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Christians are drifting away in their support of the death penalty.
There's a growing movement to add livable hours to calls for a living wage.
On November 7, voters in Alabama erased from that state's Constitution a provision dating from 1901 that declared that "the legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a Negro." This declaration represented in part a desire by white supremacists to express as fully as possible their intention to expunge the racially egalitarian symbols, hopes and reforms of Reconstruction. Although Alabama had never enacted a law expressly authorizing interracial marriage, in 1872 the state's Supreme Court did invalidate the law that prohibited such unions. But it promptly reversed itself in 1877 when white supremacists regained power. The Alabama Constitution's disapproval of interracial marriage, however, had still deeper roots. It stemmed from the presumption that white men had the authority to dictate whom, in racial terms, a person could and could not marry. It was also rooted in the belief that certain segments of the population were simply too degraded to be eligible as partners in marriage with whites. At one point or another, forty states prohibited marriage across racial lines. In all of them blacks were stigmatized as matrimonial untouchables. In several, "Mongolians" (people of Japanese or Chinese ancestry), "Malays" (Filipinos) and Native Americans were also placed beyond the pale of acceptability.
Rationales for barring interracial marriage are useful to consider, especially since some of them echo so resonantly justifications voiced today by defenders of prohibitions against same-sex marriage. One rationale for barring interracial marriages was that the progeny of such matches would be incapable of procreating. Another was that God did not intend for the races to mix. Another was that colored people, especially blacks, are irredeemably inferior to whites and pose a terrible risk of contamination. The Negrophobic Thomas Dixon spoke for many white supremacists when he warned in his novel The Leopard's Spots that "this Republic can have no future if racial lines are broken and its proud citizenry sinks to the level of a mongrel breed." A single drop of Negro blood, he maintained apocalyptically, "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, then the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."
Although opponents of prohibitions on interracial marriage have waged struggles in many forums (e.g., academia, the churches, journalism), two in particular have been decisive. One is the courtroom. In 1967 in the most aptly titled case in American history--Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia--the United States Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions against interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Although much credit is lavished on the Court's decision, it bears noting that nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the Supreme Court of California had reached the same conclusion in an extraordinary, albeit neglected, opinion by Justice Roger Traynor.) When the federal Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws at the marriage altar, it relied on the massive change in public attitudes reflected and nourished by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" address (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). The Court also relied on the fact that by 1967, only sixteen states, in one region of the country, continued to retain laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This highlights the importance of the second major forum in which opponents of racial bars pressed their struggle: state legislatures. Between World War II and the Civil Rights Revolution, scores of state legislatures repealed bans against interracial marriage, thereby laying the moral, social and political groundwork for the Loving decision. Rarely will any court truly be a pioneer. Much more typically judges act in support of a development that is already well under way.
Unlike opponents of Brown v. Board of Education, antagonists of Loving were unable to mount anything like "massive resistance." They neither rioted, nor promulgated Congressional manifestoes condemning the Court, nor closed down marriage bureaus to prevent the desegregation of matrimony. There was, however, some opposition. In 1970, for example, a judge near Fort McClellan, Alabama, denied on racial grounds a marriage license to a white soldier and his black fiancée. This prompted a lawsuit initiated by the US Justice Department that led to the invalidation of Alabama's statute prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet the Alabama constitutional provision prohibiting the enactment of any law expressly authorizing black-white interracial marriage remained intact until the recent referendum.
That an expression of official opposition to interracial marriage remained a part of the Alabama Constitution for so long reflects the fear and loathing of black-white intimacy that remains a potent force in American culture. Sobering, too, was the closeness of the vote; 40 percent of the Alabama electorate voted against removing the obnoxious prohibition. Still, given the rootedness of segregation at the marriage altar, the ultimate outcome of the referendum should be applauded. The complete erasure of state-sponsored stigmatization of interracial marriage is an important achievement in our struggle for racial justice and harmony.
Montgomery's transit system isn't segregated anymore. It barely exists.
Amid all the partisan sniping, talking-head screeching and judicial decisions, there are two indisputable facts that go far toward explaining the true tragedy of the Florida recount.
Fact one: In this election, punch-card voting machines recorded five times as many ballots with no presidential vote as did the more modern optical-scanning systems. A New York Times analysis of forty-eight of the state's sixty-eight counties found that 1.5 percent of the ballots tallied under the punch-card method showed no vote at the top of the ticket, while only 0.3 percent of the ballots counted by the newer machines registered no vote for the President. An Orlando Sun-Sentinel examination concluded that counties using the best optical-scanning method recorded presidential votes on more than 99 percent of the ballots, and counties using the old punch-card devices counted presidential votes on only 96.1 percent of the ballots.
Fact two: Punch-card machines were more widely used in areas where low-income and African-American citizens vote. Two-thirds of the state's black voters reside in counties using punch cards, while 56 percent of white voters do.
Put these two undeniable facts together and the conclusion is inescapable: A statistically significant slice of the Florida electorate was disfranchised by voting technology. That is, a disproportionate number of voters done in by the error-prone punch-card machines were low-income and black Floridians, who generally favored Al Gore over George W. Bush. Presumably, some no-vote ballots actually did not include a vote for President. But given the closeness of the election--decided by .008 percent--it is likely that presidential votes missed by the punch-card machines would have decisively affected the contest. Bush "won"--among other reasons--because of voting-machine discrimination.
This crucial part of the tale has been overwhelmed by dimple-mania and the usual campaign back-and-forth. But ten days after the election, the Sun-Sentinel reported that "Florida's different vote-counting machines resulted in more GOP votes." For example, Brevard County, the home of space-shuttle launches, spent $1 million on more advanced machines in 1999, moving from punch-card tabulators to optical scanning machines that read pen-marked ballots (and that immediately return to the voter a ballot with a problem). Under the new system, the voting machines in this Bush-leaning county found presidential votes on 99.7 percent of the ballots. In 1996 the county's punch-card machines read presidential votes on 97.2 percent. Which means Bush, thanks to the upgrade, likely banked an additional 453 votes for his statewide total--practically his post-recount victory margin. The paper noted that the twenty-five counties that used the punch-card machines went for Gore over Bush 51.8 percent to 46 percent and produced 144,985 ballots with unrecorded presidential votes. Had the people who cast these ballots entered voting booths equipped with the more efficient machines, Gore no doubt would have collected hundreds--if not thousands--more votes than Bush.
There have been allegations that black Floridians encountered racial intimidation at voting sites. (The Justice Department has initiated an informal assessment, not an investigation.) And Bush benefited from the all-too-routine bias by which minority areas receive poorer government services. Unfortunately not just for Gore but for the victims of this quiet bias in Florida, this inequity was unaddressed by the Florida circuit court and the US Supreme Court, partly because the Gore campaign didn't raise it.
The Gore legal challenge focused on 14,000 or so supposedly no-vote punch-card ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, not the statewide problem, and called for a manual review only of those ballots. The Veep's lawyer did not argue that the county-by-county patchwork voting system operated less effectively for blacks, a constituency that Democrats rely on to win elections. In his ruling against Gore, Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls noted that the record "shows error and/or less than total accuracy in regard to the punch-card voting devices utilized in Dade and Palm Beach Counties." But Sauls declared that Gore's legal team had not established "a reasonable probability" that the statewide results would turn out differently if those ballots were counted in a better fashion. Either Gore's attorneys screwed up big by not making this point more obvious--which they might have done had they filed contests based on the wider issue--or Sauls misread the math. As for the US Supreme Court, it displayed no eagerness to adjudicate such a touchy and fundamental voting-rights matter as systematic disfranchisement through technology. Its decision--in which it told the state Supreme Court to try again--indicates that the Court wanted to approach the Florida case narrowly, at least in the first go-round.
If a system is decisively skewed to one group's advantage, does that amount to theft? Or is that just the way it is? Clearly, a more equitable vote-counting system in the state--punch-cards for all or optical-scanners for all--would have yielded a different final count. This is an injustice that no court has confronted, on which Bush may well ride into the White House, and that should not be forgotten.
A quarter-million people thronged Abraham Lincoln's Memorial that day. In the sweltering August humidity, executive secretary Roy Wilkins gravely announced that Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois--NAACP founding father and "senior intellectual militant of his people"--had died in exile the day before.
It's easy to forget. What we now think of, monolithically, as the civil rights movement was at the time a splintering half-dozen special-interest groups in ill-coordinated pitched camps. Thurgood Marshall, never known for tact or political correctitude, called the Nation of Islam "a buncha thugs organized from prisons and financed, I'm sure, by some Arab Group." The NOI viewed the Urban League as a black front for a white agenda. A fringe figure gaining notoriety for his recent Playboy interview with an obscure journalist named Alex Haley, Malcolm X irreverently dismissed both "the farce on Washington" and the young minister just moments away from oratorical immortality, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as "Bishop Chickenwings."
If the legacy of Du Bois's long life was unclear then, what can it all mean now? What possessed him to renounce the widely coveted citizenship for which those gathered there that day--inspired in part by his example--were marching? What can a scholarly biography of the patron saint of African-American intellectuals--written by a tenured professor for a prestigious publishing house, impatiently awaited by specialists and educated generalists alike--what can all this mean to 101 million eligible nonvoters "entirely ignorant of my work and quite indifferent to it," as Du Bois said in his time, much less to 30 million African-Americans beyond the Talented Tenth and those few old-timers in Harlem who remember Du Bois as being, mostly, a remarkably crotchety old man?
With these mixed feelings of pleasure, gratitude, frustration and momentous occasion, I read the monumentally ambitious sequel, seven years in the making, itself a National Book Award finalist, to David Levering Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.
"I remember well," Du Bois wrote, famously, "when the shadow swept across me." He was born "a tangle of New England lineages"--Dutch, Bantu, French Huguenot--within living memory of the Fourteenth Amendment and The Communist Manifesto, one generation removed from slavery. And though he laid claim to both his African and European heritage, still it was a peculiar sensation. "One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Yet Du Bois knew full well that had he not felt, very early on, this double-consciousness, he might easily have become just another "unquestioning worshiper at the shrine of the established social order."
Willie D. charted his course as early as his teens, inaugurating his writing and public-speaking careers with articles in the Springfield Republican and a high school valedictory address on abolitionist Wendell Phillips. He arrived at the Harvard of Santayana and William James, who thought him easily among the most gifted of his students, already notorious for the "arrogant rectitude" others would resent all his life. He graduated cum laude, honing his prose with a rigorously liberal education in Latin, Greek, modern languages, literature, history and philosophy. But for a graduate student in sociology during the 1890s, Max Weber's Berlin, not Cambridge, was the place to be. And it was there, chain-smoking fluent German, celebrating both his 25th birthday and "his own genius," that W.E.B. Du Bois spelled out his life's ambition: "to make a name in science, to make a name in literature, to raise my race." Only because his scholarship ran out did Du Bois return to America for the consolation prize: Harvard's first African-American PhD.
Atlanta, after Europe and the North, came as a shock. Not that the recent lynching was in itself any great surprise. Du Bois simply wasn't prepared, passing by the local grocer, to see the souvenirs of severed fingers on display out front. Headquartered at Atlanta University, for the next twelve years he taught history and economics. By the time Frederick Douglass died in 1895, the Tuskegee model of black higher education was dominant, and Booker T. Washington its leading lobbyist. That same year Washington, whose power had been growing since 1885, had delivered his famous Atlanta Exposition speech: "In all things purely social," he said, holding up both hands, digits spread wide, "we can be as separate as the [five] fingers"--he paused dramatically, clenching each hand into a fist--"yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Convinced that Washington's appeasement had paved the way for Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Du Bois and other black intellectuals felt sold down the river. Du Bois's scathing review of Washington's Up From Slavery (1901), declaring war on merely vocational training of a "contented and industrious peasantry," was collected in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois and Washington came, notoriously, to ideological blows. It was the beginning of the end for Booker T. Washington.
Yet there was no personal animus between them. Shrewdly, Washington tried to hire Du Bois away to Tuskegee, even taking him along on one of his fundraising junkets. But once at Andrew Carnegie's office, Washington--who knew where his bread was buttered and that Du Bois could be counted on not to keep his mouth shut--left him waiting downstairs. "Have you," Washington asked, "read Mr. Carnegie's book?" W.E.B. allowed he had not. "You ought to," said Booker T. "Mr. Carnegie likes it."
Around 1909, certain Niagara Movement radicals and Jewish abolitionist holdovers formed a coalition that became the NAACP. Du Bois moved to New York, where, as editor of The Crisis for the next twenty-five years, his word was gospel.
Meanwhile, Marcus Garvey addressed a Harlem crowd of 2,000 in 1917, preaching black economic independence and resettlement. He even offered, to the resurgent Klan's delight, to transport them back to Africa. Now, the masses might be fooled by the plumed and gold-braided pretensions and Napoleonic pageantry of
the Emperor Marcus Mosiah Garvey--self-proclaimed High Potentate and Provisional President-General of all Africa, Commander in Chief of the Black Star Line, an entire fleet of three dubiously seaworthy vessels--with his back-to-the-motherland schemes, his dukes and duchesses of Uganda and Niger, his knight commanders of the Distinguished Order of Ethiopia and the Nile. But Du Bois, who had just returned from Firestone's Liberia as diplomatic envoy, knew better. (Besides, everybody who was anybody knew that what Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association really stood for was "Ugliest Negroes in America.") As far as Du Bois was concerned, Garvey was either a lunatic or a traitor. Whereas, it seemed to Garvey--who saw Du Bois's NAACP as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People--that the lunacy was for blacks to expect equality in America. In the end, his daring, energy and charisma were surpassed only by his ignorance of finance. Du Bois sounded the rallying cry: "Garvey Must Go." The FBI agreed. And if deportation on the grounds of being an undesirable alien wouldn't hold up in court, mail fraud would do nicely. Arrested in 1922, tried and convicted in 1923, Garvey took up residence at Atlanta Federal two years before Malcolm X was born.
Remember, back before they were Jim Crowed into academic ghettos, when history was literature and vice versa? When nonspecialists read Macaulay, Michelet? Poet, short-story writer, essayist and novelist as well as historian, Du Bois was by no means master of all the genres he assayed. But he electrified African-American literature as writer during the twentieth century's first decade. Then, as editor, he paved the way for younger writers during subsequent decades. Biography, however, is a late development in the tradition. What advances have eminent African-Americans like David Levering Lewis made in that "most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing"? And do his tomes amount to a "masterpiece of the biographer's craft"?
With their cast of legendary characters, colorful set locations, gripping storylines and virtuoso draftsmanship, they certainly aspire to it. For analytical rigor, judicious gossip and subtle insight into the social, political and economic "roots and ramifications" of "racial, religious, and ethnic confrontation, and assimilation in America" between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Lewis is fully equal to the task of his formidable subject. And his lucid, downright old-fashioned good writing, so full of fine flourishes and phrases, is mostly innocent of academic jargon. So much so that for years--visiting the same archives, examining the same documents and cross-examining the same witnesses while working my way carefully through these volumes, underlining passages in mechanical pencil, leaving yellow flags on every other page--I kept trying to figure out my misgivings.
And then it hit me. The problem here is not one of length--Boswell's massive Life of Samuel Johnson still startles, 200 years later--but scale, of Turgenev's "right relation" among a dozen or so vivifying narrative elements beyond character and what used to be called "plot." All of these together in a constant juggle of transitions--abstract to concrete, poetic to prosaic, description to dialogue, sentence length and rhythm--can create compelling momentum. Any one of these, overrelied upon in a fact-filled narrative of 1,500 pages, can be lethal. "With the 20th century," said Virginia Woolf,
a change came over biography, as it came over fiction and poetry.... the author's relation to his subject is different. He is no longer the serious and sympathetic companion, toiling slavishly in the footsteps of his hero.... Moreover, he does not think himself constrained to follow every step of the way.... he sees his subject spread about him. He chooses; he synthesizes; in short, he has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist.
Cautious of overstepping the bounds of the historically permissible, the distinguished professor has crafted a straightforward chronicle. Far too often, characters are molded not organically from suggestive situation but by accretion of meticulous archival detail--endless lists of academic pedigree heaped, all at once, in static inventories of naturalistic description--then left to atrophy in the reader's mind. A compelling narrative begins where the dossier leaves off. And a good biographer is a historian, but a good historian isn't necessarily a biographer. The progression from one to the other is no more formally inevitable than that from short-story writer to novelist. But don't get me wrong. The aesthetic quibble is really by way of illustrating how close this life might have come to greatness, to the artistry of all that Lytton Strachey left out in tending toward that "becoming brevity...which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," and which, "surely, is the first duty of the biographer."
Du Bois's influence on African-American literature, as both writer and editor, is hard to exaggerate. Between Phyllis Wheatley, the publication of Souls, the silence of Charles Chestnutt and the death of Paul Laurence Dunbar from drunken disillusionment in 1906, dozens of poets, authors and pamphleteers emerged, boycotting the happy-blacky-nappy, banjo-strumming, watermelon-eating, darky dialect of previous eras. Of this work, says James Weldon Johnson in the classic history Black Manhattan, "Some was good, most was mediocre, much was bad, and practically all of it unknown to the general public." As late as 1914, with the exception of Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, there wasn't much in the way of African-American literature, and Du Bois thought things looked bleak. By 1920, New York was America's greatest city, and Harlem--a two-square-mile city within the city where a quarter-million African-Americans boasted more poets, journalists, musicians, composers, actors, dramatists and nightclubs than any other spot on earth--became the world-famous capital of black America. It seemed to Du Bois that a renaissance of American Negro literature was now due.
His lover/literary editor Jessie Fauset, to put the arts on equal footing with social policy, urged an editorial shift in the pages of The Crisis. In short order, she published Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921 and prose poetry by Jean Toomer, later collected in Cane (1923). For the first time in history--just when Du Bois feared he'd have no worthy successors--a literature of African-Americans, by African-Americans and for African-Americans and anyone else who cared to listen was not only a possibility but a reality. The Harlem Renaissance was under way.
One prodigy Du Bois particularly delighted in was pinky-ringed young poet Countee Cullen. Companionable, uncombative, anxious for the kind of credibility a tidy résumé and Harvard degree could confer, Cullen idolized Du Bois to a degree perhaps predictable in a cautious orphan risen from impoverished obscurity to international fame by the age of 22 yet lacking, in the final analysis, the kind of intellectual and artistic daring that could sustain it. Du Bois, for his part, perhaps projected onto Cullen some of the paternal pride and ambition long buried with the infant son he'd loved and lost. And so he married off his only daughter. Langston Hughes rented a tuxedo, an organist played Tannhäuser and sixteen bridesmaids wore white. The only problem--aside from the fact that Countee Cullen was gay--was that the girl admired but didn't love him. It was a match made in Hell, a dramatic example of how "spectacularly wrongheaded" Du Bois could be.
For a decade or more, the Harlem Renaissance promised 10 million African-Americans "taken for granted by one political party and despised by the other, poor and overwhelmingly rural, frightened and disunited," the illusion of an era of freedom, justice and equality undreamed of since Reconstruction. To his immense credit, Du Bois was not lulled into submission, mistrusting the impulse toward "salon exotica" and a smattering of prizes for prodigies. Then as now, the means of production--the Hollywood studios, the recording studios, the theaters--were for the most part white-owned. As early as 1926, he warned about "the politics of patronage," challenging that African-Americans would get the art that they deserved--or were willing to pay for: "If a colored man wants to publish a book, he has to get a white publisher and a white newspaper to say it's great; and then [black people] say so." (Ain't a damn thang changed.) By 1934 it had become embarrassingly clear that civil rights would not follow logically from "forceful prose" and a demonstration of artistic excellence on the part of a few Ivy League Negroes. The movement was dead, "scuttled," as chief publicist Alain Locke put it, as much from within as from without, by faddish market swings and stock speculations of Zora Neale Hurston Niggerati, on the one hand, and the liberal Negrotarians on the other.
For Du Bois, as for most African-Americans, the Depression hit harder and faster and lasted longer than for the country at large. The royal wedding had wiped out his savings, and his Crisis salary hadn't been paid for months. He was broke.
Du Bois became increasingly radicalized during the 1930s and '40s. As he saw it, the NAACP, by focusing almost exclusively on legal strategy, was beginning to work "for the black masses but not with them." In 1934, out of sync with the mainstream leadership, he left in disgust. He returned to Atlanta University, reading Das Kapital and writing Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Du Bois, who first visited the Soviet Union in 1926, returned in 1936. Home from History's frontlines a self-professed "Bolshevik," even though, as a Socialist, he combined "cultural nationalism, Scandinavian cooperativism, Booker Washington and Marx in about equal parts," Du Bois remained unconvinced that the Communist Party, which never attracted more than a few hundred black members, was their last best hope. In any case, African-Americans did not "propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution."
During the McCarthy era, the black leadership, bending in the prevailing ideological winds, began to distance itself from the left. Back in New York, involved in nuclear disarmament activity declared subversive by the US government, Du Bois was arrested and tried as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. He was acquitted in 1951, but the State Department confiscated his passport, prohibiting travel abroad. It was the last straw.
The prophet was without honor only in his own country. So when the government embargo was lifted in 1958, Du Bois went on lecture tours of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, becoming a kind of poster boy in the Communist effort to discredit the States. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1959, and in Red China, his birthday was declared a national holiday by Chou En-lai. Did the party use Du Bois? Or did Du Bois use the party to further his own agenda? Both, most likely.
In 1960, seventeen African states, including Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, gained independence. At Nkrumah's invitation, Du Bois exiled himself, renouncing his American citizenship. He officially joined the Communist Party in 1961. Shrunken now and a bit stooped, his memory not quite as sharp as it once was, the scholar-citizen spent his last days in a spacious house with a view of flowering shrubs in Accra's best neighborhood, an honored guest of state, surrounded by busts of Lenin and Chairman Mao and an impressive library of Marxist thought, editing the Negro encyclopedia and receiving visitors the world over. At last, on August 27, 1963, the visionary whose long life--spanning Reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, two World Wars, Brown v. Board of Education and now the civil rights movement--had been the literal embodiment of the nineteenth century's collision with the twentieth, died in Accra, where he was accorded an elaborate state funeral.
The bioepic ends, as it began 1,500 pages ago in Volume I, with the death of W.E.B. Du Bois. A living institution, he was "productive, multiple, controversial, and emblematic." His influence--as cultural ambassador, as writer and editor, as activist whose spectrum of social, political and economic thought seems refracted in phenomena as varied as Ho Chi Minh, the Negritude of poet-statesmen Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor as well as the Black Power movement that peaked after his death--is ubiquitous.
A difficult man as capable of coldness to old friends as he was reluctant to admit mistakes, a prickly Brahmin who walked with kings but failed to acquire the common touch, Dr. Du Bois emerges a kind of tragic hero as flawed as he was gifted. At times you wonder whether he wasn't his own most formidable enemy. But whatever his blind spots, he was only too well aware, looking backward, that battling racism real and imagined at every turn had twisted him into a far less "human" being than he might otherwise have been.
Fifteen years and two computer crashes in the research and writing, these volumes were a lifetime, literally, in the making. As a boy born in Little Rock two decades before the civil rights movement began, Lewis had a portentous encounter with the great man. Fisk man and author of books on South Africa and the Dreyfus Affair, he's now a professor of history at Rutgers. And just as Renaissance scholarship would be incomplete without When Harlem Was in Vogue, the twenty books and 100 articles of W.E.B. Du Bois's eighty-year publishing career, so handsomely anthologized in Nathan Irvin Huggins's Library of America Writings, are indispensably complemented by what is, if not a masterpiece of biography, then almost certainly the standard social, political and intellectual history of his life and times.
A land-claim suit is pitting Oneidas against other upstate residents.
What ought to be read--and why--are questions that have a unique urgency in a multicultural milieu, where each group fights, legitimately, for its own space and voice. In the past couple of decades, battles over the Western canon have been fought strenuously in intellectual circles--one such flash point was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and the debates that ensued. These skirmishes have much to do with the fact that America is undergoing radical change. The Eurocentric place once acknowledged as the heart of its culture has ceased to be so. Alternative groups, from different geographies, have brought with them the conviction that public life with a myriad of cores rather than a single one is far more feasible today.
It strikes me as emblematic that the voices most sonorous in the battlefield over the fate of literature are often Jewish, from those of the two Blooms, Allan and Harold, to that of Cynthia Ozick. This is not a coincidence: After all, the Jews are known as "the people of the book." For the Talmudic rabbis, to read is to pray, but so it is, metaphorically, among secular Jews...or, if not to pray, at least to map out God's cosmic tapestry. Among the most deeply felt Jewish expressions of book-loving I know is a letter to the legendary translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, a Spanish Jew of the illustrious translation school of Toledo in the twelfth century, written by his father. In it the elder Tibbon recommends:
Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be filled with delight.
But to turn Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into a companion, to satiate one's soul with it--ought that to be a Jewish pastime? I'm invariably puzzled at the lack of debate among Jewish intellectuals, especially in the Diaspora, on the formation of a multinational literary canon made solely of Jewish books. Why spend so many sleepless nights mingling in global affairs, reorganizing a shelf that starts in Homer and ends in García Márquez, yet pay no attention whatever to those volumes made by and for Jews?
The idea of a Jewish literary canon isn't new. Among others, Hayyim Nakhman Bialik, the poet of the Hebrew renaissance and a proto-Zionist, pondered it in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed the concept of kinus, the "ingathering" of a literature that was dispersed over centuries of Jewish life. Bialik's mission was to centralize it in a particular place, Israel, and in a single tongue, Hebrew. And a handful of Yiddish and Jewish-American critics, from Shmuel Niger to Irving Howe, have addressed it, although somewhat obliquely. Howe, for instance, in pieces like "Toward an Open Culture" and "The Value of the Canon," discussed the tension in a democratic culture between tradition and innovation, between the blind supporters of the classics and the anti-elitist ideologues. But in spite of editing memorable volumes like A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, he refused to see Jewish literature whole.
The undertaking never achieved the momentum it deserves--until now. A number of books have appeared in English in the past few months that suggest the need for a debate around a modern Jewish library. The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska), by Steven Kellman, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, while partially concerned with Jewish literature, addresses one crucial issue: the polyglotism of authors like Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the so-called grandfather of Yiddish letters, whose conscious switch from Hebrew into Yiddish didn't preclude him from translating many of his novels, like The Mare, back into the sacred tongue. The presence of multilingualism in the Jewish canon, of course, is unavoidable, for what distinguishes the tradition is precisely its evaporative nature, for example, the fact that it emerges wherever Jews are to be found, regardless of tongue or geographical location. This complicates any attempt at defining it in concrete ways: What, after all, are the links between, say, Bruno Schulz, the Polish fabulist and illustrator responsible for The Street of Crocodiles, and Albert Cohen, the French-language author of the masterpiece Belle du Seigneur?
Also recently released is a book by Robert Alter, author of the influential The Art of Biblical Narrative and translator of Genesis. It is titled Canon and Creativity (Yale) and attempts to link modern letters to the biblical canon to stress issues of authority. Alter is attracted to the debate of "canonicity" as it is played out in academia and intellectual circles today, but he isn't concerned, not here at least, with purveying the discernible edges of Jewish literature historically. Far more concerned--obsessed, perhaps--with the continuity between Jewish authors from the Emancipation to the present is Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, whose volume The Modern Jewish Canon will legitimize the debate by bringing it to unforeseen heights. For purposes of mitigated objectivity, I must acknowledge up front that together with Alter and Wisse and four other international Jewish critics, I am part of a monthslong project at the Yiddish Book Center to compose a list of the hundred most "important" (the word cannot fail to tickle me) Jewish literary books since the Enlightenment. So I too have a personal stake in the game. But sitting together with other candid readers in a room is one thing. It is another altogether to respond to the pages--at once incisive and polemical--of one of them whose views have helped to form my own.
Wisse is a conservative commentator of the Jewish-American and Israeli scenes and, most significant to me, an intelligent reader of strong opinions whose work, especially her study of Itzjak Leib Peretz and her monograph The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, I have long enjoyed. In her latest work she ventures into a different territory: From specialist to generalist, she fashions herself as a Virgil of sorts, thanks to whom we are able to navigate the chaotic waters of Jewish culture.
Probably the most estimable quality of The Modern Jewish Canon is simply that it exists at all. It insinuates connections to document the fact that Jews have produced a literature that transcends national borders. Albert Memmi's Pillar of Salt and Philip Roth's Operation Shylock might appear to be worlds apart, but Wisse suggests that there is an invisible thread that unites them, a singular sensibility--a proclamation of Jewishness that is clear even when it isn't patently obvious.
This is a crucial assertion, given that Jewish communities worldwide often seem imprisoned in their insularity: Language and context serve to isolate them from their counterparts in other countries and continents. For example, American Jews, for the most part, are miserably monolingual. (I doubt Jews have been so limited linguistically at any time in the past.) They insist on approaching their own history as starting in the biblical period but then jump haphazardly to the Holocaust, and thereon to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Spanish period, so exhilarating in its poetic invocations, is all but ignored, and so is the importance of Jewish communities beyond those of Eastern Europe. Why are the echoes from the Tibbon family to Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra and medieval Spanish letters in general so faint? The power of these poets, the fashion in which they intertwined the divine and the earthly, politics and the individual, the struggles of the body and the soul, left a deep imprint in Jewish liturgy and shaped a significant portion of the Jewish people through the vicissitudes of the Ottoman Empire and northern Africa. Even the Dreyfus Affair is little known or regarded, as is the plight of the Jews in Argentina from 1910 to the bombing of their main cultural building in Buenos Aires in early 1994. And where the verbal isolation is not a problem, the insular perspective still applies: For instance, only now is Israel overcoming its negation of Diaspora life, which has deformed Israeli society and resulted in an institutionalized racism against those co-religionists whose roots are not traced to Yiddishland.
Wisse displays genuine esteem for high-quality literary art. She trusts her instincts as a savvy reader and writes about what she likes; no affirmative action criteria seem to apply in her choices--and for hewing to her own perspective, she ought to be commended. The common traits she invariably ascribes to what is a varied corpus of Jewish literature always point to Russia and Europe. Her encyclopedism is commendable in that it surveys a vast intellectual landscape, but it has clear limitations. She is well versed in English, Hebrew and Yiddish letters. But what about Sephardic culture? Ought she to exclude all that she is unfamiliar with?
The study is divided into ten chapters of around thirty pages each, ordered chronologically according to the birth dates of authors. She starts in the right place--with Sholem Aleichem, the author of the most beloved of all Jewish novels and my personal favorite, Tevye the Dairyman. And she ends with Israeli literature. In the interim, she mixes excerpts, critical commentary and historical perspective in exploring the work of Kafka, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer and scores of other luminaries, some of questionable value in my eyes (Jerzy Kosinski, for instance) and others often overpraised (here I would include Ozick). The contributions of critics such as Dan Miron, Chone Shmeruk, Lionel Trilling and Howe are acknowledged by Wisse in these pages, their perspectives still fresh and inviting.
It may be ungenerous to accuse Wisse of a certain nearsightedness; after all, to capture the essence of a literature written in a plethora of tongues and cultures, a literature that is by definition "undefinable," any potential cataloguer would need to be versed in each and every one of them. But The Modern Jewish Canon suffers another serious shortcoming, entirely within control: It is too dry a read. For a treatise that aspires to connect the various Jewish Weltanschauungen and juxtapose a rainbow of imaginations, each responding to different stimuli, from the eighteenth century to this day, Wisse offers little by way of narrative enchantment. She is a scholar and writes as such. Scarce effort is made to turn words into metaphors, to twist and turn ideas and allow them to wander into unexplored regions. The reader finds himself lost in a sea of "objective impersonality." Too bad, for shouldn't a book about the beauties of a polyphonic literature aspire to that on its own?
Wisse herself announces: "Modern Jewish literature...promises no happy merger into universalism at the end of the day." And yet some form of universalism is what she is attempting to describe, extending connective tissue between literary works where, at least superficially, there seemed none before. In that sense the achievement is impressive. Immediately after finishing the book, I took up pencil and paper to shape a list of what would be my own choice of books. In one of her last pages Wisse, who concentrates on novelists, includes a list of almost fifty titles, "meant to serve as a reference guide." Included are Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous, Piotr Rawicz's Blood From the Sky, Pinhas Kahanovitch's The Family Mashber, and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. But I found myself asking, Where are Marcel Proust, Elias Canetti and Moacyr Scliar? And that, precisely, is one thing a book of this sort should do: force readers to compose a response to the invisible questionnaire the author has quietly set before our eyes.
Future generations will find The Modern Jewish Canon proto-Ashkenazic and hyper-American, a sort of correlative to the Eurocentrism that once dominated American letters. They will kvetch, wondering why the Iberian and Levantine influence on today's Jewish books--from the poetry of the crypto-Jew João Pinto Delgado, to the inquisitorial autobiography of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, to even the Sephardic poetry that came out of the Holocaust--was so minimized in the English-language realm. Kvetch is of course a Yiddish word--or, as Leo Rosten would have it, a "Yinglish" one--but fretting and quarreling are Jewish characteristics regardless of place, and they inhabit the restless act of reading as well. The idea of a Jewish canon, modern and also of antiquity, hides behind it an invaluable fact: that Jews are at once outsiders and insiders, keepers of the universal library but also of their own private ones. Books have always served as their--our--companions for renewal and delight. The content of that private library might be up for grabs, but not its endurance.
The attempt to see Jewish literature whole, as expressing a singular sensibility, has never had the momentum it deserves--until now.
Afew days before the election, I accompanied a friend to the dentist's office. It was one of those situations in which appearance takes over more complex realities of who we are. I was a middle-aged black woman assisting an elderly white man. That he's a wild old radical who browbeats the mad law professor in me with Russian ideologues and German philosophers probably wasn't what most people saw as we toddled down the street arm in arm on cane. In the vast warren of the medical center, we become even more invisible in a waiting room filled with physically fragile patients, many of whom had been brought there by female caretakers of color.
Perhaps because of some such condescension, we became privy to a loud conversation floating out the not-quite-closed door of the office next to which we were sitting. One of the doctors was chatting with a patient, expressing his general pique at the world in familiar, often contradictory clichés. He was upset at the loss of standards in schools. He pitted merit against equality and paired merit with white, Jewish and Asian students. He insisted that "we are not all equal" and concluded that affirmative action was inherently immoral. A few minutes later he blamed white liberals for abandoning standards and praised as standard-bearers those blacks who support vouchers. "The problem is" minorities who teach their children to hate white people. He said that "blacks are out of control" and that black leaders "are not taking responsibility." He cited Al Sharpton, Marion Barry and Louis Farrakhan as typical black leaders, and he rattled on against substance abuse in the inner cities and guns in the hands of young blacks who will never make it into the middle class, because they don't study and don't have good table manners.
"Bite down," he said as he finished with a paean of support for "zero tolerance" policies, standardized testing and George W. Bush.
George W. Bush! I shook my head wonderingly. If only he were black. It's one of those things we black people think about a lot: If only this or that one were black. Can you imagine, we tell each other.
Just think where a black man who spent more than half his adult life as a substance abuser would be--a black man who had a conviction for drunk driving and a notoriously bad attitude. Is it too obvious to point out that George Bush and Dick Cheney--who has two convictions for drunk driving--share a certain equality of status with Marion Barry?
Just think where a sneering black frat brother who committed gross grammatical butcheries and called Greeks Grecians would be. What fun Abigail Thernstrom could have questioning why unqualified upper-class whiners like that should be admitted to "first tier" universities like Yale and Harvard. (I guess we're supposed to feel better that Cheney flunked out of Yale on his own merits.)
Just think of where a black businessman with a "winning" personality but a losing financial record would be when he showed up to buy that team franchise. Assuming he could get a job way down in the corporate food chain, you can bet they wouldn't let him anywhere near the cash register.
Imagine a black politician who was so loudmouthed that his own family called him "bombastic," who proffered opinions about nations whose names he hadn't bothered to learn or badly mispronounced and who created an international incident by falsely accusing the Russian Prime Minister of stealing from the IMF. If you're thinking Al Sharpton, think again.
Imagine a black leader who began his campaign for office at a university that historically advocated racial separatism as God's law and that published materials describing Judaism as heretical and Catholicism as a "cult." I do wonder how it is that George W. can wander through so much of Louis Farrakhan's metaphysical territory and still come out looking like someone whose morals so many Americans say they can look up to.
I do not draw such analogies simply to relativize. The more important point, I think, is one related to what I sometimes call innocence profiling. If George W. Bush were black, he would be a classic suspect profile. If he were Driving While Black, there are people who would have forgiven police if they had decided to shoot at his drunkenly weaving car on that dark Maine highway (as New Jersey troopers shot at that van full of perfectly sober, cooperative college students). If he had been black, we might have heard Mayor Rudolph Giuliani describing him as "no altar boy" (as he described Patrick Dorismond, a security guard "accidentally" shot and killed by the NYPD).
But of course, George W. Bush is not black, and thus it is, perhaps, that the New York Times instead ran an article describing him as having tamed his "inner scamp" and entered "midlife redemption"--even as the article goes on to describe the supposedly redeemed man-who-would-be-Commander-in-Chief as having behaved so insultingly and inappropriately toward Queen Elizabeth at a state dinner in 1991--five years after he says he gave up alcohol--that a horrified Barbara Bush promised the Queen to seat him far away from Her Majesty, "for fear of him saying something."
The lesson of equality is, at its heart, related to the question of double standards: There are still too many examples in American society of the degree to which we have zero tolerance for disreputable black behavior and seemingly unlimited indulgence when whites behave the very same way.
Anyway, back at the medical center, the dentist's door flew open. "Next!" called out the doctor.
"Now set the teeth...," growled my dear old friend and lefty warrior as he marched into the office to face needles, drills...and more. "It won't be so bad," smiled the dentist unsuspectingly.
But my friend had been quoting Shakespeare's Henry V. "Teach them how to war..." he went on and winked at me. The door shut softly behind them.
If you stand in Tiananmen Square and keep your eyes open on a normal day, you will see the tour groups with their "keep together" flags, and the long line waiting to see the mummified Mao in his mausoleum, and the crowd around the entrance to the Forbidden City. Souvenir salesmen ply their trade where once the students massed around the Goddess of Democracy. And then you notice the militia vans endlessly circling, and the buses parked off to one side. It's a big space to police, and its vast openness makes it impossible to close off. Every few days, a group of supporters of the Falun Gong movement will suddenly unfurl their banners and wave them until the forces of order arrive, sweep them up and carry them away.
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