Bobby “Al Jolson” Berger, a retired Baltimore cop, insists to Ebony magazine that there’s nothing “racist” about the blackface minstrel act he’s performed for years — and that he’s currently scheduled to reprise at a fundraiser for the Baltimore cops charged in the April 19 death of Freddie Gray. Tickets for the event, to be held November 1, run $45, and the Baltimore Sun reports some 600 have already been sold.
The news is a shock, of course.
As New York faces the recent anniversary of the death of Eric Garner, and as Americans demand answers in the case of Sandra Bland, and as police departments across the country face accusations of racial bias, why would Baltimore cops choose this as their entertainment choice?
Here’s what that act actually looks like, courtesy of an early-Eighties news report:
Berger’s act has long been a source of controversy for the Baltimore PD, and he even was kicked off the force in the early 1980s. He later brought a civil suit against the department, and in 1990, four years after his reinstatement, he received a $200,000 settlement.
In the news report above, over footage of Berger sporting cork-black makeup and a wide vanilla circle over his lips, Berger describes the thrill of the first time he blackened up his face. “I tried it out, and I didn’t recognize myself when I got home.”
At times, the news report is bitterly funny. The reporter notes that minstrelsy was “the beginning of a phenomenon that continues today: white America interpreting black American music and lifestyle.” To illustrate, the report shows the Rolling Stones and the Blues Brothers. That’s the headwaters of today’s fascinating arguments about cultural appropriation — but it’s followed up by footage of Berger smearing on the black, paying tribute to an idea of blackness already considered noxious back when he was a kid.
For Berger — who is, weirdly, shirtless for much of that vintage TV interview — the blackface isn’t about a black face. He insists that it’s instead about paying tribute to Al Jolson. “That’s a big difference,” the reporter in the clip says, a point certainly up for debate. Even in the early 1980s, you couldn’t get far arguing “No, my racism is nostalgic, not hateful.”
Berger seems to think his portrayal of Jolson’s portrayal of blackness is not rooted in racial animus — that, mostly, it’s a way for him to lose himself in performance. But it’s key to remember just how pernicious Jolson’s depiction of black life actually could be. Here’s a video every bit as alarming as the one above, of Jolson himself in the 1934 film Wonder Bar, a deliriously mad Busby Berkeley musical with lots of pre-Code filthiness — and even one unabashed gay joke. The film closes with Jolson’s performance of “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule.” The number is a stunner: All the craft and ingenuity of Hollywood’s best set to the task of imagining a Negro heaven that’s home to dancing watermelon, free fried chicken, and the like.
This is what Berger is nostalgic for?