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All too often an incident or accident, such as the eruption in Crown Heights with its legacy of bitterness and recrimination, thrusts Black-Jewish relations into the news. A volley of discussion follows, but little in the way of progress or enlightenment results--and this is how things will remain until we radically revise the way we think about the complex interactions between African Americans and Jews. A Right to Sing the Blues offers just such a revision.
"Black-Jewish relations," Jeffrey Melnick argues, has mostly been a way for American Jews to talk about their ambivalent racial status, a narrative collectively constructed at critical moments, when particular conflicts demand an explanation. Remarkably flexible, this narrative can organize diffuse materials into a coherent story that has a powerful hold on our imagination. Melnick elaborates this idea through an in-depth look at Jewish songwriters, composers, and perfomers who made "Black" music in the first few decades of this century. He shows how Jews such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, and others were able to portray their "natural" affinity for producing "Black" music as a product of their Jewishness while simultaneously depicting Jewishness as a stable white identity. Melnick also contends that this cultural activity competed directly with Harlem Renaissance attempts to define Blackness.
Moving beyond the narrow focus of advocacy group politics, this book complicates and enriches our understanding of the cultural terrain shared by African Americans and Jews.
In his complex and challenging book, A Right to Sing the Blues, Jeffrey Melnick seeks to interpret the narrative of 'Black-Jewish relations' within the context of the efforts of Jews in the American entertainment business to 'reorganize Jewishness as a species of whiteness'...Melnick's analysis is intriguing and provocative.
— James C. Cobb
Melnick's well-researched book explores Black-Jewish relations through the lens of US popular music in the 'age of ragtime and jazz,' when Jews became consummate minstrel and vaudeville interpreters, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, and song publishers...Melnick argues that Jews used their black musical forms for popular consumption and in the process to 'reorganize Jewishness as a species of whiteness.'
— G. Averill
Introduction: The Languages of Black-Jewish Relations
"Yiddle on Your Fiddle": The Culture of Black-Jewish Relations
"I Used to Be Color Blind": The Racialness of Jewish Men
"Swanee Ripples": From Blackface to White Negro
"Lift Ev'ry Voice": African American Music and the Nation
"Melancholy Blues": Making Jews Sacred in African American Music
Epilogue: The Lasting Power of "Black-Jewish Relations"