On what would have been his 130th birthday, Steven Gimbel and Gwydion Suilebhan reflect on the famous Jewish performer and racism.
Eddie Cantor was perhaps the first true modern celebrity. There were certainly famous performers before he arrived on the scene, but Cantor was the first to enlarge his fame by devoting himself to humanitarian causes. He was also the first comedian whose brand, as it were, seemed to resonate with ordinary Americans. Cantor was adored for his ability to make people laugh, and he was beloved for making them feel like he was just another member of the family. His career began in Vaudeville in 1907, and his talent as a performer took him all the way to the television era of the early 1950s. He was a true superstar.
This January 31 marks what would have been Cantor’s 130th birthday. The same date, as it happens, also kicks off this year’s Black Lives Matter Week of Action, a nationwide event in which students and educators organize around racial equity in the school system. Together, Cantor and the Black Lives Matter movement offer Jews an important opportunity to wrestle with the complexities of racism underlying American culture.
Cantor, who was born Israel Itzkowitz, became an orphan at age four. He lived in dire poverty in a tenement on the Lower East Side with his Bubbe, who raised him. From a young age, Cantor was the neighborhood clown. He asked Bunky Cohen, a kid from the next block over who performed as Roy in the Vaudeville act “Bedini and Roy,” to get him a job. (Cohen’s nephew Jacob would also end up in show business, performing under the stage name Rodney Dangerfield.) Bedini hired Cantor as his schlepper, taking him out on the road. Before long, Cantor became part of the act, too. Bedini was a juggler, and both Cohen (aka Roy) and Cantor performed as his blackface-wearing assistants.
Within a decade, Cantor became one of the best-known blackface performers in the country, earning a slot in the legendary 1917 Ziegfeld Follies, which featured one of the most talented collections of comedians in Broadway history: Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, and Will Rogers, among others. The castmate who scared Cantor the most, though, was Bert Williams, the most popular blackface entertainer of his day. The young comedian was worried that Williams would overshadow him or—worse—treat him as competition and bury him.
Instead, Williams took Cantor under his wing. “We became ‘Pappy’ and ‘Sonny’,” Cantor recalled in his autobiography, “on stage and off.” The elder entertainer created a joint act, in fact, and taught Cantor the skills that eventually launched him to stardom. Over time, Williams became the father that Cantor never had. “Bert was very dear to me,” Cantor noted. “A fine comedian, a loyal friend, a generous teacher. We were always together.”
Both Cantor and Williams performed in blackface. Only Williams, however, who was born in the West Indies, was Black. Their friendship taught Cantor a great deal about the extent to which Black people like his Pappy were mistreated in America. Growing up in an almost exclusively Jewish world had shielded Cantor from ugly truths. As the two men spent time together, Cantor often saw Williams, who was a show business giant at the time, dealing with unrelenting racism:
“One night we walked into a bar and ordered a scotch. The bartender looked at Bert and said, ‘That’ll be fifty dollars.’ Bert opened up his wallet, took out three hundred-dollar bills, and said, ‘I’ll have six if you please.’ He never got angry. He kept his dignity—but why should he have been placed in such a position?”
Despite his concerns about Williams’ mistreatment, Cantor still used burnt cork to darken his face every night, playing into vile racist stereotypes while performing. Indeed, even after Cantor had achieved stardom while performing without blackface, he continued to wear it, off and on, for years. His 1930 film Whoopee!—best-known for its title song, “Makin’ Whoopee”—includes not only blackface but redface as well. It’s hard to watch today without cringing.
It’s important to understand blackface in its historical context. At the time, it was commonplace. Producers required performers to wear it. Cantor wore it to get ahead. You can’t blame him for adhering to the norms of the times he was born into, except… of course, you can, and you should. Blackface is oppressive now, and blackface was oppressive then, too.
The purpose of blackface wasn’t to make a White performer appear Black but to construct a cartoonish character based on racist stereotypes, then place that character in often-demeaning comic circumstances. Developed during 19th-century minstrel shows, blackface performances caricatured Black people as ignorant, lazy, uncivilized, and immoral in an attempt to vindicate oppressive social structures like slavery.
Cantor’s act was racist even if Cantor saw himself as Williams’ off-stage ally. His outrage about the racism Williams faced didn’t excuse the fact that he made himself rich and famous by playing into racist stereotypes. Having a Black friend doesn’t exonerate him.
Does this mean Cantor was a complete shanda? No. By all accounts, in fact, Cantor was a caring person. He performed as many benefits for as many causes as he could throughout his entire career. He raised money for the Red Cross, the United Nations Children’s Relief Fund, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the American Heart Association, the USO, B’nai B’rith, the United Jewish Appeal, and Hadassah. He convinced people to donate a quarter of a million dollars to relocate children from Germany and Central Europe and help them escape the Holocaust. He served as the president of multiple unions, fighting for the well-being of entertainers on the bottom rung of the career ladder when he was at the top. And if all of that wasn’t enough, he founded the March of Dimes to stamp out polio and other birth defects.
Cantor, in short, was a mensch. At the same time, he was also a willing beneficiary of racism. Both things are true. What’s also true is that in some ways, all American Jews are Eddie Cantor.
We have a lot to be proud of. We’ve made real contributions to the fight for civil rights in America. Half of the white Freedom Riders, who got beaten for sharing a bus with Black people to demand an end to segregation, were Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose book The Prophets inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., walked with both King and Nobel prize winner Ralph Bunche at the front of the march to Selma. Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who went south to register black voters, became martyrs to the cause when they were murdered in cold blood, along with James Chaney, by Klansmen and local police in Mississippi.
At the same time, we also need to understand that our place in the history of the civil rights movement is definitely not in the center. Yes, Leo Frank was lynched in Georgia, a story many Jews are familiar with, but he was just one man among thousands and thousands of Black people, many of their names lost to history, who suffered the same fate. More importantly, in the long history of Jews and race in America, we have plenty to atone for. Some Jews in the South, for example, owned slaves.
We also need to acknowledge the privileges given to Jewish Americans that were not given to Black Americans. After World War II, when so many young Jewish men enlisted to fight the Nazis, the GI Bill allowed Jews to go to college in vast numbers and gave them low-interest mortgages, fueling great suburbanization that moved Jews from cramped tenements to backyard barbeques in the suburbs. Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi, however, made sure that the GI Bill mandated that the distribution of benefits would be overseen by local officials, rather than the Federal government. As a result, Black veterans were cheated out of their share of those benefits.
Like Eddie Cantor, we benefited from racism. Yes, Jews have worked hard, and yes, we deserve the successes we’ve enjoyed, and yes, some of us have struggled against racism. Yes, we are good people… but good people who got a hand up when others around us were being pushed down. When we hear antisemitic comments from Black celebrities like comedian Nick Cannon and NFL star DeSean Jackson, for example, we have to at least try to understand their anger. Understanding it doesn’t mean we have to excuse it. It doesn’t even mean we can’t resist it. It just means we have to think about the historical contexts that give rise to it.
We are living during a period of increasing antisemitism. In 2020, 55% of religiously-inspired hate crimes were aimed at Jewish targets, and one out of every four American Jews reported experiencing antisemitism. At such a difficult moment, it can feel particularly difficult to focus on understanding, but while we continue to fight antisemitism, we might fight racism as well. We have to do better than Eddie Cantor, though… which is a very tall order, given how much good he did. We have to use our position of privilege to help dismantle racism, just like Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman did. If their lives mattered—and they did—then Black Lives Matter, too.