We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems
By Willis Barnstone
Indiana University Press, 2004; $29.95
Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White
By Kathy Y. Wilson
Emmis Books, 2004; $19.99
Willis Barnstone’s memoir is dense. It turns upon itself, a life reliving itself across a personal and global landscape of deep thinking, wide reading, intense conversations with renowned writers and thinkers. Barnstone meditates.
Kathy Y. Wilson’s collection of newspaper columns feels more transparent. It spirals across issues of Cincinnati here and now. Wilson exhorts.
Both authors deal with personal connections to race, class, identity, otherness. Both converge on the searing-ness of denial and concealment and on the pursuit of truth. Both are poets writing in prose. It is good to read both books to understand how new and seasoned “voices” observe and react to injustices, celebrate the human spirit triumphing over oppression. Both reveal the importance of telling stories.
Barnstone observes that in America “denial and dissembling was a social and practical matter. It opened doors. But it took its toll on the denier ... The public shame of being a Jew was real (the shame of being a Black was immeasurably worse).”
Wilson acknowledges, “Separation is my life’s recurring theme.” Both Barnstone and Wilson yearn to be part of a “united” society, a humanity that accepts “otherness” without schism. Each acknowledges that being “the other” is both a burden and responsibility.
Historical memory informs Barnstone’s book, his 15th. Wilson’s writing lacks that essential quality of depth, but give her time. This is her first book.
With Barnstone, the reader wanders over the globe, experiencing with him days and nights in conversation with individuals whose lives are steeped in ancient cultures. Barnstone’s odyssey is one of finding himself through disappearance. He becomes “the wandering Jew” living and working in Greece, France, Spain, Africa, China, Argentina, etc., following graduation from Bowdoin, where he “passed” because he doesn’t say “who” he is. Throughout his prep school and college experience he is acutely aware that while he can “pass,” blacks don’t have that option, unless they are light-skinned and simply don’t mention it. But he is intimately intertwined with blackness, and the “we” in his title relates to familial heritage as well as conscious choice of inclusion.
Too young to serve during WWII, the Korean conflict engages him at age 26, and he experiences a different side of Jew and black at Camp Gordon, Ga. Along the way, Barnstone earns a doctorate and a distinguished professorship of comparative literature and Spanish at Indiana University.
With Wilson, the reader steps into the circumscribed environs of an Ohio River valley community and its culture of schisms. In 1994, Wilson drops out of college and wanders into a “five-year stint at The Hamilton-Journal News, a daily newspaper for Butler County [Ohio]” which is “the newspaper of Hamilton, the hometown I left once my folks split up when I was 7 years old.” Wilson’s also is a story of separation and return. She struggles to fit into the corporate structure of a daily where she becomes a “token black.” Not until she signs on with CityBeat, Cincinnati’s weekly issues, arts and events paper, does she find her voice, which is described as “a fusion of well-honed fury and captivating irreverence ...”
The issues of enslavement, racism, fear of diversity run through both books. Barnstone’s style is first-person conversational. For him, Jews and blacks “have been pals in days of icy bigotry.” White’s style is first-person columnist. She, too, reminds her readers of blacks and Jews walking together toward common goals. In their analysis of the human condition and who is doing what to whom, Barnstone and White hold the mirror up for all to be viewed equally. No one escapes their scrutiny in the pursuit of truth, and that includes themselves. These are important books because they reveal what we think, say and do and how that affects and reflects personal humanity.