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Scholar discusses relationship between Jewish and African-American culture in the early twentieth century

Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan
Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Boston College, spent a week at the Ransom Center in July 2009 to conduct research for her recently published book, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Her research was supported by a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies. Cultural Compass spoke with Harrison-Kahan about her new book and her experience researching at the Ransom Center.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: It was a reaction to what’s gone on in scholarship about how Jews appropriated black culture in order to become white and assimilate into mainstream white culture by taking on its racist views. When I looked at women, I realized that the story is much more complicated. There are connections among women drawn together because of the feminist sensibility they both had. They’re not just identifying with each other as fellow minorities but also as women trying to have a career as well.

Outside of this scholarship, I was intrigued by the fact that the writers I talk about—Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber—were from Jewish backgrounds, but their best-known works drew from African-American culture. I think a lot of it has to do with their Jewish backgrounds. There was a sense of connection between African Americans and Jews in terms of minority identity. This was also occurring during the Harlem Renaissance and whites’ fascination with African-American life. They were part of this artistic community that was interested in what was going on with African-American culture. You can see this in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and Ferber’s novel Show Boat.

Q: Which archives did you consult at the Ransom Center?

A: I mainly worked with the Fannie Hurst papers. I was interested in Hurst’s Jewish identity and how she was involved in civil rights and the flourishing of black culture in the 1920s in particular. Hurst’s best-known novel, Imitation of Life, features prominent African-American characters. I looked at a lot of the materials around that novel, including drafts. I was also interested more broadly in her friendships with African-American women, particularly Zora Neale Hurston. I also looked at correspondence, not only with well-known figures, but also with African-American figures who weren’t as well known who had seen the film version of Imitation of Life and had dialogues with Hurst about race that were really fascinating.

Q: What materials in Hurst’s collection did you find most useful or interesting?

A: Hurst actually kept two interesting files in her office. One was called “Negro matters” and another called “Jewish matters.” These were materials she saved not only as a writer, but also as an activist. There were lots of documents about her speaking engagements for different organizations and her attempts to do fundraising for these organizations. A lot of the correspondence about fundraising seemed to be mundane but was really useful as far as seeing the extent of her involvement in African-American causes and also Jewish issues. She hasn’t been fully embraced or recognized as a Jewish writer because much of her work didn’t deal with Jewish issues. But her Jewish identity did play an important role in her life, though not so much religiously.

Q: What surprised you?

A: I was surprised by the extent of Hurst’s involvement in Jewish causes. Some scholars have called her a self-hating Jew and others have said that she passed for gentile. That’s not true. She was very public in her identity as a Jew.

Hurst kept scrapbooks, and they’re all there at the Ransom Center. The scrapbooks mostly had press clippings, including reviews of her novels and articles about her. She was well known also as a public commentator largely on women’s issues. She was interviewed about everything from politics to fashion. It was fascinating to see book reviews of her novels, what she chose to put in her scrapbooks, and what she underlined.

What’s very well known about Hurst is her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston because she’s such a well-known writer. What I also discovered is that Hurst was involved with other African-American writers. For example, Hurst had served as a judge for a literary contest in which a lesser-known writer named Marita Bonner had submitted a story. It had three interrelated sketches under a single title: “A Possible Triad on Black Notes.” Two of the sketches were about black families, and one was about a Jewish family, which included Yiddish. So Bonner herself wasn’t just writing about black identity, but she was interested in different ethnic communities as well. Bonner didn’t win the contest, but in Hurst’s correspondence I saw that she nominated Bonner for a prize. One thing my book argues is that African-American writers were interested in Jewish culture and history. Hurst acknowledges that as well. She even said that she wanted to be at the awards event to meet Bonner, but she couldn’t attend. I’m fascinated by the question of what would’ve happened if these two women had met.

Q: How did you choose the title of your book?

A: The title of my book comes from an essay by Norman Mailer called “The White Negro.” Mailer’s papers are at the Ransom Center, and I did look a little bit at his collection. I was so lucky because there was a Mailer scholar doing research at the Ransom Center at the same time I was there, and he directed me to specific correspondence related to that essay and other materials related to Mailer’s writings about African Americans. That was really helpful to have a community of scholars there.

In many ways, Mailer reinforces stereotypes of African-American identity. He basically paints a portrait of the post-World War II hipster and says that one way for the hipster to rebel was to appropriate black culture. This got a lot of criticism, notably from James Baldwin who said that Mailer has reduced the black man to a walking phallic symbol. I was interested in what it means for Mailer as a Jewish writer to appropriate African-American identity in this way. As many scholars have observed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish writers and cultural producers pulling on black culture from black face to jazz to African-American literature. A lot of this discussion was based on male figures like Mailer and didn’t take gender into account. My title indicates that we have to look at the role women play in this discussion as well.

Q: Did writing this book change your thoughts about what scholars have said about Jewish men’s relationship to African-American culture?

A: What my book offers are ways to rethink gender in terms of masculinity too. I don’t buy the story that appropriating blackness enabled Jews to assimilate. Yes, that happened. But at the same time, there are ways in which their engagement with African-American culture thwarted social mobility as well. The example I use in my introduction comes from a short story by Hurst. There’s wonderful material surrounding this story at the Ransom Center. The story is called “The Smudge,” and it’s about a female blackface performer who has a daughter out of wedlock. She’s able to support her daughter because of her blackface career and also because she makes the blackface makeup herself and sells it. While she’s relegated to only playing the role of the maid and never Juliet since she’s been labeled as a blackface performer, by profiting off of blackface, she can enable her daughter to move upward socially. One day, she comes home with her blackface makeup still on, kisses her daughter’s cheek, and smudges it, which is where the story’s title comes from. The image suggests that there are financial rewards, but there are also ways that that ascent is complicated. This story is a perfect model for what I’m doing in my book.

Q: Do you identify with the subjects of your book?

A: I certainly do in many ways. As a working mother myself, one of the things that fascinates me about the women I’m studying is that the gender issues they talk about are incredibly relevant today. One of their concerns is the struggle for women to have careers and families. This is around the time that the figure of the new woman is emerging. The relevance of these novels is quite amazing. But most of these books are largely out of print, and there’s a sense that these are texts that aren’t being read today.

Q: What advice do you have for researchers coming to the Ransom Center?

A: My advice would be to take advantage of the community of researchers at the Ransom Center. For example, the events for fellows are an opportunity to talk about what you’re doing.

On a personal note, I have young children at home, and I could only be at the Ransom Center for a week, though I had about a month’s worth of research to do. The staff were amazing, and everything was run so efficiently. They helped me so that I could get the most out of my limited time there.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Fellows Find: Fannie Hurst and Diets

Before the Atkins, South Beach, and Cabbage Soup diets was the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet from the 1920s, which demanded fewer than 600 calories per day. One of its earliest practitioners was American novelist Fannie Hurst, who wrote extensively about her weight loss struggles in the early 20th century, when obesity began turning into a cultural stigma. As a Fellow at the Ransom Center last year, Dr. Julia Ehrhardt, Associate Professor of Honors and Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma, studied Hurst’s papers for her upcoming book about the literary history of dieting in the United States. Ehrhardt’s fellowship was funded by the Henriette F. and Clarence L. Cline Memorial Endowment Fund.

In 2007, I spent a fabulous two months in residence at the Ransom Center, thanks to the generous research fellowship program, which allowed me to travel and live in Austin in close proximity to the Center. My research project concerns the relationships among body weight, dieting, and American literature from the turn of the last century until 1939. The book that I hope will result from my research will discuss the emergence of dieting as a widespread cultural practice in the United States and the ways in which authorial concerns about excess weight manifested themselves in American drama, short stories, novels, and memoirs. I am also particularly interested in how the rise of mass-market fiction—a genre that many renowned American authors and critics believed was wreaking havoc on literary taste—Influenced cultural ideas about weight and writing.

I first became interested in these issues when I read Fannie Hurst’s dieting memoir, No Food With My Meals, published in 1935. Although Hurst is best known today as the author of the bestsellers Imitation of Life, Back Street, and Lummox, she was equally known in literary circles as an avid dieter. I applied for a Ransom Center fellowship knowing that the majority of Hurst’s personal papers and memoirs were housed there, and hoping that I might find materials relevant to my project in the archive.

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On the very first day of my fellowship, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of weight-loss pamphlets, printed diets, and calorie charts that filled an entire box in the Hurst collection. As I continued my research in the vast collection, I found letters Hurst composed to friends, relatives, and editors about her struggles to lose weight and to maintain her svelte figure. I also learned from Hurst’s correspondence that several prominent members of the writer’s social circle—including Irvin Cobb, Blanche Knopf, and Helena Rubenstein—regularly commiserated with her about dieting and gave her their sympathy as well as their own weight-loss hints. My research in Hurst’s date books and diaries indicated that she was a diehard devotee of a popular 1920s fad diet known as the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet, and I also found a fascinating folder of letters about Hurst’s concern about the cover image her publisher had selected for the hardcover version of No Food With My Meals.

The most important discovery I made at the Ransom Center were several draft versions of an autobiography Hurst composed in the early 1940s and intended to title Self-Portrait. In the approximately 350 pages of this manuscript, Hurst tells the painful story of growing up fat in the era when thinness emerged as an essential component of normative American identity, and describes the lack of self-confidence she felt as an overweight child and young woman. This manuscript and others attest that even when celebrating her many literary accomplishments, unless a coincident weight loss accompanied them, Hurst would berate herself for not achieving the artistic and personal goals she had set out to realize. Her personal papers thus demonstrate the immense power weight wielded over her self-perception and her identity as an author—a story that is sadly not a unique one during the era I am researching.

Thanks to the Ransom Center fellowship, as well as the staff members, archivists, librarians, and other fellows I met who shared my enthusiasm for the materials I found, my book manuscript now includes extensive discussions of materials I never imagined existed. I hope that my research will help scholars in a variety of disciplines re-think their ideas about weight, authorship, and citizenship during the Modernist period, and to appreciate the fascinating life and work of Fannie Hurst as well. I also look forward to making future visits to the Ransom Center, one of the best literary archives in the world.