Monday, October 20, 2014

As white as they want to be: crossing "The Invisible Line"

An Atlanta chauffeur, proud of his ancestral connections to British royalty, and disdainful of his black co-workers, learns that his own father's family was African American. An elderly woman in Kentucky worries that her husband might "lose his love for me" if he discovers her black ancestry. A proud family of South Carolina aristocrats explain away the "darker elements' in their family tree as Gypsy, Sephardic, Turkish, Portuguese, Senecan...anything but African.

These are a few of the people we meet in Daniel Sharfstein's fascinating look at families that straddled the color line from the Colonial era to the present.  Contrary to popular belief, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, race and color were not rock solid social dividers,  nor was intermarriage especially rare or always frowned on. Biracial families like the Walls of Ohio and Washington DC, and the Spencers of Kentucky were highly respected community members, office holders and even authority figures.

In fact, status could determine race rather than the other way around.  According to a South Carolina court for example, "a person's status is not to be determined solely by the distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man. A man of worth honesty, industry and respectability should have the rank of a white man".  Thus when Randall Gibson; Yale graduate, Confederate war hero and United States senator was "accused" of having black ancestry, (which he did), his family's status as long time property owners and people of standing allowed him to remain safely white. “Such status,” Sharfstein explains, “could not mean anything but whiteness. . . . As much as racial purity mattered to white Southerners, they had to circle the wagons around Randall Gibson. If someone of his position could not be secure in his race, then no one was safe.”

Take  look at this interview with author Daniel Sharfstein, and please join us for our discussion this Tuesday October 21st at 7 pm, at Evanston Public Library. This program is offered in partnership with the RACE exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, co-sponsored by the YWCA Evanston/Northshore.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Meet Jacqueline Williams this Monday!

Acclaimed actress Jacqueline Williams  will be back at EPL this coming Monday 10/20 to lead our discussion and reading of  August Wilson's Jitney. Set in the 1970s, Jitney explores the  relationship between a black "jitney" cab service owner and his son.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

RACE - What is it really?

We see it all the time: on surveys, Census forms, applications : "What's your race?" Most of us rarely question our race; we "know" we are white, African American, Indian, etc. But these racial categories are far more fluid and changeable than we may realize. Is "Hispanic" or "Latino" a race? Not according to the current Census, but it used to be. Are Ashkenazic Jewish, Irish, and Italian Americans all part of the same race? Most Americans would say yes, but at the turn of the 19th century, all three of these ethnic groups were considered separate "races",  generally deemed inferior to "whites", (i.e. Northern, Protestant Europeans).

In fact, there is no agreed upon biological definition of  race, yet race as a social construct has had, and continues to have a profound effect on one's social, educational, physical and economic health.

Evanstonians have a rare opportunity to explore these questions as we welcome the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center this month. Developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, it is the first national exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States. Co-presented by the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, it runs from October 12, 2014 – January 25, 2015.

EPL is a proud community partner for the RACE exhibit, and our next 3 AAL book discussions all relate to its themes:

The Invisible Line, 3 American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White  Tuesday Oct. 21st 7 pm

Many light skinned African Americans crossed the color line to avoid the very real and harsh implications of racial classification. Legal scholar Daniel Sharfstein chronicles the lives of three such families who made the transition from black to white during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing on archival material, Sharfstein constructs an absorbing history, demonstrating the fluidity and arbitrariness of racial classification.


This groundbreaking book examines how the myth of biological concept of race--revived by purportedly cutting-edge science, race-specific drugs, genetic testing, and DNA databases--continues to undermine a just society and promote inequality in a supposedly "post-racial" era. Fatal Invention is a  timely and provocative analysis of race, science, and politics by one of the nation's leading legal scholars and social critics.



A Dreadful Deceit: the Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America Tuesday, December 16th, 7 pm

Professor Jacqueline Jones profiles six African-Americans from the 1650s  to late 20th-century to demonstrate that race, which has no "basis in biology," didn't become a social construct until around the time of the American Revolution. Jones argues that throughout our history, race has been used as a malleable tool that has been forged over and over to fit the political and economic whims of America's elite.

All 3 books will be available at the 2nd floor desk a month before the discussion. Call 847-448-8620 to register and reserve a copy.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Meet Ron OJ Parson!

This is an exciting week: two fantastic "11 Months" programs back to back!
On Monday at 6, we'll be reading and discussing August Wilson's The Piano Lesson with Ron OJ Parson!  This is is a don't miss event: Mr Parson is a legendary director whose stellar  productions of the Wilson plays at Chicago's Court Theatre have garnered national acclaim. Visit the the Court Theatre production, website to watch  video clips,  and review  the play guide.

Tuesday night at 7  is our discussion of Sundown Towns, James Loewen's sobering account of enforced "white only" communities across America. All of our copies are out, but take a look at Loewen's  21 page introduction for an overview.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why all-white communities aren't "natural"

There are a lot of myths about why so few American communities are racially integrated: naturally occurring cultural preferences, familial ties, even the weather. In his book Sundown Towns, James Loewen blows these myths sky high and demonstrates persuasively that the reason all white communities exist is because their residents wanted it that way, and often fought violently to keep it that way.

This is not a primarily Southern phenomenon, in fact sundown towns, (and counties and even states) were the norm in the East, Midwest and North throughout the late 19th and early to mid 20th century. We'll be discussing Loewen's research and why he believes it is so important to dismantle continuing racial segregation at our June 17 AAL meeting.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Empathy, Not Judgement: Are We Our Brother's Keeper?

The religious principle I've always had the most trouble with is "Judge ye not". I am a pretty judgey person by nature. Whenever I'm reading the news, or observing my fellow citizens in traffic, ("Thanks for nearly running us over, jerk!") my gut reaction is "How can people be so completely selfish/intolerant/cruel? What kind of decent person does that?"

I've been reflecting on my judginess as I'm reading this month's African American Lit discussion book.

Imagine your son is a freshman at an exclusive liberal arts college. Late one night, a scholarship student from Newark gets in a loud argument in the dorm with several guys from his old neighborhood. Angry that your son and other students are watching, the Newark kid yells at them to leave, and when you son refuses, threatens him, then pick him up and hurls him headfirst against the floor, breaking his leg. It transpires that the scholarship student had been jailed the previous summer for the attempted murder of a crack dealer he had stabbed. You are asked if you want to press charges, and send the assailant to jail.

Is there any question how most of us would react?  All your son did was stand up to intimidation: he didn't call the guy names, or threaten him or use violence, and yet this thug with a violent criminal record, this ANIMAL dared to lay hands on your child in his own dorm. Of course you would press charges.

And if you had, you would have ended the life and career of Dr Rameck Hunt, currently an internist at Princeton's University Medical Center  and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Dr. Hunt is the co-author, along with his friends Dr. Sampson Davis and Dr. George Jenkins of The Pact, the story of 3 young black men from the Newark projects who supported each other in their dreams to become successful doctors.

Unlike many stories of poor but saintly children triumphing over the odds, this one doesn't sugarcoat the difficulties. Looking back, Dr. Hunt explains (but does not excuse) his behavior: "On the streets where I grew up if someone disrespected you, you beat his ass. Period. If I did nothing I'd look like a punk". 

How many times have we read about violent young people and thought "Punk". "Lowlife". "Thug". After all, how could decent people do that?

In fact, Dr. Hunt says that the weight of being judged by his white middle class dorm-mates was what had enraged him: "To the average white stranger I was an instant security threat a thug, not a human being with a heart and dreams and family and fears. We were a spectacle confirming white folks worst stereotypes".

President Obama speaks with black youth about the "My Brothers' Keeper" initiative
Fortunately for Dr. Hunt, (and for all of us) the mother of that student chose empathy and compassion over judgement, and declined to press charges, and her decision changed his life. We'll be talking about Drs. Hunt, Davis and Jenkins next Tuesday, and the many decisions large and small which led to their current success. And we'll ask: how are we, as a society, treating the Ramecks of today? Are we offering empathy and encouragement, or are we squelching them with 3 strikes laws and zero tolerance policies?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Saving Black Boys

DaJae Coleman, died 9/22/2012
In Jesmyn Ward's bittersweet new memoir, Men We Reaped, she speaks eloquently of the pain of losing 5 young men she loved, including her brother, to drugs and violence. This is a maddeningly familiar scenario for many in the African American community: losses as varied as Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and, right here in Evanston, DaJae Coleman, Leslie Calvin, Marcus Davis, Javar Bamberg, and Justin Murray keep us asking: why can't we keep black boys safe?

Dr George Jenkins was a black teen boy from the Newark projects  who made a personal commitment to survive and succeed, despite the odds. He enlisted his two best friends, Sampson Davis and Rameck Hunt, and they formed a pact: that all three would do whatever it took to overcome their challenges and become successful doctors. And they did. They recount their story in The Pact: Three Young Men Make  a Promise and Fulfill a Dream,  our April 15th discussion topic.

Trayvon Martin, died 2/26/2012

The Pact is one of a number of memoirs chronicling the rise of a young black person from inner city poverty. A few months back we read Rosemary Bray McNatt's equally inspiring Unafraid of the Dark, about her journey from the Chicago projects to Francis Parker school and then Yale; and we have also discussed The Other Wes Moore, in which a successful journalist ponders the different circumstances that pointed him on to success, while another young man with the same name and a similar background ended up in prison for murder. Several common themes emerge: the need for strong role models, family support, and the empathy to see beyond bad behavior and recognize potential.

Jordan Davis, died 11/23/2012
It's that empathy that is often lacking in discussions of why black young people go wrong. All of these authors admit to making bad choices as kids: McNatt stole money from her private school classmates, Moore flirted with street gangs, Davis was arrested for shoplifting, Hunt served time in juvie. Yet all had caring, engaged adults who refused to give up  on them: parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches who were willing to give them second, and often third and fourth chances.

Died 11/29/2012
All of these authors were hard working and talented, but they repeatedly stress that they could easily have gone the way of their classmates and friends. They remind an uncomfortable public that there is very little difference between them and the thousands of young black teens who don't make it to successful adulthood,
and that instead of offering judgments about "personal responsibility" we should be reaching out, and affirming our belief that young black lives have value. Rather than trying  to distinguish between the “good” victims and the “bad” boys who got what they had coming, Moore, McNatt, Ward and the Three Doctors urge us to stand up in support of all our young people, and give them what it takes to survive and thrive. To learn about some existing mentoring and support programs see:

The Three Doctors Foundation - Drs Sampson, Hunt and Jenkins foundation.

The "Elevate" Blog -
Wes Moore’s listing of “organizations that answer a call to action everyday and empower those who are less fortunate but equally deserving”

DaJae Coleman Foundation - offers programs that motivate Evanston youth and instill positive values to help guide them.
Leslie Calvin, died 7/4/2010