This year I took my debut novel, Home in the Morning, on tour, thanks to the Jewish Book Network. It’s been fabulous to meet readers and discuss the book’s themes and the history behind its genesis. Morning is about the Southern Jewish experience with a focus on the Civil Rights Era and the arc of its development follows the transition from the Old South to the New. When I present it, I talk about the differences in the Southern and Northern Jewish experience, and the perilous impact Northern Jews traveling South as activists in that time had on the lives of indigenous Jews. I particularly like seeing how northerners and southerners have a different reaction to the book. I find Southerners laugh at my anecdotes of Southern life, whereas Yankees look quite stern and thoughtful about them. Southern Jews frequently come up to me afterwards and tell me how I got the tensions and fears of the era just right, while Yankees are still trying to absorb the fact that not all Southerners were or are redneck race baiters. I blame Hollywood for that.
But one comment continues to shock me, and I’ve had it all over the country. At many Q&As, someone will ask me if the White Citizen’s Council, the white collar enforcer arm of Southern segreationists, truly existed, or if I made it up.
It floors me that intelligent, highly educated people have such a gap in their general knowledge, particularly since so little time has passed, really, since the Civil Rights Era. I wonder: Has Black History Month become lessons in Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King with little context? Since much of my speaking focus is the role of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, this is both disheartening and shocking.
After one of these experiences, I was alone for a time after my talk while people cleaned up the room, picking up drink glasses and coffee cups, putting away chairs. One of the people cleaning up was a middle aged African American woman from the South – she was old enough to probably have preferred the term “black”. She and I got to chatting. She asked me how the presentation went. I told her very well but that I’d been astounded one of the women had asked me if the White Citizens Council truly existed. She picked right up on that. She said: Oh, I know, I know. I have to remind my own people – because of all the hatred that’s been sown - that if it wasn’t for the Jews, we would not be free today.
Because of all the hatred that’s been sown.
Now, I know the African American community and the Jewish community are not as close as they used to be in the ’60s, when the majority of white civil rights workers were Jews. In fact, I’m sorry to say that some of the worst anti-semites in the United States today are African American. A lot of hatred has indeed been sown by wildly influential people like Louis Farrakan and I confess, some of my own misguided people, too. But to hear it spoken of this way, in this context, disturbed me. Both my novels feature loving relationships between African American and Jewish characters at different times during the 20th century. These relationships are textured by the challenges of history. I’m rethinking that texture now after hearing because of all the hatred that’s been sown, which has disturbed me enough that my novel-in-progress will tell a different tale than the one I first envisioned.
When I left that night, I asked the organizers of the event to give one of their copies of my book to that African American woman. I think she’d like it, I told them. They said: Why of course, of course!
I hope they followed up. And even more, I hope she reads.