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