Jun 25, 2021
On June 2nd, 1921, when news of the massacre in Tulsa reached New York, Yiddish daily newspapers in the city were unified in their impassioned coverage of the events. “The most gruesome battle took place. People were dropping like flies,” reported the socialist Forverts.
“85 toyt, hunderte farvundet in a shlakht tsvishen vayse un negers in oklahoma.,”Forverts, June 2, 1921. All translations are mine.
Der morgn zhurnal, a conservative, Orthodox daily, described the “terrifying chaos” of the fires in the city’s Black 2 2 Throughout this article, I capitalize the terms Black and White and their derivatives, as some academic and journalist publications have increasingly done in recent years. The debate about these practices (in particular, about the capitalization of White) is ongoing and likely still evolving, but at this point in time I have chosen to follow the arguments suggested by Kwame Anthony Appiah in favor of capitalizing both terms: Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Capitalizing the ‘B’ in Black,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/id.... district, where “women and children, young and old poured out of the burning houses, half- or fully-naked, and scattered in every direction.” 3 3 “80 getoytet in a rasen milkhome in oklahoma,” Der morgn zhurnal, June 2, 1921. Another prominent Orthodox daily, Yidishes tageblat, recounted in detail “the most awful scenes” at the train station, where women and children crouched behind the station to hide from the crossfire. 4 4 “Kriegs-tsushtand tsulib rasen-shlakht in tulsa; 25 vayse un 60 shvartse toyt; masen fervundet,” Yidishes tageblat, June 2, 1921.
All three papers dedicated their main headline to the riots, allotting them considerable space on the front page. Clearly, the gravity of these events, as well as their importance to Yiddish readers, made an impact on all the editors. However, the three papers’ depiction of the Tulsa massacre and adjacent instances of anti-Black racism differed in ways that often aligned with the ideological fault lines between the progressive Forverts and the conservative Zhurnal and Tageblat.
Although the Tulsa massacre was unique in several key ways, its coverage in the Yiddish press was not. The Yiddish press routinely reacted to race riots with editorial outrage and passionate headlines. 5 5 Hasia R. Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (1977; repr., Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 43–44, 51; Hasia R. Diner, “Drawn Together by Self-Interest: Jewish Representation of Race and Race Relations in the Early Twentieth Century,” in African Americans and Jews in the Twentieth Century: Studies in Convergence and Conflict, ed. V. P. Franklin et al. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 29–32. Moreover, Yiddish journalists often described anti-Black violence with metaphors and idioms borrowed from Eastern European Jewish life. Using terms like “pogroms,” “blood libels,” and “Cossacks,” they articulated a special kinship between Jews and Black people that hinged on a belief in shared suffering. 6 6 Diner, “Drawn Together by Self-Interest: Jewish Representation of Race and Race Relations in the Early Twentieth Century,” 33–36; Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 80–81; Gil Ribak, “Negroes Must Not Be Likened to Jews: The Attitudes of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants toward African Americans in a Transnational Perspective,” Modern Judaism 37, no. 3 (2017): 272, 284, https://doi.org/10.1093/mj/kjx....
This belief and the activism it inspired had deep roots in the beginning of the twentieth century: the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and the following waves of antisemitic violence galvanized a host of new activists in the United States, many of them Jewish, who perceived a similarity between the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe and the mistreatment of Black Americans. According to historian Steven J. Zipperstein, this comparison ultimately provided the backdrop for the launching of the NAACP, the first major US organization for the promotion of Black civil rights. 7 7 Steven J. Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), 187–88, 194–200. This comparison held currency in later decades as well: Yiddish poets in the 1930s borrowed terms from pogrom poems to describe anti-Black violence with the aim of evoking empathy among Jewish readers. 8 8 Amelia M. Glaser, Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 110. Thus, when coverage of the Tulsa massacre in the Yiddish press drew upon comparisons between Black and Jewish suffering, this was consistent with a larger trend in Yiddish American discourse about race in America: numerous articles described the events as a “pogrom,” and one author used the opportunity to point out the deep connections between racist violence, xenophobia, and antisemitism in America. 9 9 “Der naygeriger reporter,” Der morgn zhurnal, June 7, 1921; “Governor ordert unterzukhung vegn pogrom oyf negers in tulsa,” Forverts, June 3, 1921; “Tshief of polis fun tulsa ge’mishpet haynt far’n pogrom oyf negers,” Forverts, July 12, 1921; D. L. Mekler, “Der rasen-has in amerika,” Der morgn zhurnal, June 7, 1921. Others used Hebraic terms for massacre and destruction that have been traditionally associated with acts of antisemitic violence, such as הריגה (harige), שחיטה (shkhite), and חורבן (khurbm). See: Y. Fishman, “Fun tog tsu tog,” Der morgn zhurnal, June 2, 1921; L. Kesner, “Di shkhites oyf shvartse in amerika,” Yidishes tageblat, June 5, 1921.
However, while Yiddish journalists were consistent in their coverage of anti-Black violence in America, the content and tone of their writings often revealed a great deal of ambivalence as well. Alongside expressions of sympathy towards African Americans and their plight, reports in the Yiddish press also exposed anxieties about Black violence, and, occasionally, expressions of paternalism or disdain towards Black Americans. 10 10 Ribak, “Negroes Must Not Be Likened to Jews,” 274–79. This range of responses reflected many Jews’ experiences of feeling torn between a sense of kinship with a neighboring, oppressed minority, and a desire for their own full acceptance in White America. 11 11 Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness, 147–57.
Highlighting this ambivalence shows the extent to which Yiddish writers in the US participated in a culture of American Whiteness that was saturated with systemic racism on every level. Even though many Yiddish journalists and editors were committed to anti-racist causes, they sometimes absorbed the racist biases of their surroundings. 12 12 The Yiddish press was a significant voice in the struggle for Black civil rights and against racist violence, but Yiddish writers were not the only non-Black group to support this struggle: others included interracial or White-dominant organizations such as the Commision on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), as well as various groups affiliated with the Socialist and Communist parties. See: Prudence Cumberbatch, “Anti-Lynching Movement,” in Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, ed. Immanuel Ness (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004); Estelle B. Freedman, “The Anti-Lynching Movement,” in Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 230–52. To understand their role in this system of oppression, it is essential to call attention to the ways in which racism shaped their worldview and their rhetoric, even while they were reporting on and denouncing overt racist violence. In this context, it is useful to compare the Yiddish press with African American periodicals of the same period, which similarly reported on antisemitism and supported Jews in their struggle against it, but at times perpetuated antisemitic tropes or expressed ambivalence towards Jews when they were perceived as a threat to Black interests. 13 13 Steven Bloom, “Interactions between Blacks and Jews in New York City, 1900-1930, as Reflected in the Black Press” (Ph.D., New York University, 1973), 16–18, 55; Zipperstein, Pogrom, 193.
The Yiddish press in America was at its peak around this period, providing a platform for a wide gamut of political and religious worldviews. By the end of World War I, Yiddish periodicals had mushroomed from their modest beginnings in the 1870s to eleven daily newspapers (of which five were in New York City alone) with a circulation of about 650,000, alongside a range of weeklies, monthlies, and various professional journals. 14 14 Arthur A. Goren, “The Jewish Press,” in The Ethnic Press in the United States: A Historical Analysis and Handbook, ed. Sally M. Miller (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), 205; Tony Michels, “‘Speaking to Moyshe’: The Early Socialist Yiddish Press and Its Readers,” Jewish History 14, no. 1 (2000): 51, https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007.... Most of them held radical and secular views, with the socialist Forverts (“Forward”) in the lead, accounting for about 37% of Yiddish newspaper circulation. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Der morgn zhurnal (known in English as “The Jewish Morning Journal”) promoted an Orthodox, conservative worldview, and accounted for 20% of daily circulation. The other major Orthodox newspaper, Yidishes tageblat (“The Jewish Daily News”), founded in 1885, was the oldest Yiddish newspaper in America still in publication at the time. Both Orthodox newspapers promoted a conservative worldview, politically and religiously: they expressed fervent support for the Republican party, and denounced Reform Judaism, socialism, and any other kind of political radicalism. 15 15 Goren, “The Jewish Press,” 215–17; Diner, “Drawn Together by Self-Interest: Jewish Representation of Race and Race Relations in the Early Twentieth Century,” 29–31.
Ambivalent attitudes towards African Americans could be found across all Yiddish publications, and even in the writings of the most radically progressive authors – but editorial ideologies still made a difference. 16 16 Diner has argued that the similarities between the newspapers outweighed their differences, but as I demonstrate below, the different dailies’ attitudes towards African Americans could be mapped, at least in part, onto their ideological differences. See: Diner, “Drawn Together by Self-Interest,” 32. First of all, the papers employed somewhat different strategies in the terms they used to describe African American people. All three papers used the terms shvarts (שוואַרץ), neger (נעגער), and niger (ניגער), at least occasionally. In the narrowest sense, neger can be translated as “Negro” (which was commonly used as a respectful or neutral term at the time, including by Black writers), whereas niger signifies a Yiddish gloss on the American pejorative historically used to denigrate Black people. 17 17 To avoid unnecessary reiteration of verbal violence, I refrain from spelling out the N-word itself. However, since its usage circa 1921 is central to the matter at hand, and to avoid confusion, I use “n—ger” in some translated passages. But as Eli Bromberg has shown, matters were far more complicated: In some contexts, the terms were clearly distinguished, while in others, they might have plausibly been interchangeable for Yiddish readers. This, however, does not mean that niger was ever truly “free” of its racist connotations, even when it appeared in a supposedly “neutral,” i.e., not explicitly racist context. According to Bromberg, Yiddish readers could have been aware of the term’s double meaning as a racist slur, even in sympathetic-seeming journalism. 18 18 Eli Bromberg, “We Need to Talk about Shmuel Charney,” In geveb, October 2019, https://ingeveb.org/articles/w.... Translating this term collapses the ambiguity that surrounded it, at least for some readers, and I have therefore chosen to keep it in transliteration, marked by italics (niger).
All three papers occasionally used the term niger to describe Black people, but with some clear differences. In Yidishes tageblat, it was used fairly consistently, regardless of context, at times alongside shvarts. 19 19 Kesner, “Di shkhites”; “Kriegs-tsushtand tsulib rasen-shlakht”; “Tulsa thut tshuve far rayot: plant obtsuboyen khorev’e hayzer; unruhen zaynen geven organizirt,” Yidishes tageblat, June 3, 1921. Der morgn zhurnal was less predictable, alternating between niger and neger, sometimes within the same article. 20 20 Mekler, “Der rasen-has in amerika”; Fishman, “Fun tog tsu tog”; “80 getoytet”; “Tulsa beruhigt toyzende negers zaynen heymloz,” Der morgn zhurnal, June 3, 1921. The Forverts was the only one that avoided using niger to describe any Black people related to the Tulsa events, instead employing neger and shvarts. 21 21 “85 toyt, hunderte farvundet”; “Governor ordert”; “Tshief of polis.” Although the paper did print this word in other contexts around the same period, the choice to refrain from using it with relation to Tulsa may have reflected an awareness of the term’s racist connotations. 22 22 See, for instance: “Froyen raysen zikh tsu lintshen an arestirten niger.,” Forverts, August 20, 1921; “North korolayna farshprekht 400 dol. far’n arest fun a vaysen, vos hot geholfen lintshen a niger.,” Forverts, December 31, 1919; “Shvartse fodern oyf governor fun dzhordzhya, er zol beshtrofen di vayse huliganes far lintshen a niger,” Forverts, December 6, 1919.
The use of Americanisms such as niger in American Yiddish was commonplace during this period.
Yiddish writing and speech in the United States has been replete with loanwords drawn from American English since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Such “lexical borrowing” had been described by authors throughout most of the century. See: Sol Steinmetz, Yiddish & English: The Story of Yiddish in America (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1986), 31–32, 155.
This was true for many terms that described racist violence or racial relations in the United States, which can be seen in the Yiddish quotations in this essay.
Diner has shown that English words like “lynch” and “mob” were put into Yiddish letters, received proper grammatical form, and were used repeatedly to describe violence against Black Americans. See: Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, 38.
In most of these cases, existing Yiddish vocabulary already had words to describe somewhat similar content, but the authors chose English loanwords instead, likely to describe a more specific, “specialized” situation.
Famed linguist and Yiddishist Uriel Weinreich (1926-1967) showed that in cases of lexical borrowing where new and old words survive alongside each other, the new words tend to become more “specialized,” denoting more specific content. This may explain some of the examples cited here: for instance, instead of using mehume or umruen to describe riots, Yiddish writers often favored the English loanword rayot to refer specifically to race riots. See: Uriel Weinreich, Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems, 7th ed. (1953; repr., The Hague: Mouton, 1970), 54–55.
More clearly discernible are the newspapers’ differing expressions of empathy towards African Americans. On June 2nd, the first day after the massacre, all three papers expounded on the great losses suffered by the Black community. However, the Forverts was the only one to explicitly side with African Americans, writing that “the scenes among the miserable Blacks were heartrending.” 26 26 “85 toyt, hunderte farvundet,” 9. Der morgn zhurnal and Yidishes tageblat, by contrast, maintained a more neutral stance, depicting the events as a “battle” between two comparable (if unequal) warring factions. The Tageblat, for instance, noted that “airplanes with machine guns were seen in the air,” but neglected to mention who was flying them or for what purpose. 27 27 “Kriegs-tsushtand tsulib rasen-shlakht.” The language of symmetry was most pronounced in the report that was printed in the Morgn zhurnal: 28 28 “80 getoytet.”
אַ מחנה פֿון באַוואָפֿנטע ווײַסע האָבן זיך אַ לאָז געטאָן צום נעגערשן קוואַרטאַל. די נעגערס זײַנען שוין אָבער געווען גרייט פֿאַר זיי און עס האָט זיך אָנגעפֿאַנגען אַ שיסערײַ. די ווײַסע זײַנען ניט אַרײַן אין דעם נעגערשן קוואַרטאַל. זיי האָבן געהאַט קעגן זיך איבער אַ טויזנט גוט באַוואָפֿנטע נעגערס וועלכע האָבן זיי באַגעגנט מיט אַ האָגל פֿון קוילן, האָבן די ווײַסע באַלעגערט דעם נעגערשן קוואַרטאַל און אָנגעהויבן שיסן. און אַזוי האָבן זיך פֿאָרמירט צוויי פֿײַנדלעכע אַרמייען וועלכע האָבן געהאַלטן אין האָגלען מיט קוילן איינע אויף די אַנדערע.
A camp of armed White men set out for the Negro district. The Negroes, however, had already been prepared for them, and a shoot-out began. The Whites did not enter the Negro district. They were faced by more than a thousand well-armed Negroes, who met them with a hail of bullets, and so the Whites lay siege to the Negro district and began to shoot. And thus, two hostile armies were formed, ceaselessly showering each other with bullets.
Amidst the chaos in Tulsa, many of the details were still quite vague, and some remain unclear to this day. Nonetheless, the supposedly “balanced” tone of these reports could reflect an empathy for and identification with the White men, or perhaps an anxiety about identifying too eagerly with the Black side in Tulsa. More generally, Der morgn zhurnal and Tageblat were relatively quick to point a finger at the Black community, while the Forverts exercised greater caution in publishing unsubstantiated accusations. For example, the Tageblat suggested that Black rioters had attempted to shoot the firefighters who came to put out the flames in Greenwood, the Black district. 29 29 “Kriegs-tsushtand tsulib rasen-shlakht.” In truth, it was White rioters who chased the firefighters away at gunpoint, a fact that the Forverts reported correctly the very same day. 30 30 Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 51, 237; “85 toyt, hunderte farvundet,” 9. Details aside, the difference between the papers stands out most conspicuously surrounding one central issue: the criminal allegations against Dick Rowland, a young Black man.
In the decades leading up to Tulsa, mainstream racial discourse in the United States had become increasingly focused on Black criminality as a mark that Black people carried with them, and as the root of all social difference between Black and White people in America. Khalil Gibran Muhammad has shown that around the turn of the twentieth century, White scholars anchored notions about African Americans as criminals in new research methods and statistical data backed by the claim of so-called “scientific objectivity.” 31 31 Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 3–4, 8. White Americans believed that criminality was an innate property of Black people, and viewed it as a sign of Black inferiority. In the discourse about race and race relations in America, criminality was used to explain and justify anything from segregation, disenfranchisement, and government neglect of Black populations, to lynchings and other acts of violent oppression. 32 32 For further discussion of this process, see the second chapter of Muhammad’s book, “Writing Crime into Race: Racial Criminalization and the Dawn of Jim Crow” (pp. 35-87) and especially pp. 75-86.
Race riots in particular often started with a White mob forming around the assumption that a Black man had committed a crime. In the case of Tulsa, the chain of events that led to the massacre was set into motion when the police accused Dick Rowland, a young Black man, of attacking Sarah Page, a young White woman. Who they were, to what extent they knew each other beforehand, and what actually transpired on that day – remains vastly uncertain, even a century later. 33 33 Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921, 30–31. All charges against Rowland were dropped after just four months, and any further traces of him or of Page were lost to history. 34 34 Ibid., 200, 205. Nonetheless, in late May 1921, presumptions about Rowland’s guilt, fueled by his arrest and by an inflammatory article in the Tulsa Tribune, led to the formation of White and Black crowds at the Tulsa courthouse. 35 35 Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 101, http://muse.jhu.edu/book/16522; Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921, 32–35.
The allegations against Rowland appeared in the Yiddish press, where they were cited as the cause for the riots, although Rowland was still awaiting his trial. This matter received its most blatant expression in an article by Leo Kesner (1888-1945, sometimes spelled Kassner), published in Yidishes tageblat a few days after the events. Kesner was a journalist, poet, and cultural critic, who had immigrated to America in 1914, and served as assistant editor for the Tageblat for most of the 1920s.
Yekhezkl Lifshits, “Leo Kesner,” trans. Joshua Fogel, Yiddish Leksikon, April 13, 2019, http://yleksikon.blogspot.com/....
He opened his article with one simple question that, he argued, stood at the center of any debate about race riots in the South: “Who is guilty?”
Kesner, “Di shkhites.”
Kesner’s answer, spanning three densely packed columns, touched upon the brutal violence of the White lynchers, the sensationalism of the press in the South, and the sins of the federal government during the Reconstruction era. Throughout his article, Kesner loudly condemned the violence committed against African Americans, and maintained that the riots “cast a dark shadow on our republic, on every citizen of America.” At the same time, in his eyes, Black people were in fact partially to blame for the riots, since they were the ones who committed the crimes that incited the riots in the first place:
די דזשענטעלמען אָוו דהי סאוטה זײַנען מיט זייער באַשולדיקן די שוואַרצע אויף אַזוי פֿיל גערעכט אויף ווי פֿיל עס איז זיכער, אַז כּמעט אַלע ראַסען־ראַיאָטס אין אַמעריקע זײַנען אַרויסגערופֿן געוואָרן דורך עפּעס אַ פֿאַרברעכערישער טאַט, וואָס אַ שוואַרצער האָט באַגאַנגען אָדער געפּרוּווט באַגיין קעגן אַ ווײַסן. אויף אַזוי פֿיל, מוז מען צוגעבן, זײַנען די אײַנוווינער פֿון די דרום סטייטס גערעכט – אָבער טאַקע אויף אַ האָר ניט מער.
The gentlemen of the South are right in their accusations against the Blacks, insomuch that it is certain that almost all race-riots in America are provoked by some criminal act or another that a Black person has committed or tried to commit against a White person. To that extent, we must add, the residents of the Southern states are right – but truly not a hair more.
Other articles repeated similar accusations. A report in the Tageblat suggested that the blame for the riots fell on “one insolent niger, one hysterical girl, and one reporter from a yellow newspaper” (the aforementioned Tulsa Tribune, accused of tabloid journalism). 39 39 “Tulsa thut tshuve.” The managing editor of the Morgn zhurnal, Yankev Fishman (1878-1946), argued that there is no doubt that the White folks of Tulsa “exploited one individual case of a brutal niger to attack all nigers of the city.” 40 40 Fishman, “Fun tog tsu tog,” 1.
In contrast, other reports placed the blame for the violence on White authority figures. Throughout its reporting, the Forverts was careful never to assume that Rowland was guilty, instead addressing him as “a Negro who was accused of attacking a White girl.” 41 41 “85 toyt, hunderte farvundet,” 1. The Forverts laid the blame, above all, on city officials: “As it turns out, the police had not made a single arrest. This indicates that they were not even trying to calm the riots. The guilt falls on Chief of Police Gustafson and on Sheriff McCullough.” 42 42 “Governor ordert,” 1. The Tageblat, too, mentioned that the police had neglected its duties, but still suggested that the main culprits were Rowland, Sarah Page, and the Tulsa Tribune reporter. See: “Tulsa thut tshuve.” Indeed, later investigations confirmed that local authorities committed a series of grave errors in their handling of the riots, and made few efforts to stop the massacre. 43 43 Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land, 101–2; Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921, 67.
Dovid-Leyb Mekler (1891-1976), writing for the Morgn zhurnal several days after the events, dissented from the paper’s earlier statements and went further than the Forverts in his condemnation of the conditions that led to the violence. 44 44 Boston-based Mekler was a regular contributor to the Morgn zhurnal, and later became its editor. “Dovid-Leyb Mekler,” trans. Joshua Fogel, Yiddish Leksikon, November 27, 2017, https://yleksikon.blogspot.com.... In his article, Mekler rejected the term “race riots,” and instead called them “the bloody outbreak against our Black-skinned citizens in Tulsa.” 45 45 Mekler, “Der rasen-has in amerika.” Rather than accepting any allegations against Rowland, he contended that the entire judicial system was rigged against African Americans:
לאָמיר באַטראַכטן די פֿאַקטן... אַ נעגער איז אַרעסטירט געוואָרן אויף דער באַשולדיקונג אַז ער האָט אַטאַקירט אַ ווײַסע פֿרוי. ווען אַ ווײַסער טוט עס, און דאָס פּאַסירט אַזוי אָפט ווי שוואַרצע טוען עס, אַרעסטירט מען דעם פֿאַרברעכער, מען פּראָצעסירט אים און מען שיקט אים אין געפֿענקעניש. דעם שוואַרצן, רײַסט מען אָבער דאָס רובֿ אַרויס פֿון די הענט פֿון דער פּאָליציי, מען נעמט אים ממש אַוועק פֿון געריכט און מען לינטשט אים. [...] אין אַמעריקע איז עס דאָך שוין געוואָרן אַ גאַנץ געוויינטלעכע פּאַסירונג [...] וואָלט מסתּמא אין טולסאַ אויך פּאַסירט דאָס אייגענע.
Let us consider the facts… a Negro is arrested under the allegation that he attacked a White woman. When a White man does this, and that happens just as often as it does with Blacks, the criminal is arrested, prosecuted, and sent to jail. The Black man, however, is torn away from the hands of the police by the masses, literally snatched away from court, and lynched. […] In America this has already become a normal occurrence […] in Tulsa, it would have probably been the same.
Opinions printed in the Yiddish press had a significant impact on the worldviews of the Yiddish-reading public. Around this period, Yiddish newspapers were at the peak of their popularity, with an estimated daily readership of 2 million. 46 46 Goren, “The Jewish Press,” 206. Der morgn zhurnal’s unique daily column, “The Curious Reporter” (Der naygeriker reporter) offers a rare opportunity to gauge readers’ reactions directly. Published from July 1919 to August 1922, this column sent a journalist to the streets to ask Yiddish-speaking passersby one simple question, and published five of their answers. Topics ranged from the political to the prosaic with everything in between, and included questions about Jewish labor unions, sanitary supervision in New York, storage of winter clothing, and the League of Nations. On June 7th, 1921, on 7th Street near Tompkins Square Park, the curious reporter inquired: “What do you think about the race riot in Tulsa?” 47 47 “Der naygeriger reporter.”
The paper printed five answers alongside the respondents’ names, addresses, and professions. They provide a glimpse into the world of Yiddish speakers in New York, at an opportune moment, and with incredible focus on the actual beliefs of real people that were likely shaped, directly or indirectly, by the printed word. 48 48 It is impossible to know how accurate these quotes were, and they may have been edited or embellished. However, given that this column ran for three consecutive years and always included names and addresses of its interlocutors, it seems unlikely that they could have been fabricated, and they probably represented real people, at least for the most part.
Three of the five respondents expressed unequivocal support for the Black victims of Tulsa, repeating some of the same rhetoric that appeared in the Yiddish press. Alex Horowitz, a chandelier maker from Brooklyn, called it “a pogrom down to the last detail” (mit ale pitshevkes), comparing it to antisemitic violence in Ukraine. Isidor Cooper, of 102nd Street, called it a “massacre” (shkhite), and argued that in the South, dogs received better treatment than Black people. H. Vinkler, a worker from Avenue B. (also in Brooklyn), praised Black Americans for their courage to defend themselves, and wished that Jews in Eastern Europe had been quite so bold.
The two remaining respondents believed that African Americans carried some responsibility for the riots, although both attempted to balance their comments between Black and White culpability. Nathan Zilbershtok, an insurance agent from Brooklyn, wished that the pogroms against nigers in the South would end, before asserting that “the nigers also had a part in the reasons for this massacre, although the Whites are certainly guiltier.” 49 49 In this article, the word niger appears in all five responses. Due to inconsistencies of pronunciation and orthography, we cannot know if the respondents actually uttered this word, or if the (anonymous) journalist simply chose to render it in this way in writing. Finally, L. Pomrin, a painter from 18th Street in Manhattan, argued that “we don’t know who is guiltier in this terrible war, but the government of the United States will bring the culprits to justice. In America, all people are equal before the law.”
In Tulsa of 1921, they were not. A few weeks after the riots, the all-White grand jury concluded its investigation. Their final report exonerated the Whites who participated in the riots, and pinned the blame on “a certain group of colored men,” who were found to be “the direct cause of the entire affair.” 50 50 “Grand Jury Blames Negroes for Inciting Race Riot; Whites Clearly Exonerated,” Tulsa Daily World, June 26, 1921. Quoted in: Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921, 149. The jury’s report further explained to Tulsa’s Black community that they were not, in fact, equal before the law:
While we find the presence of the armed negroes was the direct cause of the riot, we further find that there existed indirect causes more vital to the public interest than the direct cause. Among these was agitation among the negroes of social equality […] We find that certain propaganda and more or less agitation had been going on among the colored population for some time. This agitation resulted in the accumulation of firearms among the [black] people and the storage of quantities of ammunition, all of which was accumulative in the minds of the negro[,] which led them as a people to believe in equal rights, social equality and their ability to demand the same.
Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921, 149.
In many of the commentaries on the Tulsa massacre, authors cited “the South” as a locus of racist violence, or even as a source of US racism itself. Writing for Yidishes tageblat, Leo Kesner framed race riots as a problem unique to Southern states and believed that the instigating tensions could be resolved with greater interventions by the federal government in racial matters in the South. 52 52 Kesner, “Di shkhites.” After Tulsa, several authors in the Yiddish press discussed anti-Black violence as a matter that was mostly prevalent in the South, and had until recently been limited to that region. 53 53 Mekler, “Der rasen-has in amerika”; Fishman, “Fun tog tsu tog”; P. N., “Nokh a tsetel fun brutale lintsherayen in dzhordzhya steyt.,” Forverts, July 1, 1921. More generally, those authors frequently suggested that Black migration to the North would be the only solution to the South’s racism. 54 54 Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, 45.
For Yiddish writers residing in the urban North, it might have been convenient to imagine anti-Black racism as someone else’s problem, confined to faraway, rural lands. But this was far from true: the urban North was a crucial site for the development of racism in the United States, and the idea of Black criminality was widely accepted by White Americans of every ideological stripe. 55 55 Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness, 4. Nonetheless, “the myth of Southern exceptionalism” was a popular belief that prevailed in the North well beyond the Yiddish press or the Yiddish-speaking community. Many Northern liberals attacked the South’s brand of Jim Crow, all the while ignoring, and thus perpetuating, the system of racial inequality that had dominated Northern ideologies and policies as well. 56 56 Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, eds., The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Brian Purnell and Jeanne Theoharis, “Introduction: Histories of Racism and Resistance, Seen and Unseen: How and Why to Think about the Jim Crow North,” in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South, ed. Brian Purnell, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 2–7, http://muse.jhu.edu/book/76051.
Yiddish writers may have underestimated the effects of racism in the North and overlooked some of its aspects, but they did not ignore it. The Yiddish press reported extensively on race riots in the Northern United States during this period, starting with the 1917 East St. Louis riot, and culminating with the “Red Summer” of 1919, during which riots erupted in Chicago, Washington D.C., and elsewhere. 57 57 Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, 43. Occasionally, they also commented on more mundane, everyday forms of racism and discrimination faced by African Americans in the North. In particular, they discussed the combined effects of poverty and racism on housing segregation, health, and employment, which the Yiddish newspapers considered to be related phenomena. 58 58 Ibid., 46.
One author who paid close attention to racism in the North was Y. L. Berditshevski (1894-1952), better known by his pen-name, Judah Guze-Rivkin. Born in Rogatshov (Rahachow) in present-day Belarus, Guze-Rivkin immigrated to the United States in 1913, and started publishing poems and short stories in various newspapers and journals. 59 59 Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon Fun Der Yidisher Literature, Prese Un Filologye, vol. 1 (Vilnius: Vilner farlag, 1928), 543–44. In his writing, he routinely portrayed everyday life in New York, and occasionally commented on race relations in the city. 60 60 See, for example, in his collections of poetry and short stories, published in the 1920s: Y. Guze-Rivkin, Blumen un derner: dertseylungen, bilder, shtimungen un lider (New York: Literarisher farlag, 1924); Y. Guze-Rivkin, Shtraln (New York: Farlag “Gloyben,” 1928).
On June 24th, 1921, several weeks after the Tulsa massacre, Guze-Rivkin published a short account in the Forverts entitled “Shoe Shiner” (Shtivl-putser), which he described as “a true story” (an emese pasirung). 61 61 Y. Guze-Rivkin, “Shtivel-putser. an emes’e pasirung.,” Forverts, June 24, 1921. In his story, Guze-Rivkin is sitting quietly in the park when he is approached by several young shoe shiners asking to polish his boots. One by one he sends the children away, until a young Black boy, nine years of age, captures his attention: the little “nigerl,” with his sick mother and his “sad little voice,” tugs at the author’s heartstrings. 62 62 Guze-Rivkin used the expression nigerl, or “little niger.” This word is constructed with the diminutive suffix [-l], here probably intended both as a sign of endearment and to indicate the boy’s young age. In other texts from this period, Guze-Rivkin uses the same term to refer to young Black people, and never uses niger alone. Such usage of nigerl was common at the time, both in the Yiddish press and in Yiddish literature. Although this word stems from niger, in this text the author clearly distinguishes it from the racist speech of non-Yiddish speakers (see below). This aligns well with Bromberg’s analysis, which suggests that the explicit signification of niger as a racial slur was most clearly demarcated in contexts where it was used by non-Yiddish speakers. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the racist connotation of the origins of nigerl, and its similarity to the racist speech of other characters in this story, linger in the background. See: Bromberg, “We Need to Talk about Shmuel Charney.” Filled with compassion, he decides to give the boy a chance, a decision which inflames his rejected White competitors. Suddenly, they rush over and circle the boy, barraging him with racist attacks: “filthy n—ger” (paskudner niger), they exclaim, “we’ll show you!” 63 63 In this context, the children’s use of niger contrasts with the author’s nigerl, and the remainder of their speech is clearly marked as racist, thereby supporting the translation of their use of niger as “n—ger.”
Shocked by their behavior, Guze-Rivkin launches into a dialogue with the children, trying to reason with them:
— מאַכט ניט אַזאַ ליאַרעם, נאַראָנים, וואָס איר זײַט! – האָב איך זיך אויף זיי צעשריִען [...] ער איז אַ וווילער ייִנגעלע און איז באַרעכטיקט צו מאַכן אַ לעבן פּונקט ווי איר!
— יאָ, אָבער זיי זײַנען ניט קיין פֿײַנע מענטשן, די ניגערס!
— ווער האָט דאָס דיר געזאָגט?
— וואָס הייסט ווער? מײַן טאַטע, מײַן מאַמע, אַלע זאָגן דאָס!
— ניין, קינדער, – האָב איך געפּרובירט מיט אַ ווייכן טאָן געבן זיי צו פֿאַרשטיין. – אַלע מענטשן זײַנען גלײַך, האָבן אַ רעכט צו לעבן [...]
— ווייס איך וואָס ער פּלאַפּלט דאָרט! – איז איינער אַרויסגעשפּרונגען אַ בייזער – די ניגערס זײַנען פּאַסקודנע מענטשן און מ׳דאַרף זיי אויסהרגענען! און דו ביסט אַ ״באָלשעוויקי״...
— Stop making such a racket, you fools! – I shouted at them […] he is a good little boy and has as much a right to make a living as you!
— Yes, but they’re not good people, the n—gers!
— Who told you that?
— What do you mean, who? My dad, my mom, everyone says so!
— No, children, – I tried to explain to them in a tender voice – all people are equal, and have a right to live […]
— I know what he’s blabbering about! – one of them leapt in anger – the n—gers are filthy people and they should be killed off! And you are a “Bolshevik”…
Guze-Rivkin’s depiction of the boys’ hate speech exemplifies just how commonplace anti-Black racism was, even in the “liberal” North. Despite their young age, the boys had already managed to internalize the racist attitude of their surroundings, and considered it an utterly normal view, attributable to White authority figures, and to everyone around them. In response to the author’s resistance to their violence, they immediately mark him as a radical and a foreigner, a “Bolshevik,” adding a likely antisemitic undertone to their insults.
Alongside his firm anti-racist stance, Guze-Rivkin’s depiction of the Black boy also exhibits some of the most common racial stereotypes of his time, such as the boy’s “full, red lips,” or his sparkling white teeth, contrasted with his “Black, but wise little face.” Moreover, the tone of his compassion for the boy betrays more than a hint of paternalism, which at the time was a recurring trope in Jewish writings about African Americans, regardless of their age. 64 64 Ribak, “Negroes Must Not Be Likened to Jews,” 278. But more importantly, this story shows a keen awareness of, and desire to report on, the perils of racism that lurked behind every corner, even in New York City, the Northern, urban, progressive mecca of the Yiddish press. 65 65 For instance, Joseph Opatoshu frequently explored themes of racist violence and racial conflicts in his stories from the interwar period. Joseph Opatoshu, Rase lintsheray un andere dertseylungen (Warsaw: Farlag “Perets-bibliotek,” 1923), https://www.yiddishbookcenter....; Joseph Opatoshu, Mentshn un khayes (New York: Kooperativer folks farlag fun internatsyonaln arbeter ordn, 1938), https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/yiddish-books/spb-nybc200239/opatoshu-joseph-mentshn-un-hayes.
Overall, Yiddish writers were intimately familiar with racism in the United States, and wrote voluminously about its manifestations. They regularly denounced violent outbreaks against African Americans, compared them with antisemitic pogroms in Europe, and empathized with their Black victims. Yiddish authors focused much of their rage on the South, which they tended to view as the “real” racist problem, at times neglecting expressions of racism in the North. When the Tulsa massacre erupted, they had their sensational headlines and impassioned metaphors at the ready, and they immediately set to the task of depicting the unprecedented devastation.
At the same time, Jewish immigrants were joining a racist society, and in their eagerness to assimilate into it, they adopted some of its racist notions as well. In their writings, the rhetorical underpinnings of of anti-Black racism were sometimes inseparably woven together with denunciations of its overt manifestations: outraged reporting about the deadly horrors of race riots was coupled with belief in Black criminality; compassion for African Americans and their suffering blended seamlessly with the fetishization of Black physical stereotypes and a paternalistic tone. Such biases were so deeply embedded into US society that they cropped up in even the most vehement critiques of anti-Black racism.
Such biases are evident, for example, in Opatoshu’s short story Lintsheray (“Lynching”) cited above. For a translation of this story and analyses of its depiction of race, see: Joseph Opatoshu, “A Lynching,” trans. Jessica Kirzane, In geveb, June 21, 2016, https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-...; Jessica Kirzane, “This Is How a Generation Grows’: Lynching as a Site Of Ethical Loss in Opatoshu’s ‘Lintsheray,’” Zutot 9, no. 1 (2012): 59–71, https://doi.org/10.1163/187502..., also excerpted in In geveb here; Marc Caplan, “Yiddish Exceptionalism: Lynching, Race, and Racism in Opatoshu’s Lintsheray,” in Joseph Opatoshu: A Yiddish Writer between Europe and America, ed. Sabine Koller (London: Legenda, Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, 2013), 184–98, also excerpted in In geveb here.
The attitude of Yiddish writers towards African Americans reflected the tensions that US Jews experienced during this period – between their solidarity with an oppressed ethnic minority, and their desire to shake off their own minority status and become de-ethnicized, White Americans.