“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?