Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Few Basic Facts about the word Muslim and the population carrying that label

The airline incident in Detroit this week was, of course, scary, but it also was confusing. The accused bomber is black, and from Nigeria, and doesn't look anything like the images we'd previously seen in the media of who we're supposed to suspect. Although I already knew that not all Arabs are Muslims, nor vice versa, I've never been completely certain about terminology or pronunciation, so I looked again to Phil Herbst's Dictionary of Ethnic Bias, and found the following. 
     Muslim. Arabic muslim, from aslama (to surrender to God, to seek peace)--an adherent of Islam. Islam (surrender, sub­mission) corresponds in meaning to Muslim. As The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (1991) explains, the s in Mus­lim is pronounced with a hiss; to pro­nounce it as the s in nose alters the mean­ing in Arabic to "cruel," thus becoming offensive. 

     As both adjective and noun, Muslim is preferred by adherents of Islam to the Westernized Moslem. According to re­search done for Allan M. Siegal, assis­tant managing editor of the New York Times, Muslim is seen in print almost two to one to Moslem (reported in Safire 1991). In the United States, Muslim is used to refer to a diverse population of Ameri­can Muslims, including African Ameri­can Muslims and immigrants from Pa­kistan, Egypt, India, and many other countries (an Arab, however, is not nec­essarily a Muslim). 
     So that's what Phil had to say. I also wondered about population distribution, and found this, from the Economist (October 8, 2009). This should be a surprise to people who still equate the terms Muslim and Arab, as they will soon see that the largest Muslim populations live in Asia: 
     A new survey of the world’s Muslim population, by the Pew Research Center based in Washington, DC, . . . estimates the total number of Muslims in the world at 1.57 billion, or about 23% of a global population of 6.8 billion. Almost two-thirds of Muslims live in Asia, with Indonesia providing the biggest contingent (203m), followed by Pakistan (174m) and India (160m).
   Perhaps more surprising will be the finding that the European country with the highest Muslim population is not France or Germany, but Russia, where 16.5m adherents of Islam make up nearly 12% of the total national population. Compared with other surveys, the report gives a lowish estimate for the number of Muslims in France (3.6m), as it does for the United States (2.5m); in both those countries, secular principles make it impossible to ask religious questions on a census.

     So that's the Economist. At least we have some basic information now. And, wow, about 23% of the world population.  That's a lot of people to have so many fears and misconceptions about.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This is a photo from a just-integrated Virginia school in 1954, published in the New York Times. Oh, what I'd give to hear the thoughts of the two girls during what I assume is their first encounter. I will say that to me, the white girl looks friendly, and the black girl looks scared. And being a writer, I think I could begin to imagine a dialogue and spin out a scene. And I think I will. Just not right now.
     I looked for a photo by using the search term "integration" and was surprised that the first four or five pages of images were almost all schematic diagrams from industry having to do with systems integration. And the reason I was even looking for an integration image was that I was thinking about a conversation that was going on at an online forum called DetroitYes. This is an extremely active forum, and the people who post there have been very friendly and very supportive about my novel.
     In a recent thread, someone from Wisconsin posted about a visit to Detroit and how surprised and impressed and even enchanted he'd been by the city. This is the kind of thing that devoted Detroiters like to hear. But one person chimed in by saying that this is the typical thing one hears from suburbanites who duck in for one afternoon, hit the highlights, and then go back to the suburbs, never really seeing the pain and misery and poverty that reside in most of the city. This person assumed that the Wisconsin guy was white, and then others joined in, noting the assumption, telling the second guy not to be so negative, and soon the conversation was about race.
    One person sounded a note of great optimism about the gradual and future blurring of the racial divide, and I noted that I have had people at my readings who have said the same--especially noting that with more biracial children, the divide will continue to diminish as these children negotiate the borders of race and how they categorize themselves. Several people agreed with the optimistic view, and then someone said something along the lines of "it gives me no pleasure to say that I think the racial divide is widening," and after that no one said anything. Of course, perspective is everything. It all depends who you are and where you live. A lot of the divide is more economic than racial, I think, though the two are so deeply integrated or intertwined. Perhaps I might create a diagram to show what I mean--similar to those I ran across when I first started looking for an integration image.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Segregation and Literature

This is the cover of the latest Publishers Weekly--a magazine about books and publishing. In case the print is too small for you to read it, the words under Afro Picks say "new books and trends in African-American publishing." Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly (who edited the feature and, with the creative director, chose the cover image and tagline [and he's also black]) explained that the "image is from the book 'Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present' by Deborah Willis (Norton). The image is called Pickin’ by photographer Lauren Kelly. Ms. Willis is chair of the photo dept. at NYU, a MacArthur Fellow & a scholar of black photography and representation."  A lot of people did not like this cover
     Some comments: the image is "aesthetically offensive," portrays black literature as "tribalistic," portrays the "black Medusa," is outdated and anachronistic, is simply ugly, is cheap and tasteless. Some thought it was a bad pun. Some didn't like boiling down all African-American lit to this one image. Still, some people did like it, thought it was funny or clever, and told others to "lighten up." Calvin Reid apologized to those who didn't like it.
     Part of the issue, I think, is the way publishers categorize literature (some would say "segregate") by author or subject--in some sense making African-American literature a genre. Thus, when you go into a bookstore, you might see an area or shelf labeled African American where books by African-American authors reside. Some black authors have been able to "cross over" from the labeled shelves to the general shelves--Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Colson Whitehead, and others--but many haven't. And then, the question is, how many non-African Americans cross over and go to those labeled shelves? I don't think I ever have.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Not your Jewish Christmas

 There are so many things in the world that I do not know--especially about the customs and traditions of groups I do not belong to. When I have attended church services--for example, a wedding, funeral, christening, or so on of someone I know--I have felt some discomfort at my ignorance: not knowing the words to the songs, not knowing how to participate in various traditions, not wanting to do something wrong and/or offend. Let's face it. With religion, and with differences, there are so many ways to go wrong. So my general approach has been to keep a very low profile and fade into the woodwork.

     Because being Jewish is so familiar to me, I am often surprised to discover what other people don't know about it. Once, years ago, at a gathering at my daughter's preschool, approaching the winter holidays, the children were singing the Christmas songs and then the few requisite Chanukah songs. When they got to the dreidel song and the chorus ("Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay"), a woman leaned over to me and asked, "Are they saying, 'bagel, bagel, bagel'?" I guess bagel was the Jewish word she was most familiar with. Of course, her ignorance was not her fault, and I don't mean to make fun of her. She took a risk to ask, and I am sure that I have shown comparable ignorance in comparable situations (e.g., those church visits). By taking the risk, however, she at least had the chance to learn something.
   When I was thinking of this post, I had it in mind to tell a different story about Chanukah, but I think I will save that for next week. And here I will raise my glass to that woman who had the courage to ask the question.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book groups, wonderful book groups

I have so many things I could say about book groups--having been a member of one (actually, of a series of them) for 20+ years. First, there was the Ann Arbor Society of the Written Word (A2sW2), which I launched with Paul Reingold so many years ago. Then, when I moved to Chicago, my husband and I were invited to join a Proust reading group. With that group, we spent three years--about 100 pages a month, a volume a year--reading and discussing Remembrance of Things Past. The group started with a huge living room full of people (maybe 30-40) but over the years dwindled to a core group of about 10 who were there at the finish line. Now my husband and I are in a group that began almost 30 years ago (close to the time Paul and I were starting ours in A2). We have belonged to this "latest" group for maybe 15 years??? The membership has changed dramatically and is really great right now. Before me, my parents belonged to reading groups, as did my sister.
     My latest experience with book groups has involved attending meetings where my novel--Grand River and Joy--is being discussed. And I did this last night--via speaker phone--with a group of women in Michigan, which is what has prompted me to write this post. It was a wonderful, gratifying experience. I learn something every time I talk with a reader. But the real point of this post is to talk about hope because lately I have not been feeling a lot of it, and I have to do some serious work to keep myself from despair. But I found hope last night in that discussion--in a group of humans who cares enough about books and literature and community to take the time (on a week night!) to come together to converse and explore ideas. I salute you and thank you for inviting me in and giving me hope.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My parents were far more paranoid about being Jewish than I was, and this of course made sense, as they had lived through World War II, and they had heard the antisemitic rhetoric (rants) of fellow Detroiters Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin (and, likely, others). They knew that they could not buy homes in certain parts of the city. They had likely wondered anxiously with their parents about what had become of the family members who stayed behind in Europe. And who knows what else they had heard, seen, and/or faced, since I never asked and never took any of it seriously. When my father questioned me about how I could be friends with non-Jews and how I could trust them, I dismissed him as a nut. (I did not dismiss my father in general as a nut, but that kind of talk seemed so odd and irrational). I like to think that the fact that I could be friends (very close friends) with non-Jews means that the world has improved since my father's time. And in fact as I have traveled with my book and presented it to groups, many people have told me that they think it has improved in terms of acceptance, tolerance, and so on. "We're not there yet," seems to be the sentiment, but we're getting better. Still, below, from Phil Herbst's Color of Words is insight into the world in which my father lived.

Jewish problem, Jew problem, Jewish Question. A common and largely Prot­estant concern in the early part of the twentieth century with keeping Jews out of exclusive or monopolized areas of social, economic, and political life. In his history of Harvard University, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, 'The first German Jews ... were easily absorbed into the social pattern; but at the turn of the century the bright Russian Jewish lads from the Boston public schools be­gan to arrive ... and [by 1921] Harvard had her 'Jewish problem'" (Three Cen­turies of Harvard, 1936, 147). In 1920, The International Jew, The World's Problem, a reprint of twenty antisemitic articles from the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned and published by industrialist Henry Ford, began with such wild assertions as "Not only does the Jewish Question touch those matters that are common knowledge, such as fi­nancial and commercial control, usurpa­tion of political power, monopoly of ne­cessities, and autocratic direction of the very news that the American people read; but it reaches into the cultural re­gion and so touches the very heart of American life" (in Myers 1960, 282).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Off-topic Wednesday

This is a panel from the Diego Rivera frescoes in the great inner courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Art. The frescoes (and Diego himself) make an appearance in my novel, Grand River and Joy. I post the image today because it is about industry (or at least that is one of its subjects), and I have been nothing lately if not industrious--promoting my novel at numerous book events, working full time at my regular job (a self-employed editor), working on my next novel, and carrying on a life with my family and friends. I update this blog every Wednesday, and the blog is an extension of the novel--a way to continue my thinking about the often-troubled intersections between races, classes, ethnicities, and so on. The focus has been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, about the terms we use to describe each other and all the baggage that hooks onto those terms. I've got lots of thoughts along these lines from things people have been saying to be at my book events and from sessions I've recently attended at the Chicago Humanities Festival.
     This week, however, I'm just providing you a summation and status report rather than a new term to ponder. Tonight I have a reading at the wonderful independent bookstore Women and Children First in Chicago (see sidebar for details). That will be my last event until the spring (unless something else comes up in the meantime--say, a book group or other speaking possibility).
     Yesterday was a good day for my book: I was invited to be the guest speaker at the Southfield Public Library's annual meeting in May (a big event; Southfield is a Detroit suburb), I was invited to read as part of a panel at Marygrove College in Detroit (that will be in March), and I got this very nice review in a New York publication called Jewish Week. This past Sunday morning, I read from and discussed my book at an adult education session for a Jewish secular group. Industrious, as I said. More next week. Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dick Gregory

If this man does not look biblical, I don't know who or what does. Anyway, he's Dick Gregory, and I went to hear him speak on Sunday night. When I was a 20-year-old student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, lo those many years ago, I also went to hear Gregory speak. I can't remember how I happened to go, but I certainly am happy that I did. This was a life-changing event for me, as I had the distinct impression that I was finally hearing The Truth, or at least a truly truer truth than I had ever heard before. I have carried that memory with me all this time, and when I saw that he would be in Chicago, I bought a ticket right away. 
     Anyone who has heard him will remember his style--very funny and also impassioned and always, always cutting right to the chase. He sees things that others simply don't, sees to the very center. Some people say that he rambles, but I say, "Let him."
     I could repeat any number of his insights for you here, but the one I will tell you this week had to do with what he sees as three sometimes-overlooked roots of the Civil War and the end of slavery. First, he mentioned Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn--because Twain gave a black man a name (Jim) and let him sit by the river and talk with a white man (Huck), two human beings together. Second, he mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe, because in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she showed many white people for the first time what it was like to be a slave. Third, he mentioned John Brown, because he was so brave and so impassioned in his quest to end slavery, risking his own life and the lives of his sons. Gregory says that he plans to go to Harper's Ferry on December 2 for the 150th anniversary of Brown's raid, to honor the abolitionist.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Continuing with the Halloween theme, I turn to the word spook. This word played a central role in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, when spoken in an off-the-cuff manner by a college professor who was annoyed with the many absences in his classes, students who rarely if ever showed up. "What are they? Spooks?" he asked, setting off charges of racism and on and on. Before reading this scene in Roth's novel, I had never before heard the word as a racial epithet (Coleman Silk, Roth's character, by the by, did not intend it that way, or not consciously anyway). Anyway, just having passed another Halloween (socially layered holiday that it is for me; see previous post), the term came to me as one worthy of consideration. Phil Herbst's definition indicates that it has been used by blacks for whites, and by whites for blacks--thus, an all-purpose term. I chose the image at the top (spooks in snow) as I have always found winter landscapes to be rich sources for seeing all kinds of shapes and visions and creatures. Here's what Phil says about spooks.

spook. Twentieth-century derogatory name for a black person in white use, and for a white person in black use. Partridge (1984) notes the use of spook also for a West Indian. Wentworth and Flexner (1975) give spookerican--spook plus Rican--as an epithet for a person of mixed black and Puerto Rican descent (New York City usage around the 1950s).
     Various origins for the white use for black people have been suggested, including white people’s—especially young children who have never seen a black person before--supposed fear of black people; an ironic reference to the skin color of black people, that is, as opposed to that of ghosts (Thorne 1990); and also black people's "haunting" of certain locations (Thorne 1990). Possibly reinforcing the term is the notion of the invisibility of black people in the con­text of the dominant white society. Gor­don Allport (1958, 144) says of black people who call themselves "spooks" as "protective clowning": "A spook can't be hurt .... He will come right through doors and walls whatever you do; he has a sassy if silent invulnerability." 

     Black use for white people is likely to derive from the pale, deathlike skin quality of white people as seen by black people. A more or less jocular variant for a white person is Casper, from the name of the cartoon ghost.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween: The Once-a-Year Confrontation with Where We Live

My book opens on Halloween, and it is, of course, now almost Halloween, a holiday that once seemed completely innocent and joyful to me. A number of years ago (8?), it changed, however, when a man came to my door on Halloween night, asking for money so he could take his kids out for hot dogs after trick or treating. I wrote about this confusing experience in an essay that was published in the Chicago Reader. Since then, Halloween has become an unwelcome event for our whole neighborhood. You see, we live in a town that borders the west side of Chicago--a mostly black and depressed part of the city. What happens on Halloween is that large groups of people--adults and children--come into our town from the west side to trick-or-treat. What they do makes perfect sense: Our neighborhood is more affluent (and perhaps safer) than theirs, and we give out large quantities of candy. We (I'm certain I speak for most of my neighbors when I say this) would prefer to give this candy to the children from our own neighborhood who come in cute little costumes, but Halloween is a holiday on which one opens one's door to whomever rings. And need I say that I never open my door to strangers on any other night?
     These west-siders often arrive in large vans that park on our streets, and when we come to the door, 10 or more people may be standing on our porches, often with no costumes at all, asking for candy. Sometimes a person in the group carries two bags and says the second one is "for the baby," suggesting we should put something in that second bag too. For a number of years, I tried to keep up with the demand, but now I buy only two or three bags of candy, and when that is gone (usually within an hour), I close up shop, and my husband and I go out for dinner, often with an agitated and unpleasant taste in our mouths and a sense that the good old days are long gone.
     A few nights ago, I was at a small gathering of neighbors, to say farewell to one who is moving away due to job loss. These are all fine, generous people--well-educated, politically and socially aware, and tolerant of diversity. But the subject of Halloween came up, and everyone pitched into a discussion of how much we had come to dislike the holiday, sharing stories about the offenses and crude/rude behavior we'd witnessed. Gradually, the realization came to me that this conversation was a disguised conversation about race differences. We might as well have been my ancestors whispering about the schwarze. So it occurred to me that Halloween has become a time when we who live in this community have to confront our uncomfortable feelings about the place we live, about our proximity to a neighborhood and a population that have far less than we do. 
     This is one time during the year that convention allows "them" to come to "us" and ask openly. They're only asking for candy. It's nothing compared to what they probably really need. It's not even good for them. Far better if we gave them big pots of soup or stew, some of the fabulous apples or good loaves of bread from the farmers' market. Far better if we tutored them in reading or math, took them into the city to show them the world of art and theatre. Far better if we became activists, working to insure that all people had decent housing and health care and education. Some of us actually do some of these things, but the need is great, bottomless, overwhelming. Too much and too disturbing to even contemplate. Much easier to distribute a few bags of candy and complain about feeling used.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


In this post, I return to Phil Herbst's The Color of Words for two entries on whiteness, especially as seen through the eyes of others.

whitefolks, white folks. This term may re­flect the lack of differentiation black people see in white society. Though not usually disparaging, it may be used when the speaker intends to designate white people as "them." Wrote Maya Angelou of her perception of white people in seg­regated Stamps, Arkansas: "People were those who lived on my side of town. I didn't like them all, or, in fact, any of them very much, but they were people. These others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren't considered folks. They were whitefolks" (excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in Rochman 1993, 5). Brown-skin whitefolks is used among African Americans to mean people who Euro-Americans recognize as white but who are considered nonwhite by black people.

White Is Right. Often ironical reference to white society in black use, suggest­ing what is normal, valued, and pre­ferred. As a capitalized expression, this was a sloganeering reference to con­forming to the mold of white society. Leaders in the Black Power movement used this phrase to label and censure those black leaders who intentionally or otherwise took white society as the norm and endorsed the goal of assimilation. Also expressing ironically the idea of white as a standard, and the devaluation of blackness, is the black saying, "If you white, you all right; if you brown, stick aroun'; if you black, git back."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blacks and Jews

At one of my readings, a woman in the audience said, in a very respectful and open way, I thought, that she had not lived around very many Jews nor very many blacks in her life. Could I explain the relationship between the two groups? This relationship, especially as it has occurred in U.S. cities, lies at or near the center of my book, so it was a fair question. The answer, however, is difficult and huge. Fortunately, as I present my work to more audiences and listen to their comments and questions, I am starting to formulate a way to talk about this. I am formulating an understanding.
     First, I can say that here we have two oppressed populations. Second, I can say that in cities, blacks had an easier time finding housing near and around established Jewish neighborhoods. I would not necessarily say that blacks were welcomed, however, because once blacks moved into a neighborhood, Jews began an exodus to a new neighborhood. In Detroit, it was a northern and western exodus, eventually moving over the city limit (Eight Mile Rd) into the suburbs.
     In this scenario, Jews sold their homes, but many of them owned businesses in the neighborhoods they were leaving behind--often retail operations: furniture stores, drug stores, shoe stores, hardware stores, and so on. These, they held onto. So the business owner (usually the man of the house) would leave the neighborhood where he lived and drive to work in the old neighborhood, where most of his customers (and some employees, perhaps) were black. Sometimes he had apartments in that old neighborhood that he rented out to black tenants. Thus the two populations were economically interdependent, but you can see the potential for tension. One tension-provoking idea (and, I suppose, reality) was that the Jewish business owner was making his money from the black population and taking that money out of the neighborhood.
     Yes, yes, the Jews were very supportive of the Civil Rights Movement. And, yes, Jews have been very charitable toward organizations in the black community, and many Jews have well-tuned social consciences. Yet, many misunderstandings and tensions characterize the relationship. Perhaps I will try to say more about it in a future post--even quoting from my own novel.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Shades of Black

A few weeks ago, I wrote a little essay called "I hate my book," and I read it at the open mic I go to every month at Molly Malone's. In that essay, I gave multiple reasons why I hate my book. One thing I like about my book though is that it seems to give people a lot to talk about, especially regarding the subject of race. At a book event the other night, a couple of people were very forthcoming. 
     One African-American woman, who grew up in Natchez, Mississippi--let's call her J--spoke of generational differences--from her grandmother, to her mother, to herself. Her grandmother always "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am" (shortened to yes'm and no'm) when speaking to white women. J's mother had taught her, however, to say "yes" and "no"--in other words, drop the 'm. This was shocking to J's grandmother. Also, J told about being with her grandmother and mother one day when J was young and being offered a ride home from the grocery store by a Jewish woman. Without thinking, J got in the front seat with the driver, while J's mother and grandmother got in the back. J's grandmother was shocked by J's behavior (getting in the front seat), but J's mother thought it was fine. J did not even think about it as good or bad or anything. She just did it.
     Later in the evening at the book event, my husband went over to speak with J. Several years ago, he had an African-American secretary who was also from Mississippi, but from a more rural part. Let's call this woman B. B told my husband that when she was growing up, she had been taught not even to look at white people. When my husband told this story to J, she said she thought the difference between her own experience and B's might be that Natchez was a cosmopolitan place, whereas B came from a rural part of Mississippi.
     Another thing from that night. There was a man there who is dark skinned, but he is from Puerto Rico. Let's call him R. R (probably now in his 40s or 50s) told me that he came to Chicago from Puerto Rico with his family when he was 10 or 11. They moved into a predominantly white area--among people of Polish and German descent--and that being in this country was his first encounter with racism. People would call him names. People would avoid him. He especially found it shocking and dangerous trying to learn to negotiate through gang territories. His mother, he said, never learned to speak English but developed negative attitudes about African Americans, even though if you or I saw her walking down the street, we might think that she herself was African American.
     These are confusing and interesting and amazing stories. And something about my book seems to allow people to tell them. For this reason, I like (or perhaps even love) my book.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Joy for a change

This photo was taken by Sylvia Chant, Professor of Development Geography and posted on the site of the London School of Economics. Here's what Sylvia said about her photo:

'Two-year old Adama celebrates the freedom of a sandy street in Fajara, The Gambia, where everyone in the neighbourhood knows her and takes care that she comes to no harm when she bursts forth from her family compound each morning!"

I think I scared some people (including me) with that last post about hate, so I wanted to do something different.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Worrying about Hate

If you read the "About Susan Messer" portion of my website, you know this worried little person in the center of the photo is me, and you also know about my long career as a worrier. I bring this up again here because this week I received my quarterly dose of severe worry inducement.

For years I have been donating money to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose noble mission is to fight hate, teach tolerance, and seek justice. In return for my donations, one thing I get is their quarterly magazine called Intelligence Report. Four times a year, this 60-0r-so-page publication arrives in my mail box filled with a nerve-jangling dose of reality, taking me into corners of the world I would prefer didn't exist. Alas, as I am reminded on a quarterly basis, they do exist.

The cover of this issue has a terrifying photo of a man wearing a camouflage mask and charging toward me with some big rifle. The headline reads "Return of the Militias." Inside are stories about "skinheads, " "nativists," "white supremacists," and so on. I put quote marks around these words because I recognize that they are labels in the same way as the other words I've been discussing on this website. And after I finish writing this post, I will check Dr. Phil Herbst's dictionary to see if he has listings for any of these terms.

In the meantime, groups mentioned in this issue of the magazine have names like United Aryan Soldiers, Aryan Circle, Atlantic City Skins, Nazi Low Riders, Soldiers of Aryan Culture, and on and on. The photos in this magazine are always difficult to look at--although many of them are mug shots, which I suppose is a good thing, since it means that when these people commit violent crimes, they are being prosecuted.

Fortunately, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is on the case and not afraid to speak publicly about their work and their findings. Worrier that I am, it's hard to imagine where their kind of courage comes from, and that's why I support their work.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I've been out of town, so I have a lot of catching up with work to do today, but I did not want to miss my Wednesday posting. I tried to upload several images (there are many of Shylock online), but encountered error messages again and again. So I will have to paint a word picture today. In most of the images, Shylock has a tortured, tormented, or at the very least bitter and preoccupied look. Often he is stooped. Often he is being pursued or tormented by others. In one, he is tender, holding his daughter Jessica. I have only seen the Merchant of Venice performed once--at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier. The play has all the complications and twists and turns and disguises of most Shakespeare. But to me, this was the most moving of all the plays I have seen and read. Shylock is both tormented and tormentor, exploiter and exploited, and herein lies the crux--to confuse the viewer's senses of empathy and repulsion. Very disturbing. Here's Phil Herbst's brief entry.

shylock. An antisemitic epithet meaning a "loan shark" or "extortionist." As a verb, it means to "lend money at exorbitant interest rates."

Shylock was the name of a character in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice. He was a Jewish man portrayed as a bloodsucking usurer. The image of a practitioner of commercial deception, however, was a part of the stereotype of the Jew long before Shakespeare.
'Almost as prominent are images of Shylock and Fagin: the Jew as a figure of surreptitious accumulation, gothic or medieval in style, performing mysterious rites in the dives of the modern city" (Howe 1976, 395).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


I've been thinking about this word savage and the many ways it's used, but I really wanted to post something about it when I came across this photo, which I barely even have words to describe. I mean, that body is so completely what a body should be, and that human is so at one with his environment that it's almost a kind of camouflage image, like the photos one sometimes sees in biology books about a particular moth or lizard that can barely be detected against a leaf or other facet of landscape. Anyway, Dr. Phil's entry nicely parses out the various kinds of savages we have in our world and also points out that savagery is in the eye of the beholder. I also like that Phil brings in the classic words of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski.

. Someone living in a state of little or no civilization or thought of as living close to nature; a primitive, brutal, or fierce person. The term derives originally from the Latin silvaticus, "of the woods, wild," from silva, "wood" or "forest."

has been applied by Europe­ans to other Europeans (the Irish, inhab­iting the earliest English frontier, were known as "savages" by the English) or to anyone behaving in a manner Euro­peans have defined as "savage." Most often, however, it is reserved for non­-European peoples. Similarly, many Asians, using their own words (e.g., Japanese Keto, "hairy barbarian") and concepts, have depicted Europeans as inferior beings deficient in manners and morals. Traditional, indigenous peoples around the world, especially upon first encountering Europeans, have held simi­lar unflattering views of their white guests (see Julius E. Lips's The Savage Hits Back, 1966, for an account of the native perspective on Europeans).

There are different European fictions of savagery, stereotypical but not neces­sarily negative. Western civilization has created at least three kinds of savage: (1) The noble savage--blessed, at one with nature, and innocent until the arrival of Europeans. The noble savage, such as the Tahitian of the eighteenth century--­also known as a "soft primitive," a stereotype of abundance and luxury of lifestyle--was held up as a mirror for the European, whose own culture came off looking bad by comparison. (2) The "ignoble savage" was said to be cultur­ally degraded, vicious, and idolatrous; overall, barely human. This convention was popular among European colonialists engaged in acts of dispos­session and subjugation of those per­ceived as inferior, exploitable, or intrac­table--for example, the "red devils" of white American fiction, depicted as given to massacre, scalping, and drunk­enness. Also there was (3) the "roman­tic savage," a devotee of freedom and of his or her race--courageous, emotional, and childlike (e.g., Herman Melville's Queequeg, in
Moby Dick).

“Savagery has been, for the reading public of the last three centuries, a reservoir of unexpected possibilities in human nature; and the savage has had to adorn this or that hypothesis by becoming cruel or noble, licen­tious or chaste, cannibalistic or hu­mane, according to what suited the observer of the theory.” --Bronislaw Malinowski, The Sexual Life of Savages, 1929,537

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wasp, WASP, wasp

The other night at a book event, I wanted to tell my audience a story that a friend had told me. The story is that my friend, as a child growing up in Detroit, heard adults say, "Don't sell [your house] to Jews because they'll sell to blacks." Amazing thing to say. Amazing thing to hear as a child. But who among us, as children, didn't hear adults saying odd things? Anyway, the story loses some context if I don't say that the neighborhood my friend lived in was a "WASP neighborhood." There was a time, I think, when I would use the term WASP without thinking much about it. But I see now that it is a kind of slur (or not "a kind of" but an actual), in the sense that it groups and labels and makes assumptions about homogeneity of character in the same way all the other terms discussed on this blog do. So I decided to turn to Dr. Phil Herbst's famous dictionary to see what he had to say about the term Wasp. Phil? You're on.

From the early 1960s, an acronym for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” applied most frequently on the East Coast and in the Midwest. The acronym was popularized by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell in the 1960s and was initially used primarily in social and sta­tistical studies of ethnic groups in the United States.

WASP is technically a person of English ancestry, although the term has been applied to Scots and Welsh and to others of northern European descent. WASPs are less likely to be identified in terms of race or ethnicity (attributes that tend to carry some stigma) than other groups are.

Irving Lewis Allen (1990, 109) sug­gests that
WASP originated as a code word for "Protestant" (the church affiliation would be mainline Protestant), used when a reference to religion might be consid­ered intolerant or impolite; however, the term has taken on connotations beyond this. In the climate of political correct­ness of the 1980s and 1990s, WASP has been used derogatorily in identifying someone as a part of oppressive, white, Eurocentric society. It suggests people who are influential or patrician and con­notes the privileges, social conformity, standard setting (in practices and lan­guage), smugness, and bigotry perceived by their critics to characterize members of the group. They may be viewed as con­gratulating themselves for being more American than anyone else. "In the United States, they [the Irish] have faced the hostility of Yankees, WASPs, and other so-called Americans" (Leonard W. Doob, in From Paddy to Studs, ed. Timo­thy J. Meagher, 1986). The acronym has been taken up by self-identified WASPs themselves and is often seen in print with­out apology.

Of the various spellings, Brookhiser (1991,20) notes, "'Wasp,' with only the ‘W' upper-cased, has the sanction of Norman Mailer to recommend it. It is less ugly."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What does "ethnic" mean?

This is a postcard of the "Giraffe-Neck Women" as they appeared with Bertram Mills Circus, 1937. I use it as the image for my post on the term "ethnic," which it turns out is almost as slippery as the word race. A word we hear and use commonly but when pressed, cannot precisely put our finger on it. It is a little humorous to do a Google image search on the term and see the array of costumes and looks and dolls that come up. Which is how I found this Bertram Mills Circus photo (and others even more shocking). At any rate, here is part of Phil Herbst's definition of ethnic from The Color of Words.

ethnic. An adjective describing a group of people sharing common cultural ele­ments; also a noun for a member of such a group. It is derived from the Greek ethnos (nation, people, or foreign people). It was also once used in the re­lated sense of “gentile" or "heathen" and expressed chauvinistic dislike of outsid­ers. Usage is sometimes contradictory and elusive.

In its contemporary sense, in the so­cial sciences at least, the term is traced to the 1940s Yankee City sociological studies of W. Lloyd Warner. In Warner's first volume (1941), the noun ethnic
was used in reference to someone who con­sidered him- or herself a member of the group under study (Yankee, Irish, Jew­ish, etc.), or was considered so by oth­ers in the group, and who participated in the activities of the group. The term thus came to denote a group of people defined by a common culture, national­ity, language, or religion and by the sig­nificance attached to their shared back­ground.

Among many white, assimilated Americans, however, ethnic connotes foreigners or outsiders. Even Warner's concept of ethnicity involved an exclusivist meaning: it could refer to the Irish, Jewish, etc., but not to the native Yankees. At some times ethnic also con­notes something relatively uncivilized, as in the phrase ethnic politics, believed to be somehow more backward than mainstream politics. At other times, it suggests a desirable feature of one's identity, something glorified, even exoticized.

Ethnic is also associated with race and may be preferred to that term. Michael Banton describes the important differences between an ethnic group and a race as such: "The former reflects the positive tendencies of identification and inclusion where the latter reflects the negative tendencies of dissociation and exclusion" (in Cashmore 1984,86). Blauner discusses some of the ways black and white people "talk past" one another in using the terms ethnic and race: "When blacks are 'being ethnic: whites see them as being 'racial'" (Pincus and Ehrlich 1994, 25).

The use of ethnic to describe mem­bers of any ethnic group living outside their native country became popular in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and Canada as a way to refer to minor­ity groups with shared origins, culture, or language. "Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, about twenty-four million ethnic Russians have found themselves living in foreign countries, outside the boundaries of their historic homeland" (John Kohan, Time, 19 July 1993, 41). At the same time, used to describe any people who form a minority within a larger society, the term may mean the indigenous people in a society in which others are perceived as foreigners. In Fiji, for example, the native Oceanic people are called ethnic Fijians (Europeans and Fiji Indians came to Fiji later).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The label "shiksa"

This week, I return to my original mission--to post terms from Phil Herbst's dictionary The Color of Words. (See original introductory post here.) The term shikse is one I heard a lot growing up in a Jewish family, as is the case with several other terms I've posted about on this blog. It's yet another one of those words for "the Other" that seem to so preoccupy people in their private conversations, drawing lines and boundaries and suggesting differences of so many kinds: hair, clothes, food, religion, and so on. Here's Phil's definition.

shikse, shiksa, schicksah; shaygets.
Shikse is a sometimes derogatory Jewish usage (the Hebrew root word means "abomination") for a young fe­male gentile or for a Jewish woman who resembles or imitates a gentile. Rosten (1968) notes occasional use among Or­thodox Jews for a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox and not observant of Or­thodox customs.

"If you wait long enough, you'll marry a shikse . . . mixed marriages--the plague of the Jews" (a Jew to a young Jewish man in Paul Mazurksky’s "Enemies, a Love Story," an adaptation of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer). The masculine form is shaygets or shagits.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


In my novel, every chapter has a one-word title except for one, and that chapter is called Riot/Rebellion. The reason? One theme of my book is that perspective determines everything. So, some might see the events that occurred in July 1967 in Detroit as random chaos and thuggery, while others might see those events as having more political content and intentionality. And, of course, many variations lie between those two possible views. I didn't want to be the one to decide what it should be called, though in promotional material and even in my own descriptions of the book, I use the word riot as a kind of shorthand that I know people understand. I have talked about this in an earlier post.

What I want to add here is that I mentioned this question/dilemma in an interesting and vibrant online forum called Detroit Yes. There, one person responded that when you're lying on the floor, hiding behind a dresser, watching bullets fly through your windows, it certainly feels like a riot, and something that people want to forget and put behind them. This, I certainly respect. Another person on the forum called the July '67 events an uprising. What I hadn't expected was what someone told me at a private event for my book--that his Jewish uncle owned a store that was destroyed in the Detroit riot/rebellion, and that this uncle referred to those events not as a riot nor as a rebellion but as a pogrom.

Pogrom (according to Wikipedia, that much-maligned and useful source) comes from a Russian word that means "to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently." In my understanding, the element that most characterizes a pogrom is that it is directed toward a particular group--ethnic, religious, or otherwise. Jews were often the targets of pogroms in Russia, and pogroms were what drove many Jews to run for their lives to America.

That this uncle saw the Detroit events as so intentionally directed toward Jews (I assume this is what he meant by using this word) was startling to me. I've got no conclusions to offer. Just saying . . . perspective is a powerful thing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Tradition of the Blueterry Pie

This story starts with a young woman named Patry Francis. She lived in Boston, and she worked as a waitress, and even more important, she worked at being a writer. One day, as a result of several twists and turns on the path of life, she was invited to dinner at the home of Marilynne Robinson. These were in the days of Robinson's Housekeeping--a book that Patry particularly loved. And if you've read that book, you know that the characters lived a rather vagabond life, even when settled, and beans directly from a tin can was a typical cuisine du jour. So I am certain that Patry approached the evening of her dinner at the Robinson home with many kinds of curiosity--including the kind that many readers have about the relationship between fictional worlds and the real world of the author who creates them.

Nevertheless, Patry found a lovely dinner--curry, which she had not before eaten, and for dessert an unusual blueberry pie. It had a layer of whipped cream and a layer of uncooked blueberries. No upper crust. Patry admired the pie, and Robinson said that she would share the recipe. However, as it is with life, many years passed, and Robinson did not get around to sharing the recipe.

The next thing to happen in this story was that Patry began to participate in an online forum called Readerville, where readers and writers gathered to discuss books and writing and all things literary. It was at Readerville that I became aware of Patry because of her unusual name and because we had several things in common: (1) She mentioned a meeting with an author named Anne LeClaire. "Funny," I thought. "I too know Anne LeClaire." I had been in residence with her at Ragdale--an artists' retreat in Lake Forest, IL. (2) Patry and I had short stories published in the same issue of Colorado Review. "Funny," I thought when I got my issue. "I 'know' that person from Readerville." And (3) one day, Patry mentioned the Robinson dinner and blueberry pie in a blog post. "Amazing," I thought. "I know that pie." In fact, I had the recipe--one I had seen in Gourmet magazine in June of 1989--possibly around the time that Patry was heading off to dinner at the Robinson home. So I decided to speak up.

At the time, Patry's agent was shopping her novel around, so I wrote to Patry and told her about our three life-intersections, promising to send her the pie recipe. Also, I said in the playful way of lunatics and writers, that when blueberry season came, we should both bake the pie (she in Cape Cod and me in Chicago), and that it would invoke the literary energies and reconfigure the forces in the universe, causing her novel to sell.

I can't remember which came first--the joint baking project or the novel sale (see The Liar's Diary by Patry Francis)--but this blueberry-pie event became a tradition between us. We would bake our pies, and Patry would write about it on her blog, and soon people all over the country joined us in the baking project ("Bake a Pie for Your Muse," Patry called it). They wrote to her about it and sent her their pictures, and this has been going on for perhaps five years now. You can see some of this (plus the recipe for the pie) if you go to her blog.

A year or two ago, Patry became very ill, and I was not sure whether our tradition would continue. But last year, she did still manage to bake, and she posted on her blog about my book sale--the novel Grand River and Joy that I have been telling you about. Patry has an extremely warm, welcoming personality--a "come on in, everyone, and pull up a chair" way about her--and this has drawn many people and commenters and followers to her blog and, in turn, to the blueberry enthusiasm.

I baked my pie Monday night, particularly in celebration of my new novel, and it is typically scrumptious--but even maybe a little bit more this year. And I have some things I could say about it (especially the crust, which I am a stickler about, and which is particularly flakey this year). But I do not know what is going on with Patry, as she has not posted on her blog for a month or so, nor has she answered my recent emails. And if you have read my website, you know that I tend to worry. So . . . I am going to have to find my Patry and complete the blueberry pie circle for the summer of 2009. I'll let you know what I find.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Listening to the news about Henry Louis Gates

This is a picture of me at my first book event--last Thursday at the Oak Park (IL) Public Library. At the moment this photo was taken, I was listening to my friend Richard read a passage from my book to the very, very wonderful audience that had gathered. You can probably see the tension in my hands as they grasp onto each other for dear life. Richard has a beautiful voice for reading, which is why I asked him to help me out, and he did a beautiful job. If I do say so myself, the passage he read (bottom of p. 54-57, for those of you who have a copy of my novel) sounded damn good.

But to get back to the theme of this blog--the discomforts of diversity--in that photo, I might as well be listening to the recent news about Henry Louis Gates's arrest in Cambridge, Mass. I know that people who are far more rhetorically savvy and adroit than I am (likely, including Gates himself) will be writing about this incident, but in this, my little corner of the universe, I want to say a few things about it anyway.

The first thing, as we all now know, is that he was in his own home. The second thing is that he had just returned from a trip to China, so he was likely somewhat strung out and jet lagged. The main thing, at least for me anyway, is the assumption in the story that one cannot raise one's voice with a police officer, or lose control in any way, regardless of circumstance. That one is not allowed to be indignant or stressed out or incredulous or uncooperative with a police officer under any circumstances. Now, I know that some of the order that reigns in our society has to do with the authority we give to police. I know the police have certain rights that no one else has. I know that the police officer in the Gates incident was likely just doing his job. But, come on. What if HL Gates lost it under these circumstances--even if he refused at first to show his ID, refused to step outside, talked back, acted out? Shouldn't he be able to say to the media, "Of course I lost it. Wouldn't you?"

Next point: We can never know how this incident would have played out if the homeowner had been white. But no one can seriously claim that race didn't figure in here somehow. Can they?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Color line

I'm returning this week to my usual programming (that is, posting entries from Phil Herbst's The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethic Bias in the United States). And here's a term I don't think I hear very much anymore, even though it's familiar to me in a deep way. Perhaps the reason we don't hear this term as much anymore is that the "color line" has blurred over the years? What do you think?

color line.
From the nineteenth century, an American metaphor for the social and political distinctions and distance be­tween black people (and sometimes other nonwhite groups) and white people. This symbolic line is most clearly demarcated in racist societies. Black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois de­clared that "the problem of the twenti­eth century is . . . the color-line" (The Souls of Black Folk, 1961,23).

The color line is spoken of as being "drawn" (making distinctions based on color), "crossed" (behaving without re­gard to the distinctions), or "broken" (bringing down the barrier). For ex­ample, in April 1947 the black Ameri­can baseball player Jackie Robinson played his first regular-season major-­league baseball game, thereby "break­ing the color line" in organized baseball. A notable book written in the early twen­tieth century about the color line was Ray Stannard Baker's Following the Color Line (1908).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Travels and Travails

My husband and I were in New Orleans last week, which is relevant to this blog because of the taxi ride to the airport. The story was that the driver showed up right on time, nice big air-conditioned van, and friendly, southern hospitality ("Get right in, baby, you'll be cool in there."). When she asked us the reason for our trip (which was to visit our daughter) and we mentioned that our daughter works at a small shop in the Quarter, the rant began.

"Ugh," she said, "that's the worst of it. Do you know what's going on down there this weekend?" We did know that there was a big music festival in town--the Essence Festival--with Beyonce as the headliner. We'd read about it, seen the crowds going to the convention center.

And then it was all "they" (with a snarl) and what "they" do--crowding the streets, eating and drinking, partying, being loud. Sounded pretty much like New Orleans all the time. But not to her. This was different, this was something even Houston wouldn't put up with (whatever that was supposed to mean). She seemed to have a particular complaint about the way "they" rock their cars back and forth, even pointing out that these were rental cars they rocked. Her seething monologue went on all the way to the airport. Scary.

A few weeks before that, my husband and I were visiting family in Detroit--people we hadn't seen in a number of years. And a cousin got off on a rant about another group of "theys," using an ugly term to describe them.

The content of both these rants, and the sense that everyone in the group being discussed could be gathered under the one label "they," that "they" were all alike in every respect, was disturbing enough. Even more disturbing, however, at least for me, was the assumption that all the gathered listeners would agree with and go along with the views and disdain. That the speaker felt completely comfortable in speaking this way. That he and she felt not the least bit tentative nor apologetic nor aware that others might feel otherwise.

For the purposes of this blog, I am going to make an assumption too--that all readers are at least making their best human attempt to view people as individuals whenever possible and to avoid grouping "Others" in negative ways. Say "amen" somebody.