Jews, Antisemitism, and White Privilege Today

Recently I attended a superb workshop at the National Museum of African American History and Culture called “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” At one point we were asked to join one of two affinity groups: POC and White. As I was heading to the room for the White group, the leader said loudly something along the lines of: “And Jews are not POCs. Judaism is a religion not a race.” This made me very uncomfortable because, while I identify as Jewish due to my ancestry, I have never had any connection to the religion, and I’ve never considered myself anything other than White. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone in the room who identified as Jewish and had already spoken from the White perspective would think differently.

A POC friend also in attendance said afterwards, when I complained to her, that she had noticed that several Whites had not moved, perhaps provoking the organizer to make that statement. She also told me that one of the lead educators had told her that until recently Jews were identified as a separate race in the DC area and perhaps that was the genesis of the comment. I didn’t buy that as I was well aware of this being the case in many places around the country and the world, but didn’t see it as how we should think of ourselves. In fact, I feel strongly that far from identifying as a race separate from other Whites, we Jews need to acknowledge and own our White privilege. (See my post from a couple of years ago, “The Holocaust and White Privilege, for my thoughts on this.)

However, the events in Charlottesville and Eric K. Ward’s superb “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” have me thinking hard about the reality of anti-semitism today in our country. Now a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Center, Ward has a long and distinguished career in civil rights as well as in leading campaigns against hate groups such as those who organized and participated in the Charlottesville event.

Ward’s essay is long, but very accessible to read, and so important for all to know more. Here’s a taste:

Over years of speaking about White nationalism in the 1990s and early 2000s in the Northwest and then the Midwest and South, I found that audiences—whether white or of color, at synagogues or churches, universities or police trainings—generally had a relationship to white nationalism that, at least in one basic sense, was like my own. They knew the scope and seriousness of the movement from personal experience, and—if they didn’t take this for granted to begin with—they were not shocked to discover its antisemitic emphasis. The resistance I have encountered when I address antisemitism has primarily come since I moved to the Northeast seven years ago, and from the most established progressive antiracist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country. It is here that a well-meaning but counterproductive thicket of discourse has grown up insisting that Jews—of Ashkenazi descent, at least—are uncontestably White, and that to challenge this is to deny the workings of White privilege. In other words, when I’m asked, “Where is the antisemitism?,” what I am often really being asked is, “Why should we be talking about antisemitism?”

I still own my White Privilege, but I do also think all of us who are concerned — whatever our identity —need to be aware and informed as to the centrality anti-semitism plays in the mindset of groups like those who were at Charlottesville.  These are dangerous times.

 

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Learning and Sharing: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

After Charlottesville

Learn More and Share More

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As part of a year-long consideration of people coming to America, I teach a unit focused on the Transatlantic Slave Trade to my 4th graders. My colleagues (who, over the years, have been white, black, Asian, and bi-racial) and I (white) are always grappling with how best to approach it as our classes become more diverse, as current events become more urgent, as we learn more. This year, I was fortunate in being able to twice visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first was in May for a few overwhelming hours and the second was for a full week for a workshop on race (my post on that here) where I was incredibly fortunate to have hours and hours and hours to explore the exhibits. In addition to planning on using practices and activities I took away from the workshop I’m now working with material from their exhibits to improve my teaching, including the creation of a presentation featuring their “Slavery & Freedom” section.  The museum has done a remarkable job creating exhibits that are for all ages and their introduction to the slave trade is handled clearly, thoughtfully, sensitively, and bluntly.

I urge all who can to visit the museum. You can learn how to get the timed entry passes here.

Advance timed entry passes for individuals are released monthly. Our next release for December 2017 passes is on Wednesday, September 6th at 9 a.m. ET. Passes go very quickly when released.

My first visit in May was because of the time I spent on February 1st to get the passes. It takes time, but is worth it.

If you can’t visit the museum there is much more available from them.

 

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John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

I was eager to listen to Fuse 8 n’ Kate’s podcast of this week featuring a book I know well, John Steptoes’ Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. This is a book that, I find, is often tossed in a Cinderella unit without much thought, I have often challenged some of the teaching that happens because of that. While it isn’t a book that should be pigeonholed into any one category — e.g. Cinderella tale, folktale, about Zimbabwe, etc — that is what I have seen happen. In my teaching I’ve used to use it as a textbook example of how not to rely on a work of fiction to teach actual history and geography.

Here’s a repost of something I wrote over ten years ago when I was teaching a course on fairy tales at Rutgers.

Folktales shouldn’t be used, except very cautiously, as windows into other cultures. (Judy Sierra,Cinderella The Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series, pg. 165)

In the Rutgers University grad course on fairy tales I’m currently co- teaching we just finished a lively discussion on multiculturalism. One of the books we considered was John Steptoe‘s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, a beautiful Caldecott honor book that is often used in lessons about Africa because it is mistakenly thought to be an authentic folktale from Zimbabwe. In fact, it is not. Steptoe himself is honest by writing that the book, “was inspired by a folktale collected by G. M. Theal and published in 1895 in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.” Unfortunately, few seem to have investigated to see if it really is an appropriate choice to help American children learn about a place that is very far away and unfamiliar to them.

One who has is Eliot A. Singer who writes in his article, “Fakelore and the Ethics of Children’s Literature“:

In The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1987, p. 478), a reviewer notes of Steptoe’s (1987) celebrated and award winning Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters that the story is a “polished retelling of one from G. M. Theal’s Kaffir Folktales.” The actual title is Kaffir Folklore(Theal 1886), and there is no tale in that collection that remotely resembles the one in the picture book. Maybe getting a title right is a scholarly hang-up, but it does seem reasonable to expect a reviewer who claims something is a “polished retelling” at least to look in the card catalog. To his credit, Steptoe (1988) points out that he was simply inspired by Theal’s book to explore Zimbabwe tradition and come up with his own story, that he “did not write and illustrate a special interest picture book,” one “said to be based on an African tale.” Yet, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is reviewed, sold, classified, and, awarded, I presume, as an “African” tale.

One of our students, Jenny Schwartzberg of the Newberry Library, tracked down an on-line copy of Kaffir Folk-lore and after reading through all the tales, I feel the one that probably inspired Steptoe was “The Story of Five Heads.” However, the commonalities are minor; Steptoe’s story is really an original, his alone. Additionally, information about Great Zimbabwe (found here and here) indicates a far more tangled history than can possibly be deduced from Steptoe’s story and illustrations.

Our students agreed by the end of our discussions that this book was better used within a language arts unit than in a social studies unit. I agree wholeheartedly!

My conversation with Betsy in the comments of her post went like this (and I hope is okay to copy them over here):

Me: I was puzzled you said that no place in Africa was identified in Mufaro. In Steptoe’s note in the front he writes that it was “…inspired by a folktale collected by G.M. Theal and published in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.The names of the characters are from the Shona language….” He also thanks some from the Zimbabwe Mission their help. So It is very much set in old Zimbabwe among the Shona people. This is a book I’ve done a lot of research on and used in various courses. (My concern is that it not be seen as an authentic Shona folktale, but appreciated as an original work. Not sure if it is the case, but too often in the past it was so identified.) Here’s an old post of mine about it: https://medinger.wordpress.com/2007/08/06/learning-about-africa-sixth-in-a-series/

Betsy: Excellent point, but the subtitle doesn’t say “A Shona folktale” or “Zimbabwe folktale”. I might be splitting hairs, though. Thank you for the link!

Me: But it isn’t an original Shona or Zimbabwean folktale, but an original tale inspired by them. In fact, you can you read the likely one that inspired Steptoe here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/xft/xft06.htm (from the book he mentions in his note) and see how different it is from his. And so I think subtitles like: A Shona Folktale or a Zimbabwe Folktale would be incorrect. I find a good model for this sort of book to be Marilyn Nelson’s Ostrich and Lark, an Africana Book Award winner. (http://africaaccessreview.org/2014/02/ostrich-and-lark/)

Betsy: You’re beginning to inspire me to do a post on African folktales, a genre that flourished prior to me getting my library degree. You’re making excellent points about the fact that since this is an original folktale it would be incorrect to say it was specific since it doesn’t belong to that tradition. My question then is whether or not you find the subtitle problematic at all. Would it have just been better not to have a subtitle at all, like Ostrich and Lark, or do you have less of an issue with “An African Folktale” if it places it in context and has an Author’s Note to clear up confusion?

Me: The subtitle is “An African Tale” not “An African Folktale” so that leaves it up to being original. That said, I think the use of “African” in the subtitle is problematic as it reinforces stereotypes of the continent. So I think better to get rid of the subtitle completely and go the Ostrich and Lark route and provide a solid author note (as he did actually)

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Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

When I was 8 years old, I received the book “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.” It came at a good time in my life. The book is about a girl who received two Japanese dolls. In the book, when she was asked by a gruff bookstore owner, Young lady, can you read? She thinks, That’s one thing I can do well. That line really resonated with me because I felt the same way.

That is Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in the New York Times feature, “By the Book.” My sister and I also absolutely adored Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, most likely because, like the protagonist, we were often displaced — in our cases, living a year here, a year there, in various parts of Germany and the US. As a result, we connected strongly to Nona’s own feelings when moving to England after a childhood in India. Additionally,  we were intense dollhouse players and collectors and makers of tiny things. So the book spoke to us in a myriad of ways and I’m thrilled to see that it was a favorite of Carla’s too.

I loved the book so much I got my own doll and made things for her. I believe I followed instructions in the book, but my sister has our copy so can’t check.  Can you believe, I still have them?

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Coming Soon: Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris’s Her Right Foot

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers
Illustrated by Shawn Harris
Chronicle Books
On Sale September 19, 2017

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Kinderguides Update

Do you remember my screed last year about those horrid Kinderguides?  I couldn’t believe they could get away with the concept — reworking classics like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and On the Road for teeny tots. Well, I’m relieved to see they can’t (at least not in US — see more about the international situation below). From Picture Books Based on Famous Novels Violate Copyright, a Judge Rules:

Last week, a judge in Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled that several KinderGuides books infringed on the copyright protections granted to authors and their estates. The judge, Jed S. Rakoff, ruled in favor of the estates of CapoteArthur C. Clarke, Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway, which united to file suit in January, with Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. In the complaint, the estates and publishers called KinderGuides “unauthorized derivative” works that take the characters, plots and settings from copyrighted books.

I love that the Times snarkily links to a PW piece complete with a photo of the owners that looks like something from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop rather than their own article (in which I’m quoted).  Checking their website I see that On the Road, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Old Man and the Sea are now gone (though you can still see the covers on the PW piece) leaving Jane Eyre, The Odyssey, and Pride & Prejudice.  Frankly, those have been far better abridged elsewhere.

But hold the presses! They seem to be still available in other countries where, I guess, our copyright laws don’t reach. Here’s a recent instagram post of theirs:

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E. B. White’s Beloved Farm

Every spring, Mary would arrive to open the house and ready the gardens for planting. For many years, in mid-June, a teacher from a school 90 miles away would bring her class to visit. “They sit on hay bales in the barn,” Mary says, “and we play the recording of Mr. White reading Charlotte’s Web. They swing on the same rope swing that they knew Fern had; they sit on the milking stool where Fern had sat. I wanted them to grow up remembering this day. I hoped one day they’d want to find Mr. White’s other writings.”

From “The House at Allen Cove“, White’s Maine abode, now for sale.

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