intelligent and dull, interesting and boring, injured and injuring, gentlemen and not gentlemen…”

But, in fact, he does explain and clarify. He first notes that “to be a Pole…is neither an honor, nor a glory, nor a privilege. It is like breathing. I have not yet met a man who is proud that he breathes.” That said, it is his identity:

“A Pole—because I was born, grew up, matured and was educated in Poland; because in Poland I was happy and unhappy; because I want ultimately to return to Poland from exile even though heavenly delights were to be guaranteed me elsewhere….

“A Pole—because that is what I was called in Polish in my parents’ home; because from infancy I was nourished there on the Polish language; because my mother taught me Polish poetry and songs…; because that which became most important in my life—poetic creation—is unthinkable in any other language, no matter how fluently I might speak it….

“A Pole—because I have adopted from the Poles a certain number of their national vices. A Pole—because my hatred for Polish fascists is greater than for fascists of any other nationality. And I consider that a very important feature of my Polishness.

“But above all else… a Pole because that’s what I like to be.”

When Tuwim’s essay first appeared, it got a lot of attention and was translated into numerous languages. Not all the attention was positive; in Palestine, Zionist critics took him to task for declaring his Jewish allegiance only now, under pressure, after decades of writing as a Pole. He had never denied his Jewish ancestry and indeed had regularly made reference to it and written poems attacking antisemitism. But he had also written poems satirizing traditional Jews: “Dark, cunning, bearded/ With demented eyes/ In which there is an eternal fear… People/ Who do not know what a fatherland is/Because they have lived everywhere.”  (You can find this and other poems in an article published by the American Association for Polish Jewish studies.)

Today that criticism is often reversed, and Tuwim is taken to task for his naiveté about Poland—his passionate essay concludes with the prophesy that yellow stars will be adopted by the postwar Polish state as the highest badge of honor, pinned on the chests of military heroes, and that was not how things turned out. Poland would continue to be swept by waves of antisemitism, and in the years between the arrival of the Communist government and his death in 1953 Tuwim wrote very little and by some accounts was deeply depressed. But he lived those years in Poland and never seems to have considered leaving, and one of the main streets in the center of Łódź is called Tuwima, and his statue is on the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare.

I’m not saying that’s a happy ending. It’s messy and complicated.

But some of the complications and messiness feel very familiar to me. As those of you who follow my Songobiography know, I have spent my life playing the folk and popular music of the United States. I’ve hitchhiked through all 48 contiguous states, and know the country well. It is my home and I feel very much part of it, for good and bad, better and worse. When a friend who has been active in the Polish klezmer revival (and who is not Jewish) asked if I ever played or wrote about Jewish music, my response was, “Well… I’ve written a book about Bob Dylan.” Who is, I would note, the patron saint of what is now called Americana music. Take that however you choose.

I was recently in Frankfurt, going through an exhibit on possessions looted or otherwise acquired by local gentiles and institutions—including the museum holding the exhibition—from local Jews who were deported or exterminated, and I was struck by a descriptive panel early in the exhibition which referred to “religious Jews and those first turned into Jews by the Nazis.”

I had never before seen that framing of identity, but it immediately struck home, because that was essentially my mother’s story. Her parents were Viennese socialists who dismissed religion as medieval superstition. I am not going to call them “assimilated,” because that word suggests they were somehow less Viennese than their socialist, atheist friends whose ancestors were Catholic. It is like the suggestion that someone in the United States who has one African and seven European great-grandparents is “passing” if she says she is European. It is letting the racists set the terms, and I won’t do that. I cannot deny the power or harm of the racist taxonomies, but I can point out that they are racist and refuse to use them.

My father grew up in Brooklyn, and was far more affected by antisemitism than my mother, the refugee from Nazi Vienna. For her, the racists were the Nazis. For him, they were the kids on his block. And, to make it messier, those kids weren’t unhyphenated Americans. They were all from families of recent immigrants, and when he went off to Washington Square College, he described the student body as “Jewish, Italian, Latin American, Greek, almost all Mediterraneans of one kind or another—and an occasional Christian blond, whom we tended to think of and speak of as the ‘white men’.”

Meanwhile, my mother grew up thoroughly Viennese, daughter of two physicians, one of whom was also a concert-quality pianist, immersed in Mozart, Goethe, the earthy Viennese street dialect, and the certainty that she was at the cultural center of the universe. Her childhood foods weren’t latkes and gefilte fish; they were schnitzel, Kaiserschmarrn, and pastries slathered in whipped cream. When the Nazis labeled her a Jew, that changed the course of her life but didn’t change how she thought about herself. She felt rejected by Vienna and often referred to herself not as Viennese but as European, but her views remained thoroughly Viennese, and socialist, and atheist.

When I graduated high school, one of my college applications had a line asking my religion. Being less sure than my mother, I wrote “agnostic.” That was fine with her, but not with my father. He said, “That’s not what they’re asking,” and told the story of applying to the Brooklyn Athletic Club, responding to the question of religion by saying “atheist,” and having the young man behind the desk smirk and write, “Jew.”

So I’m here communing with the ghost of Julian Tuwim, who insisted he was Polish because he liked to be, and Jewish because Hitler was killing millions of Jews. That formulation bothers me, and makes sense to me. It’s not my formulation, and I have problems with a lot of what Tuwim wrote, both politically and aesthetically. But that essay suggested some different ways of framing these subjects, made me wrestle with some new questions, and helped me clarify my own thinking.

It also led me to study Tuwim’s life and work, which among other things suggested what his response would be to my disagreements: one of his most famous compositions is titled “A Poem Wherein the Author Politely but Firmly Requests a Multitude of Fellows to Kiss His Ass.” (There is a nice modern cabaret version — and yes, the list of “fellows,” includes both antisemites and Jews.)

And lastly… in case there aren’t already enough ironic notes in this story… the Lonely Planet guidebook to Poland cheerfully reports that there is a local custom of rubbing the nose of Tuvim’s statue for luck. The Jew’s nose.

Tatars, Jews, and so forth… some thoughts in northeastern Poland

I recently spent a quiet couple of days in Kruszyniany, a tiny town in northeastern Poland that is notable for having the country’s oldest functioning mosque… and thereby hangs a tale. Indeed, several tales.

This particular mosque apparently dates from the 18th century, but the community that built it has been in the region since the mid-17th century. They are Tatars, descendants of the Golden Horde that reached Eastern Europe shortly after the death of Genghis Khan. Since I’m traveling here as part of a project on borders and migration, and in particular looking into my own family’s history, when I read about the Tatars I immediately wondered what happened to them during the Nazi occupation.

The short answer is not much – but the longer answer is complicated and interesting, because there was a lot of overlap between the Tatar and Jewish communities. In part that was simply because they lived in the same region, so necessarily overlapped with each other as they overlapped with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Poles, Lithuanians, and everyone else who happened to be around. But because there weren’t many Tatars – at most around six thousand and by the 1930s more like half that – and Jewish and Muslim traditions share some important characteristics, Tatars turned to the much larger Jewish communities for some functions that in other parts of the world would have been managed by Muslims.

For example, Tatars tended to buy their meat from Jewish ritual butchers, whose methods of animal slaughter are similar to halal rules, and in some communities also had their sons circumcised by Jewish mohels operating under the supervision of an imam.

The shared practice of circumcision took on a new significance during the Nazi period, because the Nazis could expose Jewish men who were attempting to pass as Gentiles by examining their penises and some Jews in northeastern Poland attempted to pass this test by claiming to be Tatars. Holly Robertson Huffnagle, who has written a study of Tatar-Jewish relations, tells several stories of Jews who survived the Nazi period in this way, one making up a Tatar biography on the spur of the moment, others borrowing identity papers from Tatar friends or leaving their children with Tatar neighbors. 1

Of course, many more Jews survived by passing as Polish Christians or were hidden by Polish Christians – the Tatar community was limited to a small area of the northeast – and there were also some stories of personal clashes and of Tatars who worked with the Nazis. On the whole, though both Jews and Tatars recall regular, close, and friendly interactions before that period and Jewish refugees and survivors seem in general to recall the Tatars with particular affection.

Robertson also writes that the Tatar Mufti of Poland, Jacob Szynkiewicz, helped protect the Karaite Jews by calling Goebbels to make the case that they were racially Turkic. I haven’t found corroboration of that particular story, but there is plenty of evidence that the Nazis considered the Karaim related to the Tatars both by ancestry and as communities that interacted on a regular basis – and therefore (except in a few notable instances) did not subject them to ghettoization or extermination. As a result, some Jews – meaning Ashkenazim – also managed to survive the holocaust by passing as Jews – meaning Karaim.

I hadn’t known about this quirk of the Nazi racial laws (though, once I started looking, there turns out to be a rich literature), and it underlines just how crazy those laws were. The Karaim were a clever bunch and had already gotten themselves exempted from Russian anti-Semitic laws and taxes by arguing that they were from a branch of Jews who had immigrated to the Crimea in the first century BC and hence had an alibi proving they were not around Jerusalem during the crucifixion. The Nazis didn’t much care about that, but crazy as it seems, many of them were extremely assiduous about establishing the details of their race theories.

That is something I’d never thought about, and it deserves some thought. I’ve just read a long paper by Kiril Feferman on the effort the Nazis put into determining whether or not the Karaim should be considered Jewish,2 and it was not just an arbitrary decision: they commissioned studies, consulted experts from several countries, debated the various opinions, and finally concluded that the Karaim, though practicing a Judaic faith based on the Torah, were practicing a different form of Judaic faith and were not racially Jewish – hence, were not Jews for purposes of extermination.

Feferman notes that this craziness included elements of realpolitik: the Nazis wanted to maintain good relations with the Turks and other Muslim powers, and the Tatars claimed the Karaim as allies, especially in the USSR, where both had a history of opposing the Bolsheviks. He notes that the Nazis also made exceptions for a few other “quasi-Jewish groups… such as the Georgian and Bukhara Jews in France and the Mountain Jews in the North Caucasus…” and by now my head is spinning.

So, getting back to the Tatars: the tour of the mosque in Kruszyniany was conducted entirely in Polish, so I understood virtually nothing, but I did catch the words, “Charles Bronson…Charles Buchinski.” I assumed the guide was claiming Bronson as a Tatar, so checked and found that yes, indeed, his father was apparently a Tatar from Lithuania, and this touch of Mongolian heritage presumably was what made him so easy to cast as a Native American…

…and while on that search I also learned that Rudolf Nureyev was a full Tatar and took pleasure in describing himself as a Mongol barbarian.

On a more serious note, the Tatars have recently been caught up in the anti-Muslim violence sweeping Europe. A mosque built by Tatars in Gdansk in the 1990s was firebombed in 2013, and in 2014 the historic mosque and cemetery I visited in Krusziniany were defaced with anti-Muslim slogans and a drawing of a pig. Which is ugly, and the ugliness is underlined by a story in the New York Times that quotes local Tatars blaming the violence on the influx of Muslim immigrants, which they see as raising justifiable concern among Poles that is causing friction where none existed before.

Of course that reminds me of the German and Austrian Jews in the interwar years who blamed rising antisemitism on the influx of Ostjuden – Jews from Eastern Europe – who were strange, poor, and whose arrival was regarded by many western European Jews as causing ill feeling towards proper Germans and Austrians who happened to be Jewish.

That story is usually told with the moral that the western Jews lacked solidarity with their eastern brethren and their punishment was to share a common fate. But I’m going with a different moral: racism and nationalism are sicknesses and discrimination doesn’t make anyone immune from them.  The Nazis viewed Poles as a lower species of humanity, fit only for menial labor – and why should German Jews have felt more solidarity with Polish Jews than German Christians felt with Polish Christians? One can argue that they were oppressed, so should feel sympathy with their co-religionists who were still more oppressed, and some did. But many felt that after centuries of discrimination they were finally becoming recognized as normal Germans and Austrians and the Ostjude were messing that up.

I’m not trying to provide answers, but I’m interested in the questions. Everything I’ve found about the relationship between Tatars and Jews frames that story around coexistence in a vanished past when people of different faiths were neighbors and got along with one another. That story is of course simplified, but the recollections seem honest and I’m sure they reflect real experiences in many communities and situations. I find it  appealing, both as a counterpart to the more familiar stories of Polish Christian antisemitism and as a reminder that Jews and Muslims throughout much of history have lived in overlapping communities and formed common alliances. But like all such stories, it is complicated. I’m on a long journey, and this is just one stop.