ABSTRACT

This article explores the often contentious relationship between early American Jewish writer Mordecai Manuel Noah and the African American community in 1820s New York City. I argue that recent critical discussions of Noah’s contributions to Jewish American literature have neglected to confront the author’s racist attacks against the city’s free black population. However, rather than asking the obvious and perhaps unanswerable question of whether Noah’s racism overshadows his Jewish activism, I pursue a different question: what did Noah’s Jewishness mean to the African Americans he engaged with? In developing this question I examine how Noah’s complicated relationship with the African American community actually gave rise to a vibrant discourse that compared the roles of Jewish and African identities in antebellum America. I argue that reckoning with this complex relationship offers us the opportunity to interrogate not only the shifting meanings of whiteness and Jewishness in the period but also the metaphors of “doubleness” that pervade models of minority identity and readings of both Jewish American and African American literature.

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