Knowing Who You Are, And Why

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 06:10:00 PM

The splendid novelist Walter Mosley was in town last week to read from his new book. He’s a smart and entertaining talker as well as a fine writer, and he had a big audience in the palm of his hand at Oakland’s First Congregational Church for more than an hour, just answering questions about his work. He’s a man in his late fifties who rejoices in having been raised in Los Angeles by a Jewish mother and an African-American father, in a time when there weren’t many guys on the street with that ethnic combination. Not surprising in Oakland, several of his questions were about that dual perspective. 

His home in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he said, was on the black side of a big street in western L.A. that divided the African-American neighborhood from the Jewish neighborhood. When he was a boy on a bike, he went from time to time over to the home of a Jewish aunty for a good Jewish meal. Never, he said, did he escape being stopped, as soon as he crossed the line, by a policeman asking what a dark-skinned kid like him was doing in a white neighborhood. He chuckled as he told that story—clearly his way of dealing with life’s indignities has been to laugh at them, a strategy which has been used to advantage on both sides of his family for generations.  

His speaking style manages to combine the best of both worlds: long jokes told as Milton Berle and other old borscht belt guys might have told them, mixed with the kind of wise-ass street dialogues which have been bread-and-butter for African-American comics. But he was deadly serious too, under the banter, with a clear understanding of the huge burdens both of his peoples had experienced.  

A questioner asked if he talked differently with black people and white people. He thought that one over for a minute or two, then told a story. He said that at the time the twin towers went down on 9/11, he’d been living in an apartment across the street from the World Trade Center. Everyone he’d ever known called him up that week to ask how he’d made out. The difference, he said, is that his white friends were shocked and surprised that such a thing could have happened. Not his black friends, though, he said. They all avowed that it was bound to happen sometime, given U.S. policy toward the third world—all of them said that, not just a few cynics. That’s the great perceptual divide. 

Ward Churchill, even though he’s a white man, was fired from his tenured academic job for suggesting a similar interpretation of the event. Intemperate language attributing shared culpability for America’s foreign policy sins to the victims of the attack didn’t do him any good, either, but even so a court last week reversed his firing. 

In today’s opinion section you can see a number of examples of the reaction many people have had to hearing some bad news: that many people of color in this country hate the police. Possibly the folks who write these letters, presumably my white brothers and sisters, would prefer to pretend that this is not the case. They expect the media to protect their ignorance for them. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way around here. 

Often such people confuse explanation with endorsement. The writer of last week’s commentary which so enraged several of this week’s correspondents devoted most of his effort to explaining why it is that so many African-Americans have good reasons to fear the police. His account was not hugely different from Mosley’s boyhood story in its essence—there’s probably not a black man in this country who hasn’t been unfairly and inappropriately detained and questioned by the police somewhere, not just once but several times. And—surprise—they’re angry about it. 

Is that a justification for shooting to kill when the police stop you, as Lovelle Mixon did? Of course not. Mixon seems to have been a guy who made many bad choices in his short life, but understanding how he got there that day is key to preventing future tragedies. 

It’s interesting that among the five or six complaints the paper received about running that commentary was one left in my voicemail box by the fellow who calls from time to time to accuse me of anti-Semitism in vile and vulgar language. He seemed to equate printing a black man’s grievances against the police with his own misguided characterization of printing complaints from Jews and non-Jews about the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza as anti-Semitism. It’s easy enough to dismiss him as just another ignorant boob, but his brand of tone-deafness is also sometimes displayed by people with more civil manners.  

A young woman reporter at “J. The Jewish Weekly” wrote a short piece recently about a public relations guy with extremist politics who thinks he’s helping Israel by persuading Planet advertisers to cancel. It was reasonably “fair and balanced,” even though she didn’t manage to get around to talking to anyone at the Planet before her deadline. For her pains, she got critical letters from readers essentially asking how a nice Jewish girl could whitewash such an obviously anti-Semitic rag. Like many reporters these days, she has a blog, so she was able to post a response admitting her sympathy for such extremists.  

“Personally, I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment. I wouldn’t be able to do my job as a journalist without it. But it is my Jewish identity that takes precedence when analyzing this situation,” she says.  

She recalled her anguish upon seeing anti-Israel signs when she covered a pro-Palestinian demonstration, and said “I definitely understand more where [the extremists are] coming from. That, for me, is the first step toward an appreciation for their fight.” 

Let’s hope it’s the first and last. She has better choices. 

I myself regard the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, as my own identity, my American identity, my own heritage. I imagine she’s entitled to make the same claim.  

And that’s why she should embrace defense of free speech as a key part of her own American Jewish identity, created by Jewish heroes and heroines who’ve been the backbone of the progressive press and organizations like the ACLU for generations. The pantheon includes many names too numerous to list here: Bella Abzug, Nat Hentoff, Erwin Knoll, Victor Navasky and our own late lamented Michael Rossman are just a few that come immediately to mind. Walter Mosley in particular provides an excellent example of someone who’s managed to forge his own unique identity from the best aspects of his double heritage. It would be a real shame if a young reporter chose as a role model a two-bit flack who’s devoting his career to trying to close down a newspaper which prints letters he disagrees with, instead of the many Jewish Americans who have left her a legacy to be proud of.