Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking up

I remember being a little girl and visiting the echoing halls of the building on Market Street that housed the federal probation office where my father worked. Dad introduced me to his friend, Mr. Brown, a big man with huge, dry hands, and I took his hand solemnly and observed, “You must be Mr. Brown because your skin is brown.”

“No,” my dad explained, “Mr. Brown is a Black man. Brown is just his name.”

“He’s not black,” I said. “He’s brown!"

“That’s why he’s a Black man,” said my dad, “and you’re a white girl.”

“I am not,” I said. “I’m pink!” At which both men laughed and slapped each other’s arms.

How could anyone understand these crazy grownups?
I remember thinking. I didn’t know that the Cold War was at its height, that pink was used as an epithet like black was used as an epithet, or that the color of a person’s skin could make or break a man or a girl.

Then Mr. Brown, the token Negro, and Mr. Greenwald, the token Jew, turned to one another and made a joke that was already old between them, “Hey, everybody still shits brown.”

Hey, you guys used the “s” word!
I thought, somewhat stunned by the whole confusing adventure. I remember the event to this day, perhaps because the air was highly charged and I didn’t understand why. Or perhaps because my father would listen to the news every now and then in the years to follow, and mutter under his breath, “Everybody still shits brown.”

I grew up in a multicultural environment. We had friends of all kinds, many religions, many skin colors and accents. I didn’t become conscious of race until I was a teenager, and even then I believed that Jews and Blacks, in particular, had much in common. We had both been slaves. We had both broken free, only to be hounded by oppression and bigotry everywhere we wandered. Mythology? Perhaps. But a common mythology, enough to make us friends.

The first time a Black person refused my friendship because of the color of my skin, I was an adult and times had changed. We were no longer allies fighting together for a loving world. I had become the enemy, just because of the color of my skin.

Here’s a picture of my dad’s college fraternity at Rutgers in the 40s. Dad’s the second from the left, front row. Get a load of that bohemian tie and the mane of wild hair! He told me that he and his buddies set up this fraternity for Jews and Negroes, after they’d been refused membership in any other fraternity. We were still together then, Jews and Blacks. By 1967, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was writing that Black rage against Jews was justified because we were the wealthy, cheating landlords (see Chaos and Community: Where Do We Go From Here), Blacks had rejected Jewish friendship.

Maybe that’s why I’m sore about the obsessive focus on race in my school district. Academic statistics are collected by student skin color and the stated goal of the district is not to create positive learning environments for all students, but to eliminate race as a predictor of academic achievement. As if the grades kids get measure their true success. As if the color of students’ skin is the only predictor of failure, and their family’s cultural attitudes towards education or their economic status or the constant anti-intellectual media hype has nothing to do with it. As if their identification with the victim has nothing to do with it.

That victim status, now, is an interesting thing. I see some Black people nurture it carefully and make good use of it and I don’t blame them, if it’s the only way they can find to make the best of a bad situation. After all, people save their most vitriolic anti-semitism for Jews who reject victim status and insist on being successful. You lose sympathy when you’re no longer a victim. You lose that special treatment we reserve for those who accept an inferior status and don’t presume to dip their fingers into our pie. Blacks, too, are held in contempt when they achieve. One has only to look as far as the White House for an example, as Mr. Obama is hounded by racist attacks.

But, he is, after all, a Black man and he is the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Shouldn’t our African-American students be looking up instead of down?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

words of basho

The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Living in a fallen world.

Self portrait with flowers. This collage piece I made yesterday reflects an hour in which my heart was at peace and I put it here to reassure those of you who worry about me when I'm expressing anger and despair. I have reason to be angry and reason for despair, and I come at times to wonder if suicide is an appropriate response, but I reject suicide. I have children who love me, after all.

And also, whenever I think about suicide, I'm reminded of a scientist friend of the family we met at Star Island. It was 1967, and the Vietnam War was raging overseas while resistance and protest were beginning to shake the nation at home. Dick and his wife had come to the island for respite because Dick suddenly needed to resign from his job. He'd been working on military contracts developing biological and chemical weapons, and was devastated by what he had done. He wept openly about Agent Orange, at that time virtually unknown to the general public, and he gave a sermon in chapel one night, saying that we should develop weapons that would kill only humans and let all other life forms live. He had seen the bland cruelty of war-at-a-distance and he did not think humanity was worthy of the earth.

His sermon was not well received. Humanity was making progress, others said. The optimism manifested in the United Nations was still running high and they insisted that he should have hope, that love would prevail. Science and liberal religion were working hand-in-hand, people encouraged Dick, and this war was just a little skirmish, after all, after the devastating war the folks on the island had fought not so long ago.

The following year, we got news that Dick had killed himself, and we went to visit his wife. I don't remember her name. I remember their bohemian apartment, and her sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette and my mother, for once, not getting on her case about it, while she explained that her husband's loathing for humanity had been more than he could bear. He was at peace now.

The people on the island had not really heard Dick's despair, but I heard it, and in my adolescence was deeply affected both by his message and by the powerful statement of his death. He had been complicit in the unspeakable horrors of war, and he could not assuage his conscience. We, too, are complicit. We accept what we should protest, we turn our anger on one another while the wealthy and powerful bomb and steal and conquer with impunity, just as they've always done.

And yet . . . this gift of my life, my Creator's marvelous work, is also of value. I'm too small to have a real impact on our fallen world, but I'm big enough to give love. In my insignificant way, I'm still of value and nothing the dominators do can take that away. I fight for my grandchildren's right to be born in human flesh. I fight in my own way, with my pictures, or a comment here and there at a dinner party, or a conversation with a child. Dick had an impact, too, after all. He changed me, and helped me see beyond my self-interest to the needs of the larger world. I wish he had chosen to live.

*The b&w image is of Dick (left) and my dad exploring the island.