Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Treading Water in the Intertidal Zone
by: Schvach Yid

In an earlier blog entitled A Yeke’s Tale I discussed my cousin, one generation younger than I, who is Jewish and Black. She has been very fortunate to have grown up in the current age of personal liberation and societal support most of us enjoy in America. She’s the only member of our family of her generation who is Jewish and female, and therefore the only one who can pass on our family’s Jewish identity.

She’s family gold, and she's beautiful to boot!

The development of a high self esteem and ease with one’s identity has not always been a matter to be taken for granted; in fact, in our society here in America, it has only recently
become a right to live one’s life free of the harassments that can obstruct one’s personal development. The difficulty with self acceptance is sometimes exacerbated in individuals of ‘mixed’ backgrounds, what is currently referred to in politically correct terms as ‘mixed race’. A recent episode on CNN hosted by Paula Zahn explored this matter in Asian Americans.

Back in the old days, when I grew up in the 1950’s to 1970’s, we summered in a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains of New York. This has already been referred to in the earlier blog When Be’ezrat Hashem Became Baruch Hashem. There, my closest companion, an age peer, and I hung out together incessantly. Our favorite pastime was hunting snakes. As we grew older, we parted company, and once we were in college we completely lost contact. Then, a bit later in life, in our late 20’s, we restarted our friendship.

My summertime childhood friend had become a pharmacist and had left his native Brooklyn NY, first moving to Vermont, and later to Virginia. On one of my jaunts to his home in Vermont, he showed me a collection of doodles he had done – several sketch pads of cartoon-like drawings. Most were grotesque figures of mutilated bodies. One was more sophisticated – a well thought out piece on which he had evidently spent some time.

This one had a title, Self-Portrait, and consisted of a portrait of a Black chassid with exaggerated facial features: a large bridgeless bulbous nose, thick lips, kinky hair, kinky peyos (side locks), a kinky beard, and a yarmulke. As I viewed this picture my friend screamed niggarrrrr. His effort to inform me went right over my head, again and again.

As the years passed, we got together on occasion, and each time he hurled some hint or another about black identity, and each time I responded with oblivion. In addition he frequently referred to his Black friends, about his love of basketball and his participation on his former high school’s basketball team (which he described as functioning more like a street gang).

When we were children we only saw each other during the summers in the bungalow colony. He lived with his parents in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. We lived in Queens – by New York standards, light years away, but my paternal grandparents lived in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, and so despite our New York provincialism, I prevailed on my parents to drop me off at my friend’s home so the two of us could spend the day together.

His parents had a family photo gallery on one of the walls of their apartment. The whole mishpocha was there, except for his paternal grandfather. So I asked. ‘We don’t show his picture; he raped my grandmother’. Okay, I was 10 or 11 years old. What did I know, but by the time I finally caught on I was in my 30’s!

His father had served in the US Army during the Second World War. When he was drafted he had already completed a year of college. He identified himself as Jewish, and off he went to Officer’s Candidate School, and to Europe. By the time he was discharged at the conclusion of ‘hostilities’, he had commanded a Howitzer unit as a 2nd Lieutenant in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in Belgium.

He was dark skinned, but not black; his hair had tight waves but wasn’t kinky. He was Black and Jewish, but passed as a Jew. In the ‘Human Stain’ mentality of that day, to thieve the title of Philip Roth’s novel on the same subject, he had escaped the hatred commonly dolled out to people of his background. And that ‘Human Stain’ mentality was passed on to the next generation – his son, my friend. And I was oblivious, and utterly uniformed, about my friend’s pain. His efforts to connect with me on this matter were met with indifference. Who knew? Who suspected? Who cared? I didn’t select my friends on that basis.

I can only speculate about his father’s pain, about his efforts to maneuver his way through a bigoted society. In the US Army of the Second World War, Black soldiers were treated rudely. The celebrated Tuskegee Airmen are an exception to the usual rule of the menial function to which these solders were obligated. My friend’s father, who could believably claim to be something else, had a better, non-offensive existence as a serviceman.

My college-era girlfriend had a similar background. Her physical appearance announced Polynesian, perhaps, but she and her family made no bones about their Black identity. Bravo!

Her father had grown up in Louisville Kentucky as the child of a ‘mixed race’ marriage; her mother was White. My girlfriend’s father was drafted into the Army and, as a Black man, was duly dispatched to the Army’s facility in Tuskegee Alabama, where he spent the war as an MP and drill sergeant. He only on occasion mentioned his service in the military. His statements were terse and uninformative, but the resentment and anger in his voice provided all the information one needed. He had been dumped on – royally.

Well, why write about all this history? Because, jadies and jents, the commemoration of a historical event is only one and a half weeks away, and I can’t wait. It’s my favorite day of the year, previously written about in my blog BYOK. It’s the National Holiday of France (no, I’m not a Francophile) – Bastille Day. Revolt is wafting in the air, at least in my immediate space, and the above related tales of personal doubt and triumph incite a strong desire toward rebellion. But I’m a reticent type of Joe, so I’ll keep my place. When it rolls around on the Shabbos after next, think about striking a blow for personal liberty and self esteem. And don’t take any merde – from anyone.


Batya said...

ok, now I follow this
I went back to your first post to know about the blacks in the family.

I feel sorry for your friend who thinks everyone sees his "partial" race and not him as a person.

I've been told that a cousin of mine who has lived most her life as a goy, raised her kids as goyim has some "half-black" grandchildren. I haven't seen her since... longer than most jbloggers have been alive, decades more.

Schvach said...

Thanks for the comment. It's a pity so many people continue to have difficulty accepting themselves.

Jack Steiner said...

Some people have a hard time learning how to let go of the past.

Schvach said...

Not only that. Self image is forever,
I think.

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