Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930.

Author:Romeyn, Esther
Position:Book review
 
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Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930. By M. Alison Kibler. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, Z015. xii + 314 pp.

Censoring Racial Ridicule reviews a period between 1890 and 1930 when American city, state and federal governments often regulated speech and expression through censorship and when ethnic and racial minorities mounted frequent challenges to group representation on the popular stage and screen that they considered insulting, defamatory, racist or inflammatory. This story is usually told as a prequel to the adoption of the Hays Production Code that from 1930 to the early 1950s subjected the American commercial film industry to stringent (self) regulation with respect to standards of morality and decency. Most narratives view this history through the lens of the effort of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon elite to Americanize and culturally discipline working class and immigrant popular audiences. This book reframes this history as a "multiracial moral dilemma" and explores tensions between freedom of expression and equality, and between individual and group rights, that continue to have a strong resonance in contemporary debates (9).

Kibler's meticulously researched book recounts the ways in which the Protestant emphasis on moral uplift and the Progressives' support for state intervention in pursuit of the "public good" provided a framework for the contestation of ethnic and racial popular stereotypes. The merits of this book, which discusses Irish, Jewish and African American efforts to control their popular image, lie in its comparative focus. While in some cases relationships between these groups were characterized by racial hostility and competition, at times their interests ran parallel or intersected, leading to inter-racial alliances.

Ethnic and racial caricature was a staple of American popular entertainment, in particular in two key theatrical traditions: the minstrel show and the musical comedy melee. Both traditions were adapted for the early twentieth-century vaudeville stage, on which blackface, "Hebrew," Irish and "Dago" comedians, among others, jostled for the spotlight. So-called "racial" comedy demonstrated that, although legally white, on the scale of the American racial taxonomy Irish and Jewish immigrants were identified as racially in-between.

The protests against these often crude and racist representations were spearheaded...

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