We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems

We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems

by Willis Barnstone
     
 

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Willis Barnstone's third book of memoirs begins with his childhood and ends with the death of his brother in 1987. A central theme is that of labels -- names, ethnicities, all distinctions that cause suspicion, anger, and destruction. Barnstone speaks as a Jew who has from early in his life shared parallel experiences with African Americans. He dwells on his own…  See more details below

Overview

Willis Barnstone's third book of memoirs begins with his childhood and ends with the death of his brother in 1987. A central theme is that of labels -- names, ethnicities, all distinctions that cause suspicion, anger, and destruction. Barnstone speaks as a Jew who has from early in his life shared parallel experiences with African Americans. He dwells on his own experience of "passing," already present in the name Barnstone, a name changed before his birth to conceal -- or not to advertise -- that he was a Jew, which might affect admission to private schools and college, his integration into society, and his professional life. But the price of dissembling was self-deprecation, fear of rejection, and guilt. Barnstone makes the analogy to the African American experience explicit. He speaks of his black step-grandmother, of childhood playmates, of the activist Bayard Rustin and the turbulent and exhilarating integration of his Quaker boarding school, of his first publication -- a letter to The Nation -- protesting the racial and religious exclusionary practices of the Bowdoin fraternities, of being a soldier with Blacks in the segregated South, and of the eighteenth-century slave memoirist Olaudah Equiano. Finally, there is a dialogue with Yusef Komunyakaa and a small selection of Komunyakaa's Jewish Bible poems. We Jews and Blacks is also a dramatic and whimsical literary memoir. It contains forty-some of Barnstone's poems, which give a second view of an event, a crystallization of his thinking. Both sorrowful and joyful, this memoir is a fresh and significant contribution to American letters.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This moving, and at times astonishing, memoir is a meditation on the thorny politics of racial and ethnic identity and how they have shaped American life and culture. Barnstone, a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University and the author of two earlier memoirs, was born in the 1920s to a Jewish family (originally Bornstein) but from an early age was taught to "pass" as "white"-i.e., Christian and acceptable to mainstream U.S. culture. The assimilationist messages from his mother were so strong he even slept with his nose braced on his pillow so it would grow a "permanent upward curl." Barnstone is fascinated with the idea of "passing" and how destructive it is. At heart, his memoir is a cry against "the absurdity of those distinctions in ethnicity, religion, and nation when they seem to justify the destruction of the other." And while the memoir's subtext is political, Barnstone melds it neatly with his personal history. From how it felt to be an assimilated American Jew during the Holocaust to contemplating the Nazi extermination of Greek Jews when he lives and teaches in Crete in the 1950s to discussing the similarities of anti-Semitism and racism in his experiences in the U.S. army, Barnstone weaves together life stories with a broad range of history, political analysis and literary criticism. Often his views of geopolitics sound naive ("The gang battles of West Side Story are global"), and he tends at times to the cliche. This is a curious book-half literary autobiography, half political treatise-but it sparkles and informs with intelligence and good intentions. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A work of profound intelligence and utter humanity; it is intensely engaging, exquisitely playful, unabashedly erudite without a trace of pretension, and radiant with love for fellow creatures." —Andrei Codrescu

Indiana University Press

"[A] moving, and at times astonishing, memoir... it sparkles and informs with intelligence and good intentions." —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780253110220
Publisher:
Indiana University Press
Publication date:
06/14/2004
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
974 KB

Meet the Author

Willis Barnstone, distinguished poet and translator, is author of two other memoirs. He is perhaps best known for his translation of The Gnostic Bible. He lives in Oakland, California.

Yusef Komunyakaa is distinguished senior poet at New York University. He has received numerous awards, including the William Faulkner Prize (Université Rennes, France), the Ruth Lilly Prize for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His latest book is Gilgamesh, a verse play. He lives in New York City.

Indiana University Press

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