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.