Monday, June 29, 2009

Release Day: The Great Silence

This week, I'm going to move away from my usual (meaning ethnic labels) because this is a special week, and July 1 is a special day. It is the release day for my novel. Released into the world. So perhaps I should capitalize that: Release Day. Now that's a label. I've heard so many authors talk about Release Day as "the great silence." Or the Great Silence. They say this because after all the years of work and waiting and agony and ecstasy, they (and now me too) somewhat expect a huge parade to march down their street or, at the very least, something loud and visible and life changing.

But for most of us this is not to be. I do have a next-door neighbor who is a contractor, and he owns every large and noise-making piece of equipment known to humanity, including one of those little tiny earth-moving tractor-things and a number of trucks. And he once joked that on my Release Day, he would gather all that together and stage a parade down our block. But I don't think that's really going to happen. Anyway, I think what official Release Day means is that this is the day that the books are officially available and in the warehouses ready to ship. So it's kind of quiet, but still, it's a major milestone in the path of a writer.

The Detroit Free Press published a nice piece about my book this past Sunday.

And I'll have my first public event on Thurs, July 16, at the main branch of the public library in Oak Park, IL. 7:00. Please come if you're in the area. We'll have books for sale (because they're being released from the warehouse tomorrow).

Thanks to anyone and everyone who reads this blog.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Obliviousness and its dangers

This past weekend, my husband and I drove to the Detroit area for a family event, and on the way across southern Michigan, we passed a town called Coloma. This name and town brought back a relevant memory.

The story is this: Many years ago, I went to a community-organizing conference in Coloma. Participants came from all over the state, from community development and anti-poverty groups. One of our assignments--an exercise in community research--went like this: We broke into groups of four and were sent out into the surrounding county on a Saturday night to gather as much information as we could about the place we were staying. Who lived around here? What was the racial/ethnic/socioeconomic mix? What was the economic base of the area? What did Main Street look like? What did people do for entertainment? Where did children go to school? When we returned, we were to present our reports to the larger group and see how they compared and contrasted. I loved the idea of this exercise, of learning through exploration and observation, of putting together a portrait of a place, of seeing the composite picture at the end.

My group had a wonderful time. We were a compatible lot, and we drove down country roads and into the center of towns, discussing and taking notes on names of businesses and schools, faces of politicians on billboards, slogans on bumper stickers, sale items at the grocery store. We evaluated the housing stock, the condition of streets, the styles featured on mannequins in store windows, the look of people on the streets. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant, taking everything in--the offerings on the menu and the prices, the look of the customers, the demeanor of the servers. We got lost a few times (this was pre-GPS), stopped in at bars and roadhouses for directions and further observation.

When we got back to the retreat center, things were in an uproar. Due to some cruel twist of obliviousness, one group of four had been composed of two black men and two white women, and the people in that group were outraged--especially the men--because they felt they had been placed in a dangerous and vulnerable position without fair warning. They sensed it, they said, as they headed out, but it really became clear when they got lost and stopped into the same roadhouse where my group (all four of us white) had landed earlier.

Conversation stopped in the place, they said, when they entered, and they felt all eyes on them. They left quickly, recognizing the problem. "Someone could have followed us out of there," Paul said (I think that was his name), "and tried to kill us on some dark country road." Two black men and two white women in a car on a Saturday night in a semi-rural region of southwest Michigan. Not good.

Of course, those in Paul's group had agreed to go out together, but none of them knew the area. So they held the conference organizers responsible for not being more savvy about the situation, not being more tuned into the potential dangers. What a lesson in perspective--what you notice and what you don't depending on your life experience.

I don't think we ever finished the exercise as the trainers had planned it, with the presentation of each group's reports, because the discussing and debating--and the anger--went on long into the night and the next day. Still, I don't think the trainers could have intentionally designed a more powerful exercise in community awareness--and in the discomforts of diversity (at least I hope they didn't do that to Paul's group intentionally).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Uses of the word "Colored"

I'll just begin by saying that two days ago, I received the first hard-cover copy of my novel, and I think it looks beautiful. The cover image, which you can see on my website, looks particularly beautiful--those two men engaged in an intensive tête-à-tête. The way it's designed, with their faces hidden behind the book title, makes me think of the things we say and the words we use in public versus private. Which brings me back to the theme of the blog. This week's word is colored, which was used commonly in the sixties, when my book takes place. As usual, Phil has taken the close look at it that it deserves. I especially like the reference to C.P. Time, and the difference between being "on time" and "in time."

colored, Colored, colored people. Origi­nating in the earliest period of colonial slavery and used throughout much of the nineteenth century, especially after the Civil War to the 1880s, as a euphemistic term for a black person or black people. More specifically colored has served as a reference to light-skinned African Americans and a euphemism for darker ones. As Black entertainer Bert Williams said, "It's no disgrace to be coloured, but it is awfully inconvenient."

Though eventually supplanted by negro (later capitalized), colored was still regarded as a polite name for black people in the United States throughout the early twentieth century. The term was also used to refer to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexicans, and people of mixed background, or mulattoes, es­pecially lighter ones.

Today, as noun or adjective, colored is regarded as offensive, especially in the United States, when used to refer to black people or to any groups consid­ered nonwhite. The term colored is not parallel with white, as black is, and col­ored smacks of subordination. Black people tend to see the term colored people as a reference to those black people who "know their place." Colored has also occurred in certain pejorative expressions, such as the dated expres­sion colored peoples' (folks') time (ab­breviated to C.P. time or C.P.T.), mean­ing "late" or "I'll get there when I get there." This is often an unflattering ref­erence to the alleged difference between the internal clocks that govern black people, especially the rural or the poor, and those that govern white society. (However, as used among African Americans, the expression may carry the positive slant noted by Smitherman [1994, 45], who claims it represents natural, rather than artificial, time—“be­ing 'in time' . . . . is more critical than be­ing 'on time.'")

Used in certain titles of organizations, such as the historical "Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry" and the contem­porary "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" (NAACP), colored is neutral. At the same time, the expression people of color, though overgeneraliz­ing, is in favor among those black people and others who respect the sense of soli­darity that comes from being identified this way.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The word Goy

Now here's a word I heard a lot as I was growing up. To me, the word itself has an ugly sound--as if spit out or coughed out. As you can see, Phil's entry from his Dictionary of Ethnic Bias says that the word "doesn't necessarily carry any negative connotations today," but I'm not sure I agree. Probably the emphasis is on necessarily, and maybe there's someone somewhere who uses that term in a neutral way, but to me, it's always going to be one of those "us versus them" things, with a superiority implied for "our" side. See what you think.

/a (adj. goyishe, or goyish; pl. goyim, goys); gentile. Goy is a Yiddish word for a gentile, from the Hebrew word goy (people, nation). It was used historically to mean those who were uncivilized or not of the true faith (also in one Hebrew sense, for a Jew ignorant of the Jewish religion). Although it may be used disparagingly, as in "a real goy," it does not necessarily carry any negative connotations today. Still, as a result of a long history of gentile persecution of Jews, some bias may be near the surface, as reflected in an old eastern European piece of ghetto folk wisdom, "Scratch a goy, you'll find an antisemite."

Goyisher-kop, "gentile-head," refers unflatteringly to gentile characteristics, or to a Jew who is said to think like a gentile.

Gentile, originally from a Latin word meaning “of the same class” or “nation,” is now commonly used for any person outside the Jewish community, often a Christian. Biblical references to "the nations," however, can mean Jews as well as non-Jews. Gentile does not normally carry any bias. A shortened form, tiles, saw some use on college campuses in the second half of this century. Among Mormons, gentile means anyone not a Mormon (hence, Jews are gentiles to Mormons).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Race, part 2

The most basic question raised in these two posts about race is whether the term should be used at all and, if so, when. Same for "racial" labels. If I had to tell you how I came to the idea that race was biological, I would be stymied. It seemed to come from the air around me. I do remember, however, when I first started reading in sociology and anthropology texts that science could not support the definition of race as a biological concept--a truly radical moment for me. Another important issue comes up in the third paragraph below--why and when we identify someone's "race." Now there's something to think about.

Race most accurately refers to a category of people perceived by society as being biologically different from others. But despite the perception, it tends to be social status or economic interest, not physical differences, that defines these people. As a scientific category, "race" is a fiction or myth (Montagu 1972, 118); in social usage, it is a metaphor (see Gates 1986,4-13). Since the mid-twentieth century, the term "proliferated to the point of being meaningless in some contemporary critical thought and one that seems frequently to lock readers into rigid, unimaginative structures of analysis." (Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations, 1993, 9). Its usage is now often taken to imply prejudice.

The Association of American Univer­sity Presses (1995) recommends avoiding the word race itself or, at least, using it with caution. Much earlier, appeals were made by noted naturalists and anthropologists to replace the emotion-laden race with ethnic group (see Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon, We Europeans, 1936; and Ashley Montagu, Man's Most Dangerous Myth, 1942). Although many would argue that the idea of "race" has provided certain minorities with an identity and solidarity, the concept--which has also contributed to the creation and victimization of the minorities in the first place--is far more problematic than useful.

In news stories today, individuals are preferably not identified by race unless that background is pertinent to understanding a psychological involvement in a political demonstration or similar event or an issue that crosses racial lines, or unless the story is biographical or makes an announcement, for example, regard­ing an accomplishment not routinely associated with people of that race (The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual 1994).

Among its still-heard earlier uses, race refers to a person's direct descendants by "blood" ("the race of Ruth") and people of common identity and af­filiation ("the Jewish race"). Usage has varied from references to groups of na­tional, ethnic, religious, or linguistic identity; to humankind as a whole ("the human race"); and to such mystical and pernicious concepts as the Nazis' "master race." In the United States, race often implies black or white (or, more accurately, a politicized "black vs. white").