Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Census and Race

Okay. The census is here, and one of the more complex items on this deceptively simple form appears above:  Question #8 on race. As I've discussed before on this blog, the concept of race is a slippery one. Here's the basic definition.

race. In its biological sense, the term refers to a category of people distinguished by such inherited physical characteristics as skin color, certain facial features, and quality or form of hair. Race may also signify the prejudices, beliefs, and policies called racial or racist. Behind the term is an extremely vague, misleading, and intrac­table folk concept about how people are to be categorized.
I heard an NPR story the other night in which people whose ancestors came from the Middle East, who might be described as Arab-American, wondered where they fit in the categories listed on the census form. The general idea I got from the story was, "If we have to take the abuse, shouldn't our category at least be listed on the form?" Of course, anyone has the option of writing in "some other race." But I have a lot of questions about this item.
     First, is race really even the right term for the categories listed there? Aren't they more like nationalities or ethnicities than races (even if people in each of those categories do or may share some physical characteristics)? If your category is not listed, does it mean you're automatically white? I know some people who don't think of Jews as white. 
     Of course, anthropologists and other observers will point out that the categories listed for the race question have changed over the years the census has been taken. And if races are strictly defined by biology, how can the categories change? Oh, I know, it's all very complicated, and I probably haven't even asked the right questions in the right ways. I do like how post-modern the census people sound though, the way they frame the question by asking what person number 1 "considers [italics mine] himself/herself to be." What do you consider yourself to be?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Frederick Douglass [Branch of the Detroit Public Library]

This magnificent-looking man is Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery and who became an abolitionist, writer, great thinker, and inspiration to all who hungered for freedom. With that biblical look, he reminds me of Dick Gregory, who I wrote about once on this blog. I'm writing about Frederick Douglass today because last Saturday I had a reading and book event at the branch of Detroit's Public Library that is named after him, and that was a day to remember. The library had a water main break in December and had been closed to the public ever since, so it was nip-and-tuck about whether they would be open in time for my reading, which had been arranged months and months previously. 
     The good news was that they were open. The staff was wonderfully warm and welcoming. The group that gathered to hear me read stayed after for a long while to ask questions and discuss their fears and longings about Detroit, race, the possibilities of dialogue. I'm too tired to tell it all now, though. Came home with a bad cold. Bleary eyed and wishing I could just crawl back into bed. But I did need to at least post this small tribute to my day at the library and the man whose name and spirit grace that building, which the staff has turned into a community center focused on books and reading.  What could be better?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


It's that (scary) time of year again, when I receive the Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. And again, it's a lesson in how (blessedly) sheltered I've been in my life. The title of this issue is "Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism." In scanning these pages, I learn things I never knew before and was more comfortable not knowing. Faces, names, organizations (e.g., the European Kindred). Shudder. I don't know if it's my imagination, but in every issue of this magazine, the brave editor Mark Potok looks increasingly worried in the photo on the first page.
     I don't have time for a long post today (I'm off to a series of book events), so I'll just mention the map of active hate groups in the US (a two-page spread). The map key has eight icons: Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, Christian Identity, New-Confederate, Black Separatist, and (most amazing perhaps) General Hate (there's one of those not far from where I live). The state with the fewest icons is North Dakota (only one: White Nationalist). There are so many icons clustered and layered in New Jersey that the map designer barely had room for them all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gypsy Cafe

That's me--second one from the left--at around 5 years old, with my neighbor-friends, wearing my all-time-favorite costume. I've never been a minimalist, have always liked multiple strands and layers, and strands and layers are the basic elements of the Gypsy costume. Gypsy costumes are also fairly easy to do, at least for those of us who tend to accumulate strands and layers.
There I am again, closer to 50, once again dressed in my favorite costume--this time holding a skull and just having finished reading a portion of my novel at Ragdale, which is an artists' retreat in Lake Forest, IL. My novel opens on Halloween, and I was at Ragdale on Halloween, so my reading was on Halloween, and I dressed as shown. 
     I'm thinking about all this because last week I went to Pittsburgh to give a reading at the amazing Gist Street Reading Series. Believe me, Gist doesn't need any publicity because they already have to turn away about the same number of people they can admit. They hold the readings in a wonderful sculptor's studio, and can "only" accommodate around 70 people. Doors open at 7:30, and when I arrived shortly before 7:00, 20-30 hearty souls were already lined up on the dark, cold sidewalk.
     In Pittsburgh, they also have a fabulous restaurant called the Gypsy Cafe, and my husband and I went there for dinner Thurs night, also the night they have a great  band, called the Gypsy Strings that plays (part of the time) while strolling around the restaurant. None of these people seemed at all averse to the term "Gypsy." 
     All of you will, of course, know that Romany or Romani are sometimes the preferred terms for (via Phil Herbst's glossary of ethnic terms) these "traditionally nomadic people who, around the fourteenth century, migrated out of North India and are now living throughout the world." The name Gypsy was bestowed by outsiders, based on a confusion related to the word Egyptian (I won't go into all the technicalities here). Granted, the word Gypsy has some derogatory overtones--linked to con artists and thieves. And most of us know that the people were also targets of Hitler's Nazi regime. In his book, The Gypsies (1992), Angus Fraser refers to this group (if you can call it a group) as a "rich mosaic of ethnic fragments." My purpose here is simply to celebrate that rich mosaic--with all its strands and layers. And my goodness, that wonderful music that reaches right into your heart.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Adjoining Neighborhoods

As I've mentioned before, I live in what some might call an "edge" community--by which I mean I live in a town that is generally more affluent than its neighbor to the east. In this case, the neighbor to the east is the west side of Chicago--a mostly black and, in some places, distressed area. Streets severely potholed, food deserts, boarded-up windows and deteriorating buildings. Grated store fronts. When I drive through there, it reminds me a lot of the Grand River and Joy neighborhood I describe in my novel. Today, I want to tell a story about the place where I live and a colander
     Many years ago, my parents came to visit. While my husband and I were at work one day, my parents got busy trying to help us out around the house. My father noticed that my colander--which looks much like the one in the photo above--was in need of repair. The ring at the bottom, on which the whole enterprise depends, was hanging by a thread. Well, he thought, he'd simply head out in the car and find a place that does welding--a body shop or some such. He was certain he could find something.
     When looking for services, most people in my town head west (away from the Chicago neighborhood I described in the first paragraph) rather than east. Either my father did not know this, or he didn't particularly care, so he headed east. My father was not a large or imposing or macho man. I think he simply wasn't afraid of certain things. Or perhaps he was unaware that he should be more cautious in certain places and situations. I do not know. In any case, he soon found himself pulling up to a body shop on the west side of Chicago.
     He got out of his car, this smallish gray-haired Jewish guy, colander in hand, and entered the building. There he found four black men, sitting around a table, playing poker and smoking cigarettes. I do not think in reality that they were drinking whiskey, but in my imagination (forgive me), they were.
     "I'm wondering if you can weld this for me," he said. He showed them how the ring was flapping. The men looked at each other, likely somewhat incredulous. They put down their cards. They put down their cigarettes. (They sipped from their drinks.) And then one of them got up, came over to my dad, and said, "Sure. Let me see what I can do."
     I still have that colander. And you can still see the welding marks. It wasn't the finest, most elegant repair ever, but it's held all these years.