Tag Archives: racism

Finding My Identity By the Light of My Mother’s Menorah

motimeiri/Getty, Mahmoud Maghraby/EyeEm/Getty

Santi Elijah Holley | Longreads | December 2017 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)

 

Every year it was the same thing. My mother and brother and I would trim the Christmas tree, place our presents underneath, and then gather around the kitchen table to light the menorah. My mother was Jewish, but non-practicing and certainly not Orthodox. She didn’t care much for the faith, either as a religion or a culture, but she’d been raised by two Jewish parents and she wanted to instill in my brother and me some modicum of respect for the tradition. But she also didn’t want to deprive us of Christmas. My mother may not have believed in ancient scripture, but she did believe in family.

On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the three of us spun the dreidel and read stories recounting the triumph of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lights. We ate latkes and applesauce and gave each other chocolate gelt, while our Christmas tree blinked in the living room behind us.

Another tradition of ours — at least of mine and my brother’s — was making a mockery of the menorah-lighting blessing. Neither of us spoke Hebrew, but the lighting ceremony involves a nightly recitation of blessings and praise to the Lord. My mother would light the shamash candle, then begin to recite the Hebrew aloud, urging my brother and me to follow along. Rather than mimic these unfamiliar and strange words, we made up our own words, routinely replacing “kidshanu” with “kitty condo,” in tribute to the elaborate piece of furniture frequently occupied by our two cats. My mother glared at us every time and told us to knock it off, though she knew we would do the same thing the next night, and the night after that, and each and every one of the eight nights.

Our menorah was a cheap and simple one. It hadn’t been passed down through generations; it wasn’t forged by a Hasidic blacksmith, nor smuggled through continents and across oceans into the New World. It was plated a gold color, but it didn’t have the heft of solid gold. In all likelihood, my mother bought it at a discount at Kmart during the one and only week they sold Hanukkah items. After the holiday she would put the menorah back in storage, along with the dreidel and books, and we’d then direct our attention exclusively to Christmas. My brother and I knew ours was an atypical holiday tradition, but that knowledge only bound us closer as a family and provided a temporary adhesive to our otherwise fractured family.

My brother, Nathaniel, is eight years older and has a different father. His father is white; mine is black. That makes me two halves — a half-brother and half-black. Since my mother is Jewish, I’m a full-Jew, in accordance with the centuries-old law. (According to another old law, from 19th and early-20th century racial classifications, one drop of African blood makes me full-black, but I’ve never been able to discern which side — the black side or the Jew side — prevails.)

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Assertiveness Training

Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa via AP Images

Susan Sheu | Longreads | December 2017 | 23 minutes (5,862 words)

In the early 1980s, my mother took a class at the local Wisconsin university’s student psychology center called “Assertiveness Training.” She was awakening belatedly to a version of the mind-expanding youth she had missed by marrying and dropping out of college at age 20 in 1967, during the Summer of Love. The class was taught by Dr. B, who told the students to use “I” statements to ask for what they wanted in plain terms during work and family interactions. (“I am unhappy that you said that to me. I feel that I am not heard when I speak to you.”) The idea was to learn to be assertive but not aggressive, to stop being a silently suffering martyr or someone who holds in all their anger and resentment until it boils over into inappropriate and ineffective rage or self-destructive behavior. It goes without saying that the class was all women. As she immersed herself in college again, my mother began to tell me that when I grew up, I could be anything I wanted — a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist. Even though the Equal Rights Amendment had not been ratified, she wanted me to believe that my future was up to me. Perhaps that was one reason she took Assertiveness Training, to be the kind of mother who raised a daughter who wouldn’t need a class like that.

My grandmother was the model of someone who regularly displayed inappropriate anger, someone my mom was trying to avoid becoming. My grandma Violet had once been docile, and my mom believed that she made the rest of us pay for that false submissiveness for the rest of her life. The short version of my grandmother’s story is that she didn’t marry the man she was in love with because he was Catholic and she was Protestant (this was Nebraska, circa 1928); she didn’t attend college despite receiving a debate scholarship because her mother feigned illness to keep her youngest child at home; and she tried to be a good wife in a marriage with a decent, practical man with whom she was not in love. She ran my grandpa’s restaurant while he was serving in World War II, and when he returned, no longer had any day-to-day responsibilities in the business operations.

By the time I knew her, my grandmother was smoking, alternating between Camels and Newports, drinking gin and, if she was feeling moderate, Mogen David wine (“The Jews” drank it. And Sammy Davis, Jr., “that talented Negro,” was a Jew. It had a screw top. And it was sweet.). She told off anyone who stood in her way, and for decades after her death, my mother made me pretend she was still alive, because it was the memory of my grandma’s fiery temper more than the restraining order that kept my father away. My grandma also took Valium, prescribed by the psychiatrist she began seeing shortly before her death in 1978. I was 9 when she died, but I already knew that her outspokenness and self-medication were a great source of shame for my mom and grandpa.

I’ve since come to understand that my grandma had the appropriate response to her circumstances.

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Can Portland’s River Cleanup Correct Environmental Injustice?

AP Photo/Don Ryan

Fishing isn’t sport for everyone. Many urban residents rely on rivers and lakes to supplement their diets. In Oregon Humanities magazine, journalist Julia Rosen looks at the people of color who once relied on the Willamette River for food, pleasure, and work. The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, Oregon. After industry and urbanization polluted it, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland Harbor a superfund site, and many locals quit fishing it. A new 13-year, billion-dollar plan has the potential to clean this beautiful river, which could reconnect certain communities with what Rosen calls the city’s lifeblood. But gentrification has already displaced many black families, physically separating them from the river. The question now is whether the cleanup can create jobs for impacted communities and right the city’s many racial injustices.

Historian Ellen Stroud has written that the pollution of the slough reveals a story of environmental racism. North Portland has been associated with African Americans since Henry Kaiser built Vanport, a housing development for his shipyard workers, along the Columbia’s southern bank. From 1942 until 1948, when it was destroyed in a catastrophic flood, Vanport housed the majority of Portland’s Black population.

That association, Stroud writes, seems to have contributed to the decision to sacrifice North Portland—and the slough—to industry. North Portland also housed the city’s primary garbage dump from 1940 to 1991, and has long suffered from poor air quality.

“Whenever you look at where those toxic substances and hazardous substances lodge,” says Robin Collin, “it inevitably follows color.” Collin is an environmental justice expert and law professor at Willamette University in Salem. She says this pattern has been documented repeatedly, and often emerges from the perception that fear and disenfranchisement will keep communities of color from protesting the pollution.

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The He’s-Got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown Mistake

Lithub has a searing personal essay by poet Patrick Rosal — an excerpt of We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page. The piece is framed as a letter to a white woman who mistook him for a server at the black-tie National Book Awards gala, which he had attended in support of a friend who was being honored.

The experience prompts him to reconsider his choice of a $90 suit for the occasion, and also to reflect on the kinds of mistakes white people often make about people of color — in this case what he calls “the He’s-Got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown Mistake.”

After the first round of drinks, after introductions and small talk with my tablemates, after the courses of salad and soup, I stand up, excuse myself, and walk across the swanky hall, winding my way through the other big round tables to find my way toward one of my dear friends, who is among tonight’s honorees. And you—sitting at a table not far from where my homeboy is sitting—stand up too. Surely, by the way you crane your neck forward and to the side, stepping slightly left into my path just enough to intercept me, I must know you from somewhere else, right? I lift my chin a little to see if I can link a name to your face. And surely you think you know me too, don’t you? I’ve traveled only from the other side of the room to walk toward you and for you to walk toward me. But doesn’t something break just then, when you and I approach? All the festive shimmering in the space. These eyes. This face. I think I’m even smiling now, when you point back at your seat to tell me you need a clean linen to dab the corner of your mouth. You need a knife for the beef cheeks. A refill of your cabernet. Maybe you need me to kneel down and shim one of the table legs to keep it from bobbing.

So this is how you and I have been walking toward each other maybe this entire time.

When at first I don’t respond, maybe you think it’s too loud for me to hear you clearly. Or maybe you think my English isn’t too good—for you ask me the same thing once more before you clip your request short and say: “You’re one of the servers, right? . . . You’re with the servers? . . .” And I stand there absolutely still so we might stare at each other for one long second exactly like that. “You’re not with them?” You are pointing at the line of workers in white jackets and bow ties, a tray hoisted over some of their shoulders. That’s when my face gets unfixed quick. I twist the whole thing—top right eyebrow to bottom left lip. I crinkle the bridge of my nose and suck my teeth once before I blow out a pffffh! You open your mouth and maybe if there were not the thousands around us chattering, pricking each other with their literary wit, the fine chime of restaurant china like a four-hour avalanche of muted porcelain, I think I might hear you whisper, “Oh . . .” You spin on one heel and dash back to your chair.

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Uncovering Hidden History on the Road to Clanton

Photo by Lance Warren. In Brighton, Alabama, a rare marker — installed by the Equal Justice Initiative — notes a lynching that took place in 1908. Of the more than 4,000 lynchings on record, only about a dozen have been memorialized with public markers.

Lance Warren | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,650 words)

 

We turned left at Maplesville and headed for Clanton, drawn by word of a Confederate flag and rumor of a lynching. Ida B. Wells wrote about the killing 125 years earlier. Now, we’d read in the paper, stars and bars flew nearby, well in view of drivers on Interstate 65 near the geographic center of Alabama. The flag adorns the Confederate Memorial Park and Museum in nearby Marbury. The lynching is all but forgotten.

One month earlier, the park grounds had seen cannon fire. Re-enactors presented a “skirmish” displaying military maneuvers that never took place in Marbury, the site of no battles. The park’s director, a man named Rambo, explained that the event offered the public an opportunity to see how Confederate forces engaged the enemy. “All of the people are trained living historians,” he beamed, reflecting on the re-enactors, “and they love to spread the knowledge. Unfortunately, a lot of people learn of history through Hollywood.”

We were there to make a film — An Outrage — a documentary about the history of lynching in the American South, and the legacy of this orphaned past. Good people in Clanton, Marbury, and beyond hadn’t learned about history that wasn’t taught. Others had succeeded in muffling open secrets that had fallen out of fashion. My wife, Hannah Ayers, and I had driven 723 miles from our home in Richmond, Virginia, to find killing fields across the region. We wanted to see how these places looked today. We wanted to explore memory, interrogate history, and ask what happens when the two do not agree.

Hard rain darkened the sky. It squeezed the spindly Route 22 to Clanton. The trees were tall, lining the way on both sides. They formed a silent swaying wall. We knew they held secrets, secrets herded into shadows, secrets long hushed.

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The Secret Women’s Organization Providing for Black Communities

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At a moment when there’s so much distressing news about bad men, it’s a relief to read an article about some inspiring women.

At Lenny Letter, novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge writes about her weekend in Chesapeake, Virginia for the 150th anniversary of the United Order of Tents, a somewhat secret society of black women established just after the end of the Civil War, which has long provided financial and other kinds of support to black communities.

The organization was founded by two former slaves, Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. Lane had been a nurse on the plantation where she was enslaved, and over the years, that has influenced the group’s makeup and mission.

Tents members are from all social classes — Lodis Gloston was a school principal before she retired; others work in government or real estate, and some are working class. In the past, Tents members were often nurses, another link to the organization’s founder, Annetta Lane. And even at this conference, there is a small but vocal group of health-care workers.

This connection to health care is central to the Tents’ mission.

But health care is merely one focus. For generations, those women have worked together to provide so much more.

Most astonishing about the Tents is the fact that about a generation out of slavery, in 1894, they established a rest home for the elderly that they ran continuously, with no outside financial help and with no bankruptcy, for over 100 years, until 2002. In addition, at a certain point in the mid-century, the Tents served as a mortgage house for black families and churches who would not have been able to apply for loans from white banks. The Tents, therefore, literally helped build the institutions and homes of their communities.

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On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor

***

When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

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Harvard’s About-Face on Michelle Jones’s Acceptance

Katarzyna Baumann / Getty Images

In a collaboration between The New York Times and The Marshall Project, journalist Eli Hager recently published an investigation into Harvard University’s eleventh-hour flip-flop on its acceptance of ex-convict Michelle Jones to its doctoral program in history. Jones, who spent more than two decades in prison for the murder of her four-year-old son — conceived non-consensually when she was 14 — became a stellar academic and published scholar while incarcerated. She was set to attend Harvard this fall, but after her acceptance, two professors questioned whether she had adequately portrayed her crime in her application — something that was not required — and also whether the former prisoner was up to the challenge of an Ivy League environment.

Jones was supposed to be released in October, but received a two-month reduction of her sentence so she could start a Ph.D. program on time this fall. She applied to eight, with Harvard her first choice because of historians there whose work on incarceration she admired.

While those historians embraced her application, others at Harvard questioned not only whether Jones had disclosed enough information about her past, but whether she could handle its pressure-cooker atmosphere.

“One of our considerations,” Stauffer said in an interview, “was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”

Alison Frank Johnson, director of graduate studies for the history department, dismissed that argument as paternalistic.

“Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard,” she said. “Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying?

“We’re not her priests,” Johnson added, using an expletive.

Jones will be attending New York University instead.

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Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Sorayya Khan | Longreads | September 2017 | 23 minutes (5,871 words)

My mother was white and my father was brown, my mother Dutch, my father Pakistani. If she’d had a choice, she would have been brown. She tried, sitting near swimming pools during short summers in Vienna and long ones in Islamabad, but her attempts came to a full stop with basal cell carcinoma, when sunscreen replaced sun as her best friend. My father’s brown was constant, except that when he grew older and gray, in the right light and on the right part of him, his color lightened. I, on the other hand, am in between. I pretended I didn’t know I was brown until we moved from Austria to Pakistan and I saw it all around and made it mine. But the truth is that it took leaving behind Pakistan to claim the country and color as my own.

Color is a fact, a given, for my American-born children. We didn’t wake up one morning and decide our children were ready for the news: You’re brown. Almost as soon as they could talk, they put their little arms next to mine and decided they were darker. They were always right, because when summer came and my color deepened, so did theirs and our skin tones never matched. Next to their father’s, their arms and legs were not a match, but close enough. “That’s okay,” my sons said about my outsider status and patted my arm because they must have thought I needed comforting. Soon enough, they asked, “Where are we from?” I’d say, “You are from where we are from, Pakistan. And also from where you were born, here.” Naeem, my husband, would remember my mother and add, “Also from Holland, where Nani is from.” There is no flag for their combination and, anyway, the white in that equation, the one-fourth of them that is my mother, was ignored even then. “She’s the brownest person we know,” I heard them say once, as if they knew all along that color is a state of mind, not pigment.

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Weighing Justice With a Jury of Her ‘Peers’

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad, Photo by Blend Images/Getty

Susana Morris | Longreads | September 2017 | 20 minutes (4,997 words)

I received the notice for jury duty with mild annoyance. I hoped I wouldn’t get picked as I put the date of the summons on my calendar. I thought about how jury duty would throw me off my work schedule; how I didn’t want to participate in this particular part of civic life in small town Alabama; how I didn’t want to help someone, probably another Black person, go to jail.

But I didn’t spend too much time worrying. It was summertime and the date, during a week in the middle of September, seemed an unpleasant blip on the road far ahead. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to enjoy the remaining pieces of a waning summer in my sleepy southern town.

Eventually the summer break gave way to the fall semester, though the weather stayed oppressively muggy. Living in a college town where God and football are rivals for people’s undying devotion meant there was also an air of jubilance and anticipation everywhere. I care little for football and even less for their God, so I did not have much to look forward to except the return of my regular paycheck and the eventual end of sultry weather. Otherwise, the date of my summons — September 12th — loomed unpleasantly before me.

***

It was 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. The decade had rushed by impossibly fast, but there it was, on the news and emblazoned in public memory like an unwanted tattoo. I had been a college senior when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened and now here I was, a grownup with a job. Maybe it was growing up with my mother always reminding us that “the days are being shortened for the sake of God’s elect” — those chosen for salvation — plus our being unaware of the day or the hour of God’s return, but even though I was scared, I was not shocked about terrorism on American soil. Or maybe it was having grown up in Caribbean immigrant communities where America was loved more pragmatically than patriotically. Curiously, when I moved to the white, rural South in 2007, far away from New York, D.C., and the Pennsylvania field where the third plane went down, there seemed to be more anger, more panicked rhetoric about terrorism and violence than in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. At first it didn’t make sense. What would terrorists want with a state in which memories of the Confederacy were wistful and sweetly savored? Still, on the tenth anniversary, there didn’t seem to be any commemorations in town, aside from faded t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming, “These colors never run,” and “Never forget.”

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