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Drawing on his own background growing up Jewish in a largely black housing project in New York City, the author analyzes the racial experiences of his boyhood while investigating the treatment of blacks in society and the media.
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Maurice Berger is a Senior Fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School for Social Research.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Copyright 1999 Maurice Berger
PROLOGUE (April 4, 1968)
Moments after a television news bulletin announced that Martin Luther King, Jr., was dead, my mother said he deserved to die. She rose up from the green sofa in the living room of our low-income apartment in the Lower East Side projects and began venting her grievances about the civil rights leader: He was a troublemaker. He was selfish and self-serving. He was poisoning the country. He was ungrateful to those brave and foolish white people who stood by his side in the civil rights movement. He was giving all the bigots in the South a reason to hate the good schwartzes, and the Jews, and anyone else who was not like them.
The things my mother said about Dr. King were not inconsistent with some of the other things she tried to teach my sister and me: that only light-skinned blacks were worthy of our attention and respect; that black people "smell like baked beans"; that black people were generally not as smart as white people; and that we should refer to black people as schwartzes, the Yiddish equivalent of "niggers." (Sometimes she would outsmart unsuspecting schwartzes by reverting to a secret code, known only to her and her children: she would instruct us to use the word weisse, or "whitey," whenever a black person was around, so that he would not know that we were talking about him.)
Confused and frightened by her tirade that night, I excused myself. As I walked down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my sister, I heard my father sobbing. He never watched TV with us; he would usually retreat to his bedroom after dinner, read the newspaper--The New York Times for the hard news, the Post for its liberal commentary--and listen to the radio. The door to his room was open; I walked in without knocking. He was crying so hard he was unable to speak. His behavior frightened me even more than my mother's. I was nearly twelve years old, and I had never seen my father cry. Tears rolled down his face as his finger pointed to the radio, which blared updates on the assassination. "What a nightmare," he finally muttered. I lay down next to him, put my head on his chest, and remained there for the rest of the evening.
More than anything, my mother's life was shaped by her otherness: the darkness of her skin, eyes, and hair; her Sephardic heritage; her Hispanic-sounding maiden name. More than once she had been called a spic. More than once she had been called a kike, a hebe, a Jew bastard. More than once she had lost a job because a producer or casting director thought she was "too dark" or "too Jewish." My mother was the embodiment of the mutability of race, the evidence that terms like "black" and "white" are imprecise at best, living proof that miscegenation has blurred the racial boundaries of almost every one of us, confirmation that race itself is socially and culturally constructed.
In nineteenth-century America the law in many states would have qualified people lighter-skinned than my mother as black because of the traces of African blood that coursed through their veins. But by the 1920s my dark, small grandfather could slip past rigid quotas and through U S. immigration as white on the basis of his word and the implied promise that he would strive to meet the immigrant ideal of an all-American whiteness.
My mother's earliest memories were shaped in an environment of prejudice and fear. She was born in Germany in 1920. Her father, Norbert Secunda, a research assistant in the mathematics department of the University of Hamburg, had confronted the usual bigotry known to Jews in Germany in the years before the rise of National Socialism. His projects at the university were often ignored or stripped of funding. The ranking members of his department, who, in polite conversation, would frequently refer to the fact that he was Jewish, encouraged him to find work elsewhere. Fearing that he would not survive this situation, he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1927, leaving behind a steady income and most of his worldly possessions. His fears were prescient. By the end of World War II, nearly every member of both his and his wife's families--scores of men, women, and children--had been killed by the Nazis.
Living in New York with her mother (her parents divorced soon after they immigrated), my mother decided to pursue a career as a singer. The prejudice she encountered played a significant role in undermining her professional life and destroying her morale. While she gave recitals at the Metropolitan Opera House, the old Brooklyn Paramount, and other venues in the late 1930s and early 1940s, her revered voice teacher, a retired soprano assigned through one of the programs of the Works Progress Administration, was a destructive bigot and Jew hater. She continually warned my mother that if she did not convert to Roman Catholicism and capitalize on the "Spanish good looks" that would easily allow her to pass for Gentile, she would never make it in the professional opera world. My mother, an Orthodox Jew, would not even consider the idea. The teacher, initially one of my mother's greatest supporters, retaliated by relentlessly assigning Christian hymns (which my mother refused to sing), cutting back on her participation in student recitals, and refusing to write letters of reference or recommend her to agents and producers.
My mother's dark, ethnic looks frequently prevented her from getting roles, even bit parts, in the small theater companies she turned to after her opera career stalled in the 1940s. She changed her name to the all-American, professional-sounding Karen Grant after a number of agents and producers warned her that her given name, Ruth Secunda, sounded too exotic, too Spanish, too Jewish. (The name Secunda had achieved national prominence in the late 1930s after the Yiddish song "Bei Mir Bist du Schn," written by a relative of my mother, Sholom Secunda, became a hit for the Andrews Sisters.) After a brief stint in Miami in the late 1940s--where daily trips to the beach rendered her an even deeper shade of brown, leading producers to typecast her for roles in Latin nightclub revues--she returned to New York and took up work as a lingerie salesgirl. The only parts she could get were in the small Yiddish theater companies that still dotted Manhattan's Lower East Side.
My mother's career ended when she met and married my father in 1954. Broke and living on the Lower East Side with her obsessive, overbearing stage mother, she saw my father as a way out of her failed life. Listening to her scratchy old 78 rpm demonstration records years later, I realized that her voice--an amalgam of coloratura grace, overwrought emotion, and quivery vibrato--probably would not have made her a star. But I have never doubted that racism and anti-Semitism helped to undermine her self-image and her will. She would never forgive the bigots who she believed thwarted her professional life and forced her to trade a future on the stage for a life of poverty and hardship. Even on her deathbed, she found a way of blaming her terminal illness on prejudice. Medical researchers had long suspected that cancer was caused by repressed rage, she told me, and an early death was the price she was paying for years of buried anger against the Jew haters who had destroyed her life.
From the time I was a little boy, I kept Mother company as she made herself up in the morning. She felt comfortable letting me in on this feminine ritual. Her half-hour-long "beauty regimen" as she called it, was fascinating and, as she whipped out an assortment of vials and brushes, theatrical. She fixed herself rigidly before the mirror and began. First, she would brush her jet-black hair, applying gobs of foul-smelling, viscous pomades in an effort to relax her tight, kinky curls into gentle waves. She would apply Lancme or Shiseido moisturizer to her skin, followed by concealer under her eyes and on freckles and moles, liquid foundation many shades lighter than her olive complexion, and a dusting of chalky face powder. She would draw on her lips with pencil and fill in the outline with bright-red lipstick. Finally, she would spray her neck and hair liberally with perfume, favoring heavy, intoxicating fragrances like Tabu and Fiji. She would turn away from the mirror and face me only after her makeup was in place and her hair was properly coiffed. I would tell her how beautiful she looked. Then, and only then, was she able to show herself to the rest of the world.
Kerry Michaels, a writer and television producer tells, this story:
It was 1985, and I was going to travel around Kenya by myself before visiting my brother, who was working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Malawi. I had only a vague idea of what I was going to do in Kenya. Having traveled all night, I arrived, exhausted and a little nervous, at the Nairobi airport at about five in the morning.
The terminal was a big, square hall--very austere, very official-looking. I glanced up. There was a balcony that ran all around the room. Standing on this balcony at perfect intervals were the blackest men I had ever seen in my life. They wore olive-drab uniforms and crimson berets. They all held rifles across their chests. They made an incredibly powerful, aesthetically stunning image: regal posture, beautiful, chiseled black faces, caps all cocked at the same angle.
I know this might sound stupid, but as I, a white American woman in my late twenties, looked around the airport, I realized that the power structure was black. The customs officials were black. The security officials examining my passport were black. Everyone who controlled my fate was black. It occurred to me what it was truly like to be a minority (albeit, when you are white in Africa, an empowered minority). In New York, if you're the only white person on the subway, you're still not a minority, because the power structure around you is white. In the Nairobi airport, I realized how different it was to have the power reside in a different race. It was the black men who were holding the guns. The government they served was black. The idea that the whole country was being run by black people was absolutely alien to me. To be white and find myself situated at the bottom of this massive hall, with these black men standing with guns over my head, really gave me a sense of what this inversion of power feels like. Why had I never realized this before? You think that as a white liberal you get it. But you don't.
As a child, I wasn't sure what to make of my mother's view of black people. I tended to excuse her ideas as embarrassing quirks, as odd miscalculations of a world I experienced differently and daily, a world of black neighbors, black classmates, black teachers. It was precisely this world that my mother struggled to transcend. She found remarkable ways to keep clear of black people. She would avoid looking at the people she did not want to see. She would make small talk with people she did not want to hear. She would change the subject from the things she did not want to think about. (Her two "friends" in the projects both lived on our floor: an elderly Jewish widow, Mrs. Schwartz, and a light-skinned Puerto Rican woman, Mrs. Salgada--the kind of Hispanic person my mother would refer to as "white Spanish." Neither woman was ever invited into our apartment.) My mother was the strange lady with the brightly colored dresses who politely nodded hello, averted her eyes, and kept walking. Her lips would curl up into a false, inscrutable smile. No one would ever know the contempt she felt for them. Or so she believed.
Copyright 1999 Maurice Berger
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