Navigate / search

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

By Elana Estrin

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.

"The Library Chronicle" now available online

By Elana Estrin

Cover of Volume 23, Numbers 2/3 of 'The Library Chronicle'
Cover of Volume 23, Numbers 2/3 of 'The Library Chronicle'

Volumes of The Library Chronicle from 1970 to 1997 are now digitized and available online in a full-text, keyword-searchable digital library. The Library Chronicle was an award-winning journal that included scholarly articles on collection materials, complete exhibition catalogs, and descriptions of important rare book and manuscript holdings at the Ransom Center and other libraries at The University of Texas at Austin. Published from 1943 to 1998, The Library Chronicle is an important resource for information about the Ransom Center’s collections.

This project was funded by Google Books and the Hathi Trust.

These volumes are also searchable in two indexes: a subject index and an index of authors of journal articles.

More information about searching the database can be found here.

Conservation work begins on "Gone With The Wind" dresses with study of stitching and construction

By Elana Estrin

“Great balls of fire!” Scarlett O’Hara declares in Gone With The Wind as she rips down the green velvet curtains, pole and all, and throws them over her shoulder. “I’m going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen.”

Designed by Walter Plunkett, Scarlett’s green curtain dress is one of five Gone With The Wind dresses that came to the Ransom Center in the 1980s when the Center acquired the archive of Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick. The dresses were designed to last only as long as it took to shoot the film. Some of the conservation issues include loose seams, weak areas in the fabric, and mysterious discoloration. This past summer, the Ransom Center put out a call urging Gone With The Wind enthusiasts to help the Center raise $30,000 to preserve the dresses in time for the Ransom Center’s Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014, scheduled to coincide with the film’s 75th anniversary. Thanks to almost 700 people from around the world, from the United States to Turkey to Romania, the Ransom Center surpassed its goal within three weeks.

Efforts preliminary to the conservation work are already underway. Beginning in November, the Ransom Center enlisted the help of Nicole Villarreal, a Textile and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, to do a preliminary study of the curtain dress. Villarreal will also study the other dresses for variations in discoloration and record her observations.

“It seems like there have been various repairs made to the curtain dress at different times,” says Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center. “Before conservators can proceed confidently, they need to know what was original stitching and what might have been done later.”

Morena emphasizes that the conservation project is not a restoration project meant to restore the dresses to their original, pristine condition.

“Complete restoration would effectively erase the historical context of the creation and use of the costume. There’s an inevitable decay with any textile-based item, but you try and slow down that decay as much as you can with conservation and preservation work.”

All of Plunkett’s work on the dresses as well as quick fixes on-set by various seamstresses would be considered original stitching by conservators. Anything done outside of the film’s production would not be considered original. For example, before coming to the Ransom Center, the dresses were displayed in movie theaters across the country. They even had a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a film costume exhibition. Any changes or repairs for display purposes would not be considered original, but it’s not always easy to determine which stitches were made when.

“It’s a puzzle,” Villarreal says. “Here you have very nice, clean stitching with green thread. In other places, it’s very irregular with black thread. And then you have some hooks that are kind of like an afterthought. Maybe this part was damaged that they needed to replace quickly on the set. Just before filming, you don’t have time to make those perfect little neat stitches. Or maybe it was done later.”

On the other hand, a mysterious partial “hoop” that creates an undulating “wave” at the front hem of the curtain dress appears to not be original, though its source and purpose remain unknown.

“If you look at the front hem of the dress in the film, it just doesn’t behave like this. It lies flat against the hoop underneath, and it doesn’t look like there’s this undulating movement at all. So why and when and where this was put in is still kind of a mystery,” Morena says.

In addition to watching the film and studying the dresses directly for hints about their history, Morena, Villarreal, and Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson are searching for clues in the Selznick archive, photographs, and from anyone who has information.

“We know that Plunkett worked on conserving them shortly before his death,” says Wilson. “We want to figure out the extent of what he did. That’s going to be hard unless we can find someone who was with him at the time or knew about the project. Or maybe there are photographs.”

In addition to piecing together the dresses’ history, they have been trying to figure out the cause of a mysterious discoloration on the green curtain dress.

“When you first look at it you think, oh it’s light damage,” says Morena. “But conservators have examined the dress and have remarked that it doesn’t behave or feel like it’s light damage. Normally when you have severe light damage, the pile on the velvet gets really crunchy and dry and in some cases starts to fall away. The areas that seem to have light damage feel exactly the same as the areas that don’t.”

Villarreal says that they plan to consult with Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin, about using lab equipment to do fiber analysis on the discolored fabric and to identify anachronistic fabric.

As she studies the dresses inch by inch, Villarreal takes copious and clear notes so that conservators can later use Villarreal’s observations to guide their work.

“I make sketches, measure everything, and write it all down in a notebook,” Villarreal says. “I write down where there are seams, where there are clips, what thread is used. And then I also have pictures that go with that. If there’s a place where a little boning is sticking out, I can go to that picture, highlight it, and then put it on the report so that when conservators read it, they can go to that spot instead of having to look for it.”

Villarreal grew up in the Netherlands and started sewing when she was nine years old. She worked as a fashion designer before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree. Her Textile and Apparel Technology classmates are mostly fiber science students, which Villarreal says makes her the “odd duck.” Dr. Kay Jay, one of Villarreal’s professors and Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection at the University, recommended Villarreal for this project and helped her see it a different way.

“This project is so suited to her. Nicole’s expertise in this area sets her apart from our graduate students because most of them do not come from a construction background. So rather than feeling like it’s an extra skill that she brought, now she realizes that it really is a good thing in addition to her fiber background,” Jay says. “The Ransom Center’s been wonderful to include us. They’re very collaborative. We feel fortunate to be on campus with them.”

Only about a month into the project, Villarreal says it has already shaped her post-graduation plans.

“When this came up, I was really excited because it was something I’d always wanted to do. If I can keep on doing anything in conservation, that would be absolutely great. Just being involved on the fringe is great. People have been writing and calling from all over the world saying, ‘Can I help? I’m a tailor.’ I think, ‘Hey! I get to work on this project!’ That’s been very exciting.”

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

‘Every now and then you have to think outside the box’

By Elana Estrin

Preservation Housings Manager Apryl Voskamp spends a lot of her time at the Ransom Center making boxes. Yet, she says, “every now and then you have to think outside the box.”

That’s because the preservation lab is responsible for housing every type of item in the Ransom Center’s collections: from Lewis Carroll’s photo album to Ezra Pound’s chess set.

“Every single box in the lab is custom-made,” Voskamp says. “Every housing has to fit the unique object stored inside. We take three measurements for every item: length, width, and thickness. Then we look at what material the item is made of. That way I can figure out what other materials can be housed with it, like tissue, felt, or other kinds of non-abrasive materials to cushion or pad the items.”

The preservation lab has compiled a binder full of templates for common housings such as boxes for books, custom-made folders, and more. But some items are so unique that the preservation team has to come up with entirely new and innovative designs.

For example, the preservation team is currently devising housing for a wicker form in the colleciton. The two-piece form is too tall and fragile to be stored in one piece, so the top and bottom halves will be stored separately. The top half currently lies in a box, and the legs greet visitors to the preservation lab.

“The top half is most stable lying down. I put some batting inside the housing and wrapped simple, muslin, non-bleached cloth around the batting so it has a little pillow for support,” Voskamp says. “We realized that the bottom half would be most stable standing up. Because of the angle of her legs, it tends to roll to one side if you lay it down. We’ll make some sort of support structure for the bottom half.”

One challenge of housing the wicker form is that it’s spray-painted gold.

“The gold pigment is probably a mixture of copper and zinc, which can react adversely with the acetic acid in some adhesives commonly used in boxmaking,” Voskamp notes. “In this case, we would prefer to use water-based chemicals.”

Voskamp had to think creatively when she was asked to store Arthur Conan Doyle’s golf clubs and golf bag. She devised a box that was anything but elementary.

“I put the clubs in the bottom of a box and used foam supports to stabilize them and then hollowed out grooves that he clubs could fit into that would support them. Then there was a shelf above the clubs that the golf bag would sit on. The leather was deteriorating, so we wrapped the shelf with non-abrasive material. Then we gently stuffed the golf bag full of tissue paper to hold its shape,” Voskamp says.

Robert De Niro’s collection, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2006, kept the preservation lab busy devising new housings for swords, a machete, baseball bats, suitcases, and a plaster facial cast from Frankenstein (1994), to name a few. For Voskamp, one highlight was De Niro’s tackle box full of makeup from when he was first starting his career as an actor.

“It was one of the last things he gave us because he wanted to hold onto it. That was special because it was his, it wasn’t a prop,” Voskamp says.

While planning how to house the tackle box, Voskamp faced an unusual challenge: after years storing bottles of adhesive and makeup, the box had started to smell.

“I was fortunate because when it came in, someone who worked specifically with film props was visiting the department. It was incredible timing that we had the perfect person to consult,” Voskamp says. “He was really excited. His reaction was, ‘Wow, this is great! What’s in here?’ We talked about what he would do about the smell, and he encouraged me to make a ‘breathable’ box.”

The sides aren’t completely sealed, which promotes air circulation. But the housing still protects the tackle box from light and dust, which Voskamp says is always her number one concern.

“If you create an isolated and somewhat air-tight environment, you can possibly do harm to the object inside. It could become a problem. It was really important to get air exchange into the enclosure and let those potentially harmful chemicals diffuse, or ‘breathe.’ Eventually whatever reaction is going on inside will slow,” Voskamp says.

In the end, the preservation lab’s boxes are essential to the items they’re housing. Without the proper box, Gloria Swanson’s sunglasses, Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and coin collection, and Queen Elizabeth I’s wax seal would be lost to the ages.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Web exhibition highlights world's first photo

By Elana Estrin

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras. c. 1826. Gernsheim Collection Harry Ransom Center / University of Texas at Austin. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras. c. 1826. Gernsheim Collection Harry Ransom Center / University of Texas at Austin. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the world’s first photograph in 1826 or 1827, but it took more than 125 years for it to be recognized as such. The photograph was rediscovered by photo historian Helmut Gernsheim, who found it lying forgotten in a trunk. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernhseim recalled. “I felt myself in communication with Niépce. Your nightmare existence in a trunk is over,’ I thought. ‘At long last you will be recognized as the inventor of photography.’”

Freed from its “nightmare existence,” the first photograph is on permanent view in the Ransom Center’s lobby. This web exhibition about the first photograph includes information about Niépce, Gernsheim’s discovery, conservation and preservation of the photograph, and more.

See full digitized version of the Gutenberg Bible

By Elana Estrin

Volume 1 of Old Testament of Gutenberg Bible. Iosua, or Joshua. Iudicum, or Judges. Pages 114 verso and 115 recto.
Volume 1 of Old Testament of Gutenberg Bible. Iosua, or Joshua. Iudicum, or Judges. Pages 114 verso and 115 recto.
Among the Ransom Center’s greatest treasures is the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five complete copies in the United States and only 21 complete copies in the world. The Ransom Center digitized the entire copy of its Gutenberg Bible in 2002, resulting in 1,300 images that reveal the text, large illuminations, and handwritten annotations. These images can be viewed online in the Gutenberg Bible web exhibition. The exhibition also includes information about Johann Gutenberg, the popularization of printing, the appearance of the Bible, and more.

The first photograph gets a check-up

By Elana Estrin

In 1952, photohistorian Helmut Gernsheim rediscovered the first photograph lying forgotten in a trunk, 125 years after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the famous image. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernsheim recalled. “I felt myself in communication with Niépce. ‘Your nightmare existence in a trunk is over,’ I thought. ‘At long last you will be recognized as the inventor of photography.’”

Today, the first photograph is on permanent display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. In 2002, the Ransom Center and the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaborative conservation project for the first photograph. Dr. Shin Maekawa, Senior Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, designed an oxygen-free display case to protect the heliograph from potential oxygen-induced deterioration. Both institutions regularly monitor conditions in the display case through a website, which logs oxygen, pressure, relative humidity, and temperature.

Maekawa returned to Austin in March to teach Ransom Center Photograph Conservator Barbara Brown how to maintain the case.

“We’ve been working on maintenance for the oxygen-free case in which the photograph is housed and presented,” Brown said. “This is something that needs to be done periodically. There have been no problems, but it’s always good to double-check the sensors every couple of years to make sure everything is running the way it’s supposed to.”

In addition to assisting Brown with maintenance, Maekawa also came to help the Ransom Center determine whether or not the first photograph could possibly tour.

“When you take a sealed case into an airplane, there’s a lot of pressure acting on the case. So the idea is [to find out] whether we can transport the case or not, and how we can go about it. Since I designed the case, being here will give me a better idea of exactly what other issues there are to consider. The main issue is to maybe build a special container for traveling,” Maekawa said.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.