WE JEWS AND BLACKS: Memoir with Poems

Willis Barnstone, Author . Indiana Univ. $29.95 (241p) ISBN 978-0-253-34419-9

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 naïve ("The gang battles of West Side Story are global"), and he tends at times to the cliché. This is a curious book—half literary autobiography, half political treatise—but it sparkles and informs with intelligence and good intentions. (June)

Reviewed on: 04/26/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
Open Ebook - 257 pages - 978-0-253-11022-0
Paperback - 241 pages - 978-0-253-21921-3
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