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.
I am sorry to hear of your conclusion that ” some of the worst aanti-semites in the United States today are African Americans.” Although much hatred has been sown by “wildly influential people like Louis Farrakan”…and SOME of your own “misguided people,” I disagree with your assumptions. There is MUCH HATRED in the United States today, a great amount of which comes from the religious-, racially-, and ethnicity-intollerant zealots bent on “taking America back.” To what? Is not America made of Americans of every stripe? Do some have more rights than others? Equality, for which we Jews and African Americans along with many others–gay, women, hispanics Asians,-stood together in the 60s to eradicate biases. Remember southie (South Boston) in the 70s? Have you not paid attention to the religious right rhetoric spewing aspersions that are generalized by race, religion, ethnicity and economic status codes? What about the attribution of Jewish responsibility for the tragedy of Wall Street? Is that coming from African Americans mainly? Control of media by Jews and what is broadcst in America…from African Americans? Banking and the Rothschilds…African Americans? I believe these aspersions are far more intrenched in the present-day American psyche that you admit. Often, this is done in the name of religion. Jews (cultural and religious) are not exempt from this widely cast form of racism in America…nor in Europe. Economic status, and European heritage is often denigrated when it is determined that one’s heritage also includes Jewish. So, sadly, this form of hatred is far greater than anti-semitism “from African Americans” but rather a tone of bias that is increasingly widespread throughout the US. As an African American, professional/ entrepreneur, Ivy league educated (PhD), grandmother, member of a professional women’s book club (half of whom are Jewish; all of whom are accomplished), I nominated your book for our September, 2012 read and discussion. NOW, I am wondering how much bias creeps in to your writings as you depict the African American experience in your tales. Now, that you are “rethinking that texture” due to the ‘disturbance” you are reflecting upon, and will now ‘tell a different tale’, I caution you to not form your opinions on such broad assumptions, but rather to keep it more honest by reflecting ALSO on the many positive relationships that exist between Jews and African Americans in America today. I have enjoyed reading “One More River” so far but still must finish it. I hope the discovery of this bias you describe here will not dampen my enthusiasm when facilitating your book next month. I am saddened by this discovery yet hopeful that your changed approach will be more reasoned.
Dr. Mickey – Welcome to the conversation here. Let me assure you first of all that I am well aware of the broad spectrum of hatred in the United States, having both witnessed and experienced it firsthand. I’ve also lived in Europe twice and am no stranger to its rather casual and pervasive anti-semitism. I fail to see where I might have indicated otherwise in my blog and I’m sorry that you thought I did.
As to text of the blog, the operating word was, in my mind, “some”. I never meant to imply “most” or “only” and it grieves me that you read it so. I didn’t enumerate other kinds of hatred and their sources because they were not the subject of my blog, a personal exchange and experience was. That personal exchange was between myself and an African American woman and involved a limited and specific context. Any view of what was said must be kept in that context. If you could attend one of my presentations on the novel, and it’s precursor, Home in the Morning, you’d hear me discuss the Boston busing crisis, among other events mentioned in your post. You’d hear me conclude that racism is alive and well in the US and understand that one of our greatest social evils is, in my opinion, what I call “casual racism”, those racist attitudes that are part of the core beliefs of people who think they are not racist at all.
Now, when I mentioned “rethinking the texture” of my novel in progress, that’s because it was originally intended as a novel with a feminist theme – a fact those who follow me already would know – but its “a different tale” because after that night, I decided a deeper investigation of Jewish/African American relations, hitting the high points of common difficulty and bonding of purpose, not the “broad assumptions” you assume, was more interesting to me than a rehashing of feminist concepts. It’s action (so far) covers the period from 1917 to 1941 and is likely to end there. It begins with the St. Louis race riots of 1918, revisits Jim Crowe, the racist tragedies around the Flood of 1927, and continues into the era of WWII. I can’t tell you more because it isn’t finished. I am very sorry if you got from my blog that it was going to include some sort of unwholesome finger-pointing directed at African Americans or Jews. That was not my intent.
In my presentations, I always emphasize that my thoughts are not those of a sociologist or historian. I am neither. I’m a novelist. For me a novel is character-fueled and it is in the creation of character that I am most invested. Some of my characters I love dearly. Others not so much. Whatever political or sociological conclusions others make from my novels I know only one thing: they are often very different from each other and often surprise me.
In sum, I am positive we share more attitudes and beliefs than we do not, Dr.Mickey. I think if you finish One More River you’ll see that. If you remain unsure, I would ask you to read Home in the Morning, my first novel. If you like, I’ll have one sent to you. This novel focuses on the North/South divide amongst Jews during the Civil Rights Era and, more significantly, about Jewish/African American relationships during that era and beyond. Reading it may enhance your opinions thus far. In any event, please stay in touch. I am most curious about your thoughts. I am sure they can inform my future work.