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.