seeing and believing

Alana Newhouse’s article about photographer Roman Vishniac, his photographs, the stories he told with and about those photographs, and the evidence that challenges those stories, is really kind of fantastic. Never heard of Vishniac? (I hadn’t.) Not sure you’re interested?

Take a look at the slideshow that goes with the article – whatever you think of Vishniac’s storytelling, his photography was very, very good. Then read these three paragraphs from near the start of the article:

But the center will not only be acquiring Vishniac’s entire life’s work; as the father-son spread suggests, it is also inheriting a fascinating set of ambiguities and unanswered questions — all unexpectedly uncovered by a 34-year-old curator named Maya Benton. As Benton has discovered, Vishniac released, over the course of a five-decade career, an uncommonly small selection of his work for public consumption — so small, in fact, that it did not include many of his finest images, artistically speaking. Instead the chosen images were, in the main, those that advanced an impression of the shtetl as populated largely by poor, pious, embattled Jews — an impression aided by cropping and fabulist captioning done by his own hand. Vishniac’s curating job was so comprehensive that it would not only limit the appreciation of his talents but also skew the popular conception of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.

Sometime in 1989, Maya Benton, then a 14-year-old living in Los Angeles, had an epiphany. The daughter of a single mother, a psychoanalyst who as a child lived for years in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, Benton grew up in a household that was a relative rarity in American Jewish life: Yiddish speaking but cosmopolitan, well off and not Orthodox. As she lolled on the couch of her grandparents’ home, Benton started sneaking chocolate rum balls from a sterling silver box — one of two family heirlooms from, she had assumed, Novogrudek, the historic Jewish town in what is now Belarus from which her grandparents hailed before the Holocaust. As Benton stared at the weighty birthright from the alte heym, or Old World, bafflement struck: she knew, from an interview she conducted with her family members for a history class, that they fled the German invasion, hid in nearby forests, were interned at multiple labor camps and trekked through miles of often snow-covered forest in the east. How on earth, Benton thought as she considered the ornate container, did they manage to schlep this through Siberia? The confusion grew when she considered the second heirloom: a full set of Rosenthal china.

As it turned out, the box and the china had not been in the family for generations, nor were they from Novogrudek. As Maya’s grandmother, Tonia Benton, explained that afternoon, they were among the things that she and her husband bought from impoverished Germans after the war; bartering the chocolate and cigarettes they received in the displaced-persons camp, they were able to buy valuable items that could be used as currency to get the family to America. That day, Maya Benton says, she learned a lesson about people’s need for, and uses of, mythical narratives.

Then decide if you want to click through (or, you know, just click through, really, it’s worth it).

no donuts, though

I wonder how many Americans experience their ethnicity most clearly through food. Ok, I’m not sure what it means to say that one is experiencing ethnicity, or what it means for that experience to be clearer, but in a social world where most people’s daily rituals are quite similar to others’, food is one of the few major areas open for wide variation. Clothing is another, I suppose, but I tend to associate it more with religion than with ethnicity, at least within the United States (which is why I wrote “Americans” instead of “people” above.

My family celebrates Christmas in a mostly secular American fashion; for Christmas dinner we usually eat sukiyaki. I can’t remember how we started doing this. Sukiyaki has always been one of our traditional family meals, along with jiaozi and a chicken soup my Swiss grandmother made (I’d find a wikipedia entry for that one too, but I don’t know how to spell the German name my grandmother used; at least the recipe has been passed down) and some others, but I can’t remember what occasions went with it until it became a Christmas tradition. It may have been a day after Christmas thing first, and then we moved it up.

I do remember once, during Thanksgiving, we wondered why we were having turkey if we didn’t really want to have turkey, and after that sukiyaki became a Thanksgiving meal too. But that was only if it was just immediate family; when representatives of the rest of the world are around, we still eat turkey.

Categorized as identity

points of origins

You know those stories about immigrants having their names changed, not by their own choice, upon arrival at Ellis Island or other points of entry? I hadn’t given them much thought, but it turns out that most of the stories, at least in simplest form, are very unlikely to be true. As the U.S. National Archives blog points out, most of the arrival records for immigrants – passenger manifests and the like – were produced before departure; these records may have contained errors that were reproduced in the U.S., but they were not created by Ellis Island officials.

This is not to say that immigrants didn’t have their names changed, just that – as this article linked in the comments to the archives’ post explains in more detail – the stories behind those changes are more complicated.

lactose prejudice

I used to have dairy products all the time as a kid: milk with cereal, milk with cream of wheat, ice cream, milk with cookies, and less often, milk on its own. Then I noticed that drinking milk by itself was making me sick, but it was still ok with cereal. Then even milk with cereal made me sick. Then I started avoiding dairy. I’ve since found lactose-free milk and lactase pills and various other things that let me have dairy products without too much trouble.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m less lactose-intolerant than I think. When I’ve had gelato in Europe, it hasn’t been a problem even without lactase supllements, but I always take a supplement in the US with ice cream. But this might be the result of different processing methods; I can handle some yogurts – active culture – but not others. Same with cheeses. But when I’ve decided not to take any precautions with dairy I’ve usualy ended up paying a price for it. (It’s not really that bad; certainly not worse than stomach flus I’ve had.)

So I’m a bit surprised to see Ezra Klein quote the following about Nestle in China:

In Asia, ice cream is proving surprisingly popular among a people that aren’t supposed to tolerate dairy products; in fact, Nestle’s researchers now contend that Asians aren’t any more lactose intolerant than any other ethnic group. The problem, Brimlow [director of Nestle’s Chinese research center] told me, is that cow’s milk, has historically been so scarce and expensive in China, that most Chinese never developed the enzyme needed to digest dairy foods. If Chinese children are introduced to milk early on, says Brimlow, they have no trouble tolerating lactose — a finding that has spurred Nestle’s China operation to launch a wide range if dairy products aimed at the youth market. “Even as adults, it takes only three months to develop the enzyme,” Brimlow says. “They may feel a little sick for a while, but they get used to it. Yogurt is a great way to reintroduce dairy.”

I’d love to be reintroduced to dairy (without supplements), but I don’t see that happening based on my experience growing up. It’s not like I never had the enzyme. However, when I went to Taiwan, I noticed people having a fair amount of milk products and my relatives didn’t seem to have heard of lactose intolerance – we had to explain that it’s not an allergy. (A commenter over at Ezra’s place notes the same thing about Taiwan.) Among the American side of the family, I’m about the only one with a problem, though my sister has a milder reaction. So who knows what’s going on with me.

Maybe I’ve already had and lost my chance by having milk as a kid. Or maybe I’m just one of those people caught between worlds, not European enough to handle dairy – but my paternal grandmother is Swiss! – not Chinese enough to adjust as if it were new. If I ever have a MooLatte, the results no doubt will be tragic.

outside the lines

This biography of Clarence King, geologist, geographer and more, sounds fascinating. I don’t know why it takes the New York Times review (via) so long to reveal that:

What they did not know was that when King was not living in various clubs and hotels, he was married and the father of five children. He was deeply devoted to his wife, Ada, a black woman 19 years his junior. This blue-eyed man, descended from signers of the Magna Carta, had successfully cultivated the impression that he was black too.

The existence of Ada and their children became publicly known only in 1933, at a trial in which Ada tried to recover the trust fund she had been promised by Clarence. He had been dead for more than 30 years, so the shock waves generated by the trial were considerable. Most dramatic, in Ms. Sandweiss’s account, is the way that revisionists demoted Clarence from hero to “tragic hero,” not to mention “the most lavishly overpraised man of his time,” upon discovering the he had been married to a former slave. This was typical of the sickening headlines surrounding the trial: “Mammy Bares Life as Wife of Scientist.”

All of this has long been a matter of record. It took Ms. Sandweiss to pinpoint and explore the fact that Clarence went further than merely marrying Ada and concealing her existence from his friends. He also adopted the name Clarence* Todd, under which he married Ada, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job held exclusively by black workers. Employment on a train helped explain to Ada why he was so well traveled and so frequently absent from home. (Later he would claim to be a clerk and a steelworker too.)

Or why you have to read to the end to learn this (which, incidentally, points to one of the ways in which the census has always been important):

But if race had clear, stereotypical meaning for this one odd man, it worked in entirely different ways for his wife and children. At the heart of “Passing Strange” is the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that the existence of one black great-grandparent defined an American as black. Not only did this ruling entitle Clarence to his claim as a black man; it also left the racial classification of Ada and her children to the whims of census takers who freely made assumptions about the people they questioned. Over time Todd family members were variously designated “white,” “negro” or “mulatto,” based not on evidence but on context. Ada and Clarence’s sons were deemed black when seen with their dark-skinned mother. But their two daughters married white men and effectively turned themselves into white women.


*This might be an error. An Amherst press release about the book says he took the name James Todd, not Clarence Todd.

the fabric of society

It seems like Cory Booker is channeling Randolph Bourne (via):

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.1793410&w=425&h=350&fv=autoPlay%3Dfalse]

From Bourne’s “Trans-National America” (in the July 1916 Atlantic):

The foreign cultures have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism, but have remained distinct but cooperating to the greater glory and benefit not only of themselves but of all the native ‘Americanism’ around them.

What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity.

Bourne’s prefers the metaphor of a weave to food; he comes out against gluttony:

Only America, by reason of the unique liberty of opportunity and traditional isolation for which she seems to stand, can lead in this cosmopolitan enterprise. Only the American — and in this category I include the migratory alien who has lived with us and caught the pioneer spirit and a sense of new social vistas — has the chance to become that citizen of the world. America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans- nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision. I do not mean that we shall necessarily glut ourselves with the raw product of humanity. It would be folly to absorb the nations faster than we could weave them. We have no duty either to admit or reject. It is purely a question of expediency. What concerns us is the fact that the strands are here. We must have a policy and an ideal for an actual situation. Our question is, What shall we do with our America?

stand out

This remarkable story comes towards the end of Bob Herbert’s recent column about Obama’s convention speech:

P.T. Cochran would agree. Mr. Cochran, 88, a retired appraiser for the city of Detroit, recalled a day in 1944 when he and a fellow student at Wilberforce University, a black school in Ohio, went into the town of Xenia to see a movie. The ticket taker told them the theater was closed.

“We knew it wasn’t closed,” said Mr. Cochran. “They just didn’t want to let us in. So we stood there, watching to see if they would let anyone else in.”

The ticket taker refused to admit anyone as long as the two friends were standing outside. They stood there for six hours. Then they called the school and let other friends know what they were doing. The students at Wilberforce alerted white students at nearby Antioch College.

Students from both schools turned out in force — more than 100 of them — to support Mr. Cochran and his friend. “They all stood there with us, to back us up,” said Mr. Cochran. At that point, his voice broke, and he wept softly at the memory from 64 years ago.

“We stayed there until the theater closed that night,” said Mr. Cochran. “And then we came back the next day, which was Sunday, and stood there until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when they finally decided to let us in.

“I’ll never forget what those kids did for us.”

conspicuous by their absence

Reading this, it occurred to me that the rich really are different from you* and me: they can afford to stay out of sight.

Russ Alan Prince and Lewis Schiff describe a similar pattern in their book, The Middle-Class Millionaire, which analyzes the spending habits of the 8.4million American households whose wealth is self-made and whose net worth, including their home equity, is between $1 million and $10 million. Aside from a penchant for fancy cars, these millionaires devote their luxury dollars mostly to goods and services outsiders can’t see: concierge health care, home renovations, all sorts of personal coaches, and expensive family vacations. They focus less on impressing strangers and more on family- and self-improvement. Even when they invest in traditional luxuries like second homes, jets, or yachts, they prefer fractional ownership. “They’re looking for ownership to be converted into a relationship rather than an asset they have to take care of,” says Schiff. Their primary luxuries are time and attention.

*Unless you are rich, but you wouldn’t tell me that, would you? Unless you’re only recently rich.

history: older than it looks

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have already seen Rick Perlstein’s posts on Box 722. If you haven’t, they’re fascinating and you should go read them. I was struck by this statement in the second post:

One thing to observe: over and over again, the Chicago Southwest Siders protesting open housing repeat a variant of the resident on 71st Street who averred that Congress “cannot legislate morals or love.” The reason this is fascinating was that this was one of Barry Goldwater’s constant refrains on the campaign trail in 1964 for why he didn’t vote for the civil rghts act. Like most everywhere else, not many people on the Southwest Side of Chicago voted for Barry Goldwater. But clearly they heard what they had to say, and took it to heart, and repeated it verbatim two years later. It’s a fascinating lesson in the mysterious ways political messages take hold.

But while the letter-writers might have been influenced by Goldwater, the message itself has a longer history. My guess is that the general claim that it’s not possible to legislate morality could be traced to some dead political theorist; in the context of segregation it shows up in the majority opinion in Plessy vs. Ferguson:

The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits and a voluntary consent of individuals…. Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.

[Quoted in Charles Payne, “”The Whole United States Is Southern!”: Brown v. Board and the Mystification of Race”, which is worth reading, here.]

a new identity

Of the three articles linked here, I thought the New York Times one, which doesn’t really try to do much more than provide some information about people of mixed racial ancestry, was the most worthwhile.

One of the things I’ve noticed – and this is a more of a general comment rather than a comment on the linked articles – as I’ve come across more and more articles on this subject in the last year or so is that there seems to be a trend towards treating people of mixed ancestry as if they belong in the same broad category regardless of the particularities of their backgrounds. I suppose in some contexts this makes sense – the Loving decision, for example. And categories generally accepted today – like “Asian-American,” which I believe only came into existence as a word in the 1960s – themselves contain quite a bit of diversity.

Still, given the somewhat complex history of race in America (and in the rest of the world, for that matter) the articles I’ve read could use more discussion of this past. The differences, similarities, and relationships between, say, slavery and segregation and immigration exclusion are worth some more attention, at the very least. As well as the fact that some terms formerly used to refer to racial mixture, and which are both offensive and archaic to us today – like “octoroon” or “quadroon” – had real meaning at particular times and places, but not at others.

One of the reasons Homer Plessy got on that train in Louisiana, as I understand it, was to challenge not just segregation, but the way racial categories were determined. Plessy apparently might have been able to pass as white:

…petitioner was a citizen of the United States and a resident of the state of Louisiana, of mixed descent, in the proportion of seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every recognition, right, privilege, and immunity secured to the citizens of the United States of the white race by its constitution and laws; that on June 7, 1892, he engaged and paid for a first-class passage on the East Louisiana Railway, from New Orleans to Covington, in the same state, and thereupon entered a passenger train, and took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated; that such railroad company was incorporated by the laws of Louisiana as a common carrier, and was not authorized to distinguish between citizens according to their race, but, notwithstanding this, petitioner was required by the conductor, under penalty of ejection from said train and imprisonment, to vacate said coach, and occupy another seat, in a coach assigned by said company for persons not of the white race, and for no other reason than that petitioner was of the colored race; that, upon petitioner’s refusal to comply with such order, he was, with the aid of a police officer, forcibly ejected from said coach

; but he was arrested by pre-arrangement. Justice Harlan, in his dissent opposing the segregation of citizens from one another, also objected:

There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the state and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race.

Incidentally, two years earlier, Harlan was one of two justices who dissented in the case of Wong Kim Ark, an American born in the United States to Chinese parents, which upheld birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment. (The other was Chief Justice Fuller, who authored the dissent.) A few decades later the Supreme Court upheld, in Lum v. Rice, the segregation of the Chinese – who were classified as “colored” – from whites in the Mississippi public schools. (It’s not clear to me whether the decision was also applied to privately operated railroads.)

These are the kinds of things I’m referring to when I say that the history of racial categorization is not a simple one. Are they – not so much the particulars of the cases but the issues they touch on – relevant to how we think about people of mixed ancestry today? I think so, though I admit that finding a way to incorporate them into a newspaper article would not be easy. And if these pasts are not relevant – the different but related pasts of the various groups to which those of mixed ancestry could claim membership, along with the histories of people of mixed ancestry before Loving – that also seems worthy of note.

My impression is that a fair number of people of mixed heritage are embracing “mixed” as a category, so it’s not all being done by “outsiders” examining a phenomenon, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to do. Occasionally, I see articles where people seem to be trying to push people of mixed ancestry into new categories; this seems to happen in a couple of the things I’ve read about a supposed “hapa” identity – which apparently comes from a Hawaiian term meaning “part white”, but which somehow has been transformed to refer to people who are “part Asian” – but not so much when I read about “mixed race” people, broadly construed.

(On hapa: I learned the term here, which article is mostly restrained about encouraging the adoption of the identity. This, on the other hand, treats it like a category already accepted and even uses the phrase “Hapa Nation.” Whatever.)

I also have the impression that younger people are creating increasing numbers of clubs or organizations for people of mixed ancestry at high schools and colleges (but I don’t keep track of this). A similar club was attempted when I was in high school; I’m not sure it ever came into existence while I was there. I went to the first meeting and could not find a reason to join. It seemed like our backgrounds were too individual, that we didn’t have enough in common to form a group based almost entirely on this aspect of our identities. There was also a question of what exactly do we do now that we’re all in the same room? I don’t seem to remember us having similar interests in other areas; indeed, some were interested in starting the club and others were not.

Still, I have to admit that when I’ve met people of quite similar backgrounds – one side of the family traceable to East Asia, the other traceable to Europe – and of a similar age, I have felt that I do share something significant (meaningful?) with them. Certainly we’ve had a number of similar experiences. Including, in some cases, the experience of feeling like our identities were shaped by so many things particular to ourselves and our personal histories that they do not fit comfortably into larger categories.

Categorized as identity