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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.

Jorge Luis Borges muses on his desert island book selections

By Francisca Folch

Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.
Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.

Ever since Daniel Defoe set the paradigm for the shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe, desert-island lists have remained a popular setting for apocalyptic scenario decisions. Considering the books he would choose should he suffer the fate of the character, the poet André Gide included Cousin Bette, Dangerous Liaisons, and Madame Bovary. Faced with the same problem, G. K. Chesterton’s sensible selection was Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. In a query made by The New York Times at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ten most popular books for a desert island included “the Bible for comfort, . . . Boswell in lieu of society,” and—with self-conscious irony—“Robinson Crusoe for guide.” Doubting the sincerity of its readers, the article qualifies these as “books of the silent times,” adding that “The suburbanite . . . would die so soon on a desert isle, where there were no trains to run for; that the burial service should be all the literature he could want.”1 Notably, the character of Robinson Crusoe himself did not subsist on such a strict textual diet, since he was able to rescue several volumes from the shipwreck. Aside from books on navigation, he found “three very good Bibles,” “some Portuguese books. . . two or three Popish prayer-books, and several other books.”

In the short essay “La biblioteca de Robinsón” (“Robinson’s Library”), an unpublished manuscript recently acquired by the Ransom Center, readers can now discover Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s take on this issue.

Despite the slightly facetious title, Borges considers the task of selecting these life-sustaining texts rather seriously. The act of reading was essential for the erudite author, who in fact claimed that his had been “a lifetime dedicated less to living than to reading,” adding in his poem “A Reader”: “let others boast of the pages they have written; / I am proud of the pages I have read.” Libraries were of primordial importance to him, and in his “Aubiographical Essay,” he remarked that “if I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library.” Although he frequently contributed to literary magazines in Buenos Aires and had become an established writer in his forties, Borges was forced to take on a job as cataloger for 10 years at a minor municipal library. The Perón regime to which he was opposed later fired him and appointed him Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits at a public marketplace, a position that Borges declined, declaring himself incompetent. To remedy this humiliation, after Perón was deposed in 1955, the writer was appointed director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires, although, ironically, by this time he was almost completely blind due to a congenital eye disease. Repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, rumors have it that his conservative political views kept him from winning the award. Borges visited the United States for the first time when he held the Tinker Foundation visiting professorship at The University of Texas at Austin from 1961 to 1962, and, after the death of his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, he travelled widely, giving lectures on literature and writing.

As a poet, essayist, and short-story writer, Borges was known for creating metaphysical fantasy worlds in which men search for meaning in an infinite universe. In his famous short story “The Aleph,” which tells the story of a writer who discovers a peephole that contains all the points of view in the universe, past, present, and future, Borges quotes Hamlet as an epigraph: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count / myself a King of infinite space.” A believer in the Hinduist and Buddhist idea that reality is illusive and anchored in the mind, Borges appreciated the richness held in the world of imagination. Riddled with labyrinths, Borges’s texts convey the disquieting sense that ultimate knowledge is elusive, residing in textual codes guarded by confused librarians. The short story “The Library of Babel” imagines the universe as a library, which includes the dizzying catalog of all possible books:

All: the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon the gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all the books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.2

Borges’s fiction often turns into mystical disquisitions that lend themselves particularly well to the essay form, in which his intricate style shines through with polished eloquence. The manuscript of “Robinson’s Library,” which is signed by Borges and displays his small neat handwriting, is dated circa 1940, at a time when the author’s eyesight was starting to show signs of fading. Given his obsession with books as repositories for knowledge—both actual and potential—this brief piece is a rare exercise in minimalism.

Borges begins by setting the rules of his quest, with the warning that the three individual volumes are not supposed to be “the three most important books in the universe or even. . . the three most memorable books in our personal experience.” Since his selection is not based on the desire to maintain a historical record of literature, nor act as a biographical composite of his personality, he finds little sense in choosing books from the established canon or books he already knows by heart. Playfully toying with several answers, Borges is sobered by the daunting thought of choosing texts that will accompany him for all eternity. Dismissing famous novels and books of verse for their dangerous nostalgic value, the author bans texts that discuss human relationships altogether and suggests instead those that deal with “the relationship man-God, man-numbers, man-Universe.”

The metaphysical concerns that appear in Borges’s fiction form the basis of his required island literature. On his last visit to Austin in April 1976, he gave an interview to The Daily Texan where he commented on his writing methods and offered suggestions to future writers. Asked about his idea of God, he stated: “I say what Bernard Shaw said, ‘God is in the making.’ God is not something prior to the universe. We are all creating God. When we think, when we feel, when we write, we are simply creating that being.” In a similar philosophical vein, in his essay he selects books that will provide eternal food for thought, “books that one must conquer little by little and that can populate the unchanging years.”

His list results in a lucid, yet unexpected trio: a metaphysical book (his examples are spearheaded by Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, which is influenced by Eastern mysticism), a book “on history that is sufficiently remote” (Plutarch, Gibbon, and Tacitus battle it out for this title), and a good algebra text, with many exercises—the latter a revelation that can be traced to his fascination for the elegance present in mathematics, and that has been recently explored by scholars.3

The Jorge Luis Borges collection at the Ransom Center includes some early letters and manuscripts, a notebook containing a collection of poems, and five of Borges’s personal notebooks dating from the period 1949–1960: four in Borges’s own hand, the fifth dictated to his mother. The collection also comprises working drafts of a number of published works and several manuscripts of texts, such as the first draft of one of his best known short stories, “Emma Zunz,” which forms part of El Aleph (1949). Also in the collection is a fair copy of his sonnet “Texas,” dated 1967, which was donated to the Ransom Center by Edward Larocque Tinker, an author and philanthropist whose collection of art, books, and artifacts focuses mainly on South America. Illustrating the curiously appropriate position that Borges holds as a unique figure in the Ransom Center’s archive, this poem recognizes the similarly vital tensions that arise in two distant places and backgrounds, the Texas plains and the Argentine pampas: “Here too. Here as at the other edge / of the hemisphere. . . / Here too the never understood, / Anxious, and brief affair that is life.”4

1September 22, 1900. The New York Times.
2Translated by William Goldbloom Bloch in The Unimaginable Mathematics. Oxford UP, 2008.
3This theme is explored in the collection of essays Borges y la matemática (Borges and Mathematics, 2003) by Argentine mathematician and writer Guillermo Martínez, and books such as The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch (2008) and Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics by Floyd Merrell (1991).
4Borges, Jorge Luis. Texas. Trans. Mark Strand. Austin: Humanities Research Center, UT, 1975.

Opening today: View video preview of "Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century"

By Alicia Dietrich

Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours to 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays.

Digital collection highlights photos taken in Corpus Christi during Great Depression

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center has made available online the digital collection “The Itinerant Photographer: Photographs of Corpus Christi Businesses in the 1930s.”

The collection highlights photographs taken of businesses in Corpus Christi during the Great Depression. The project to make these materials accessible online was funded by a TexTreasures grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.

Until now, access to the collection was limited, due to the fragility of the collection material and its uncataloged status. The Center has now constructed a Web site as a portal to the itinerant photographer collection. It is an introduction to the collection and its imagery, and a searchable gallery of the 473 glass plate negatives provides a comprehensive exhibition of this physically fragile collection. All the imagery on this Web site was produced from the glass plate negatives. An online finding aid of the collection has been created as well.

In early 1934, a traveling photographer arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, searching for businesses that would pay him to take pictures of their establishments. Part photographer, part salesman, he went door to door offering his services. He left town after only a few weeks and abandoned his glass plate negatives with a local photographer because they no longer had any commercial value to him.

The images portray a wide range of businesses operating in Corpus Christi, which was relatively prosperous in the midst of the Great Depression, including those in the agricultural industry, retail and wholesale businesses, city and county government offices, manufacturing businesses, and those offering numerous types of services.

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







Upcoming member events offer greater access to Ransom Center treasures

By Christine Lee

“Wild at Heart,” the opening party for the spring exhibitions, is just one of the many exciting events that the Ransom Center has planned for members. View full calendar featuring a curator tour, mixology class, Magnum Photos presentation, and more. We invite you to join, upgrade, or renew today to experience all that the Ransom Center has to offer. Below, view the new membership video, featuring members speaking about what they enjoy most about their involvement with the Harry Ransom Center.