Saturday, June 25, 2011


Did anybody see that little Thursday styles piece in the New York Times about more women of color going au natural and haunting the websites that are helping with au natural hair care? Does anybody hang out at these websites? Are they going to turn into a financial and times savings for women of color or will they still wind up costing the big bucks and taking hours?

I have straight, straight, straight hair that literally can't be curled sans perm, but my daughter has curly, curly, curly hair. (I loved when she was bald as a billiard ball save for this one, long, tiny corkscrew at the back.) I had no clue how to handle her hair, so I sought out older African-American grandmas, who explained about moisterizers and picks and not combing it with a regular comb, etc.

This reminds me: two days ago, at Target, I saw a family all in dreads. These were some serious dreadlocks--though the teenagers'--male and female-- were below their shoulders, the mama-looking one's hair swept her ankles. At my son's school, we have a blonde white teacher with dreads below her bottom, but this woman left Teacher Lynn in the shade.

I commented on how impressive the dreads were--remembering an old New Yorker cartoon where two white guys with little braids at the back (which used to be the height of cool) are comparing the length of the braids, and the one that's down to his knees says, "Well, I've been growing mine since. . ."

And of course, they were Rastafarians. I know so little about Rastafarianism, except it started in Ethiopia and says that Haile Salasi or however you spell his name, is the second coming. She grinned, surprised I knew that one. She said most people think it's from Jamaica, (She was not Jamaican) and that it's all one God, all one Love.

I told her I have often envisioned religion as something we put up between us and the too bright light--like a mask that we poke holes in to let the light through--and then we fight a war over which holes we've poked, and we nodded together.

Then, she told me they were shopping for a Rastafari festival this weekend in Duluth. She said that one of the bands there was the Rasta band to end all Rasta bands--that this would be some seriously wonderful music. We laughed, and I let her get back to shopping, walking away with a huge grin on my face and an appreciation for variety on a lot of fronts--for the endless variety of nature, for the endless inventiveness of humans, for the ways we costume ourselves and what that means, and at the thought of Duluth--Duluth--being rocked by a wild Rastafari festival. I wish we could have gone.

Sara Selznick


Monday, May 30, 2011


I have recently been party to a discussion about stereotypes, and I was thinking how valuable they are. For people who don't have time to think things through, they are a short-cut that makes the world far more tidy.  And please don't think that I'm putting myself above the crowd. I'm sure that there are people that I stereotype. After all, I am busy, too.

Now, I'm a white (glow-in-the-dark white) Jewish person. I don't know how often I have to mention this. My husband, too, is Jewish and white, though nearly quite so pale. We left South Central Los Angeles eight years ago and moved to Western Colorado, chasing employment. In South Central Los Angeles (which has since legally changed its name to South Los Angeles, as if that will change its reality) we were leaving  people we considered family as well as many other beloved neighbors in our extremely warm and caring mostly African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles--a neighborhood that stretched for blocks, and where, within a few weeks, we knew literally eighty families, and where walking the dogs could take two hours because of having to stop and talk to everyone.

The city where we lived had a population, according to the 2000 census,  of 43,000 and within the whole valley there were more like 100,000.

Also according to the 2000 census, there were 326 African-Americans, seven immigrants from Nepal,  five people of Chinese ancestry and two Japanese immigrants. In fact, the day we we arrived to move into our house, we were astonished and touched that the airport employees recognized a Japanese visitor and knew whom she was visiting, then listened with some degree of horror as they explained that "She's the only Oriental who ever flies into town," and so thus was highly memorable.)

Thus I had a visceral response to all the whiteness in our new town; I found myself wanting to hug and pet every person of color I met. The black people laughed and told me they, themselves, got whiplash when they saw another African-American, (their heads whipping around in astonishment.) They were patient with my wanting to sit by them and talk with them. And oh, they felt like home.

There were very few Jews in this town, (surprise surprise) but there were a lot of Jews for Jesus, who truly believed that they, too, could legally make Aliyah to Israel and were surprised when they could not.  At every Jewish holiday, the local TV station turned to the Jews for Jesus for an explanation, and after every TV report, the tiny Jewish community (with Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, of necessity, sharing one synagogue and people driving from hundreds of miles away for holidays) would speak to the local TV station manager and say, "No, we're the Jews. They are Christians. You have to come to us." Both TV and radio station never did.

Within a month, we came to understand that the phrase, "A wonderful place to raise children," which had sucked us in to thinking we could live in this town, was really code for "No blacks, no Jews, few Asians, and only modest and retiring Hispanics and Native Americans." Within a week--I am not kidding, it took us only seven days--we were desperate to move out.

My sister reminded me that for everyone I met, I was likely the ONLY JEW they would ever know. Having spent my childhood as a little Ambassador of Judaism in small Midwestern towns, I was familiar with this drill. I know that if you are African-American, or Asian, or any other minority, you have all had twinges of this feeling--how you must always be perfect, and clean and neat, and smart, and kind and patient and calm, because however you act is how They will Always View every one of You.

While I managed this with aplomb as a child, as a grownup, I found it tedious. I did not want to be patient with the idiots--um, kind-hearted, ignorant people--who constantly tried to convert me, I did not want to be all-the-time explaining that there was not one Jewish point of view. I did not want to be educating everyone I met about Jewish beliefs and Jewish holidays, and why we eat matza and how Chanukah is a minor festival and why it was not possible for a Jew to believe that Jesus is the messiah.

I remember taking a dining room chair to be repaired, knocking on the door of a workshop with a mezuzah on the outside, and the name McGillicuddy on the mailbox, and being greeted by a broad fellow wearing tzit-tzit and a kepah. I was so relieved when he explained to me that he did not consider himself a Jew for Jesus, but rather an Old Testament Christian. At last somebody who was willing to state the truth about that odd cult, designed originally to try to peel young Jews away from their religion when they were in college, but clearly having morphed into it's own complete sect of Christianity. He told me the Jews for Jesus weren't so fond of him, either, because he refused to call himself a Jew, but he was using a fairly accurate description, as someone who was following the Old Testatment jots and tittles that Paul had casually thrown aside, though even there, like anybody going by either Testament, he was cherry-picking what rules he chose to follow.

But at least he was not saying that he was a Jew. At least he understood that a follower of a messiah, however Jewish he might have been, could not be a part of a religion that states that when we have healed the world completely, a messiah will come. (Though not all Jews even believe in a messiah--see non-monolithic Judiasm above.)

Oh, I hated that town. I pushed and shoved and dragged and insisted (not that my husband needed much pushing, but he did feel we had to find jobs to leave. Finally, we did not. Even so, we were with relief to get out of there, though we depleted our savings to do so. We still occasionally joke to one another, "Don't you wish you were back in Colorado?" just to see the expression of horror our faces, though we might have enjoyed another Colorado town.

But--that town was a terrific reminder that stereotypes have a reason for being.

A) many people literally do not know someone who is African-American or Jewish or Asian.
B) Those who do are often not on a comfortable enough basis to have a sense of what family-life might be like, or what a neighborhood might be like, or what daily-life might be like.
C) they have an innate, built-in sense that those like them are the ones to talk with, so are unlikely to open up a discussion with, say, someone who looks Ute or Navajo or with a foreign accent.
D) They are taught it is not polite to ask.
E) if they ask, they might not encounter someone interested in telling or they might encounter someone who is being a little ambassador of their culture, and thus who will not tell the truth.
F) they may assume that every other person of that minority they meet is exactly the same as the person before them doing the explaining, and thus All Jews Are or All Blacks Are, etc. or
G) they may assume that all Other Jews or Blacks are really the stereotype, but the one in front of them is the rare, and special exception, because the stereotype they have been raised with is so strongly in their minds.

For these people, stereotypes are all they know, and a short-hand that makes the "other" feel safe, just as I might be accused right now of stereotyping people from this town in Colorado, though if anybody wanted to hear, I could give a far more nuanced description of the people I met and the town and the meth problem and the curbs everybody had someone pour in their lawns, because God forbid that their grass should touch their shrubs, and the noxious weeds that punctured tires and. . .oh, that would all be too tedious.

But I have also come to believe, from living where I live now, more or less surrounded by Liberals, that there are certain people whose personality or brains make it hard for them to view the world with any kind of nuance.

And I'm not saying Republicans, because one of my extremely liberal neighbors shows the same qualities--I remember when she insisted that suffering torture negatively affected the brain and therefore John McCain, having suffered torture, could never again think clearly, to which I replied, "Just like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and all those victims of Concentration Camps." "Oh," she said, but I doubt if it changed her mind on the basic point, which was that John McCain could never think clearly. Liberals, too, can have minds that want things all or nothing, black or white.

And I'm not saying Christians, or People of the Book (Muslims and Christians and Jews), because I know some pagans who are just as passionate and just as certain that theirs is the Right Way and everybody else is Wrong. (Though not all Christians or Muslims or Jews or Pagans or Atheists for that matter, think theirs is the only right way to believe.)

But for people who do Know the Truth,  and more importantly, believe it can be Known, it may not matter how often you show them nuance. They may always come to rest on stereotypes. I am learning from raising children that some people from the get go have minds that are more rigid than others. Some people may simply be made to see more stereotypes, and be far more comfortable doing so.

Still, I am hopeful that how people are raised can make some difference. For instance, there are studies now showing that not talking about our differences--which most white people are politely taught not to do-- increases bigotry in children. When a child says, "Mommy, that man's skin is black," pointing to the guy in front of them in line, and Mommy doesn't say to the child--and to the man, "Yup. He has more pigment in his skin than we do. But see, he has freckles like you do," but instead says, "Hush, that's rude," the child is learning more than politeness. The child is learning that differences are shameful, that he is the better kind, and that to talk about it is rude.

I suppose in the meantime that those of us who are minorities can continue to be Ambassadors of ourselves. And that those of us who are majorities--as I am a recipient daily of what is called White Privilege--can make sure to talk with our children about minorities and the challenges they can encounter in the world. We can all talk about different cultures with our children, and with ourselves and with the others we may meet along the road, sharing what is coming to be called our own "Race Story," our own experiences with others who are not precisely like ourselves.

And maybe we can visit Western Colorado and do so, and maybe we can do so in rural Alabama or in the heart of the inner City, or in Alberta, Canada, or in Peoria. And maybe, little by little, we can ease away the stereotypes, at least as much as is possible in this busy, busy world.

Sara Selznick


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Struggling with Material and Time

 I am writing a very complex novel, several stories intertwined. Most of them are based on historical research or stories I heard of neighbors' past in our old neighborhood of Los Angeles. All of them seem to work--and putting them together seems to work--except for the story line based on the character of me.

At first, she was too boring, so I have tried to up her tension quotient. That seemed to work, except then she was too whiny. My two critique groups said, "Make her more like you." I'm not sure what they mean. I was making her like me. I guess I should be grateful they can't hear inside my head, or they would probably think that I, too, am too boring and too whiny.

And anyway, I defended my character, who is, after all, not really me. My mother is not a Holocaust survivor. And her arc is also longer than the rest, stretching throughout the novel, which means it can't accelerate as quickly as those who are more distilled.

But now I'm thinking that there are other things involved. For one thing, I am Jewish. There is no "Jewish" personality that stands as a monolith any more than I could describe such an African-American "type".  The long standing joke is that you take two Jews and you get three opinions. Plus the reason, both theologically (God did this) and historically (the record shows that) for the destruction of the 2nd Temple was because we Jews could not get along with ourselves.

But one thing that our Jewish heritage almost universally leaves us with--I think this is fair to say--we think in questions.  And we tend, as a group, to be trained to look at both sides of those questions, so that when our thoughts are written, that series of questions can (according to my readers) seem like vacillation. Hence: whining and boring.

But also, all my other characters were conceived around some historical crisis or situation I wanted to dramatize, and thus are innately dramatic. For example:

What part of you is lost if you must hide who you really are in order to survive? Especially if you are very successful at hiding it?

What if a family member you had left behind in order to hide suddenly showed up on your doorstep, leaving you feeling guilty (for leaving them) and terrified (at being found out?)

What would it be like to have spent your whole life fighting bigotry successfully, only to realize that the line won can always be moved further out, i.e., I get my child in the public swimming pool and they close the pool; I get my child  in the good public schools, the white people move their children out and with them goes the financing; I get my family in the terrific neighborhood (battling legal obstacles and cross-burnings) only to have white flight and red-lining by banks--and a freeway bull-dozed through Black-owned mansions-- lead to a  failing neighborhood?

And what if, after all that, your children started calling you an Uncle Tom because you were still trying to fight your battles through the courts?

What if (as one of those children) you found that surviving the violent responses to non-violent methods of protest didn't make you a saint, but instead left you shell-shocked?

What if you were the great, great, great grandchild of freed slaves who had done so well even before the Civil War that they had owned their own slaves? What if you had been raised and lived your whole life looking down on those "other" Negroes, (those loud, uncouth and dark-skinned ones) yet were suddenly confronted with the way you had internalized the white cultures bigotry and imposed it on those around you all your life?

(Notice how I phrase all of these plot ideas as questions?)

But notice how they all have strong internal tensions? Most of them are even life or death. Except for Molly Lerner, my white, Jewish character, and that's because although I did include the drug-dealer take-down out of our back yard the day the moving van moved in (successful and ultimately safe) I left out the gang shooting my husband and son witnessed the day we moved out of the neighborhood and Los Angeles. (And yes, those two things really happened on those two days--life stranger than fiction--but the gang-shooting did not fit the plot.)

All this big picture thinking takes time. I only have three more weeks until the kids are out for the summer. Screw writing after that.  But during those three weeks, I am also fighting a deadline to apply for a mentorship program which I'm sure would help with the big picture stuff. Last year I was a finalist. It makes sense to try, but I have to work on the application--for example, choosing the work sample and writing "MY GOALS" for the mentorship.  And of course, I can't see any 20 pages taken out of context the way a raw page would.

Well, you know, we didn't lose our house in a tornado--although my office, filled with toys, dog fur, coloring pages, drafts and stuff I have to move to the basement, kind of looks like it did. I'll keep on keeping on. That's how I got this far, right? We all have to hang in there. And be kind to ourselves. And one another. We're mostly doing the best we can.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Like WWII following WWI?

I have been adamant about not wanting to blog about my children, not wanting to "use" them before they are old enough to have a choice about being used.

I think I can safely say these two things, however, without feeling I am violating their trust.

Also, I very much want to remember what they said someday. It's so easy to forget.

Information you must know: My son is not very old, but he's becoming a war history buff. The books are almost bigger than he is. He inhales them. He started with the Civil War, but soon migrated to Hannibal's attack on the Romans and the strategy of the battle of Canae. Lately, he's moved on to the twentieth century and yesterday, he used that as a metaphor when he reminded me of a time more than a year ago. I had taken a trip with my littlest one and left him behind, and he was feeling neglected, so I let him stay home from school and be around me. "Couldn't we have a repeat of that?" he asked. "You let me have a day off. You know, like the way WWII followed WWI?"

And lest we forget that they do not yet have a fully developed brain, he couldn't understand why I burst into howls of laughter, even when I carefully explained it to him.

A little later, my youngest, who is at that age of figuring out the most important things, sat on a chair and put her legs "Criss-cross,' crossed one on top of the other.

"Criss-cross, apple-sauce," I said.

"No," she said with emphasis. "This is criss-cross. Applesauce is here." And she pointed to her crotch. 

I did not laugh at her. Not then. After all, it makes sense, if you're three or four.

I just want to remember it, all, someday. The sweetness and the laughter. (And the silly putty stuck to the car's upholstery)



Danzy Senna's Caucasia and internalized bigotry

I just read an online review of Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia. I love that book. Though it is fictional, many if not most of the details come from Ms. Senna's real life. Her white, Mayflower-descendant mother really did marry her African-American, extremely poor and intellectually powerful father, and they really did have children who did not seem to match both parents (though the author also has a brother) and they really did have a nasty divorce, and the mother really did go undercover because of fear of being arrested over some of their activities together.

Still, this reviewer was irritated by what she felt was unbelievable: that one sister looked white, one black; that the white mother was sloppy and fat, the black aunt elegant and chic. She also did not find the section where the mother hides in Vermont and passes her daughter of as being Jewish, believable.

I found it all too believable.

I am still chilled by the scene, early in the novel, where the then- child heroine is taken by her father, to a park to spend father-daughter time. Usually, Daddy hangs alone with the dark-looking sister, or with the two of them together, so white-looking daughter is excited to have this time alone with Dad.

While father and daughter are at the park, an elderly white couple goes out of their way to talk with the little girl and stare, almost glare at her father. A few moments later, a police officer arrives to question the child. He does not believe the child when she insists she is with her daddy. The officer nearly roughs up the father, and they barely get away safely.

We are white Jews who lived for several years in South Central Los Angeles. We had our people we knew well and trusted--people we considered family--regularly harassed by the police. There were times we would arrive home unable to get to our house because the home of our beloved neighbor, and adopted nephew was surrounded by twenty-eight police cars, cops with assault rifles, and helicopters swirling overhead, all in supposed response to yet another prank phone call (this happened nearly every day at one point) by someone claiming that a white woman was being held hostage in the house (probably referring to this boy's white mother, hostage to none, believe me.)

The LAPD, many years later, settled his case for harassment.

Given our experiences, I could easily imagine this scene, and understand the father's reluctance, after that, to go anywhere, ever, alone with his white-looking daughter, who feels his reality as rejection. Thus external racism is absorbed into our lives when we are too small to understand it in terms other than: I am not black enough to be loved, or I am too white to be cared for.

I highly recommend Caucasia and look forward to reading Ms. Senna's just-out collection of short stories, called "You are Free."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

speaking of neighborhoods

This week, I took a dear friend grocery shopping. I did this because there was nothing at the food shelf and she had to feed her three young daughters. Three years ago, she was one of those extremely slim and  well-dressed school volunteering mothers living in a big house and driving one of those great, big cars that she had to literally climb into. (Inverse rule--the wealthier the mother, the thinner she is and the bigger is the car she drives, though to be fair, we live in a state with Weather and those big four-wheelers really plow through the heaped up snow.)

What followed was sobriety, one divorce and an ex-husband either hiding his earnings or not earning them or drinking them away. Suddenly, my friend was on welfare and collecting food stamps, (which meant being told that family values required her to put her kids in cheap childcare in order to get a minimum wage job (she has only worked in childcare) that wouldn't actually cover the costs for her to put her kids in cheap childcare) Meanwhile, she's haunting the food bank, which, remember, was empty this week, leaving her literally counting how many grapes or slices of apple or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches she gives to her children each day.

At the grocery store, we discovered why the food bank was empty. Short-staffed,  the bank had neglected to pick up the mounds of donations at the grocery. When I asked the grocery manager if my friend could take things from the heap, the manager said she was sorry, but no,  and referred my friend to two other foodbanks, one across town, the other across the river.

Unfortunately, my friend does not have enough gas for her great, big American four-wheeler to be able to drive to either place.

This dear friend does not know exactly what race she is--there might be some native-American or African-American in there, though she looks basically white. Her mother, a young single mom with a drug problem, abandoned her at a young age and died soon after. My friend was made a ward of the court at the age of 12. She was not adopted. She was then raised by loving foster parents who weren't college-educated--dad ran a barber shop. Though highly intelligent, thoughtful and well-read, my friend did not finish college, but she did her best. She worked, she got married, she bought a house with her husband and improved it, she had her three girls and read to them and taught them manners and drove them to school.

I have been honored to know her, admiring her grit and determination as she left relative wealth and safety to raise her girls in a non-abusive environment, as she has left the abusive man, gotten the girls therapy when they had trouble with the changes, learned how to say no to the exes and the abusive in-laws, how to be assertive in fighting for her rights, which phone calls to make, how to handle the judge and the court custody system, how to fight the loneliness that would want to accept anybody interested, all while always keeping her focus on what is best for her three girls.

Though she did not have parents to teach her how to have a healthy relationship, how to ask for help, how to navigate an often hostile world and does not now have the someone to run home to if she screws up or life lets her down, he has weathered with grace things that would have flattened many other people, including, in those three years, a battle to get the police to deal with the dealer in the other half of the duplex and not just put it down to the bad neighborhood where she lives, and a badly injured back from a slip down the rental's five icy steps when the landlord refused to weather strip them two years ago. (Remember, when we're talking icy here, we mean icy.)

Then, this year came a medical problem--some auto-immune disease involving pain and muscle weakness.  The state's medical insurance has been giving her (and many other people I know) the run-around. For six months. And we live in a state which, unlike most, actually has a program to provide medical care for even adults who can't afford insurance.

But on the day I took my friend grocery shopping, I read in our local paper that the newly elected house and senate have vowed to dismantle our state insurance program. Why? Well, they say it's necessary to balance. Not that they could raise taxes, even on people who make more than $250,000 a year. Because, get this--it would be bad for business. Never mind a mom with three little girls to raise.

Instead, the legislature wants to put in place a program that allows people to buy their own insurance policy with tax deductions. This, of course, assumes that a) the people in question will have enough income to support those deductions, which, say disabled or mentally ill people would be less likely to have; b) that these same people would be able to choose a policy they could afford, which means one with a higher deductible.

Family values, right? Family values to make a mom with a sick kid--say pneumonia, choose: Child to ER vs Child has Food. My friend's girls are all lovely and charming and sweet. I'm sure people would give them change were they to sit on the courthouse steps and beg, but are we as a society really ready to start issuing begging licenses? I hope not.

As you can tell, I'm angry. Wordlessly, furiously angry. But underneath that anger, that rage, that furiosity, I am plain scared. Who among us is immune? Perhaps those very few who are very, very wealthy, the kind of wealth that is no longer dependent on employment, or good health. My friend stood on the school grounds today and said, "What am I supposed to do? God helps those who help themselves, but I have called every number I could call. I have done everything I can think of. I was a ward of the state at the age of twelve. What, should they have euthanized me? I wish I could ask people, where would you be if you had not had your parents to provide income and housing and love and education and support? Would you be married, in a big house, with a nice college degree and a nice diploma if you had started where I started?"This is not a liberal argument, this is the reality of her life. We should be applauding her gumption and her faith. We should be doing everything we can as she struggles to guarantee that life will be better for her children. We should be supporting her as she raises them, not putting stumbling blocks in her way. How can people not realize that she is right?

We seem to have lost the understanding that we are all my friend, that we are all neighbors. The biblical injunction, too, is very clear: we are to protect the widow and the parentless child and the corners of the field belong to the poor and not to us. These laws don't say, "unless we have to balance the budget." They don't say, "unless it comes out of my taxes." We are obligated. It's not from kindness. The national political argument may be couched in "balanced budget," but its grounded in selfishness, an argument trumpeting the same "Give money to the rich and it will trickle down," message that has only lead to a huge shift toward the wealthy in the national income balance.

Even if you live in a gated community, even if you think you are safe from those "others," surely some part of you must understand that those "others,"--my friend's children--are your children, too. You could do without a second vacation or even a first one. We could give up that private school, or even the tennis and music lessons for our children. We could do without a couple of pairs of designer boots, but my friend literally cannot do without food for her children, or medical care. My toddler knows that when a mom of three can't use her hands enough to cook for her kids, we need to help her. My state legislature seems to have forgotten that lesson. What we are hearing from them is only, "Protect the rich," and "cut our taxes,"  "balance the budget," and blame.

I want to say to all my neighbors, even those who think safe from my friend's predicament, "We are neighbors. We are community. We are in this together.  Don't you understand that?"

Sara Selznick

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Passing for somebody (else)

Several years ago, we lived in a house much like this one, (but not quite as fancy) in West Adams, which at that time was a mostly middle class African-American enclave somewhat West of USC, in the heart of Los Angeles. We--white and Jewish, clinging to Middle Class by our fingernails--were fortunate to have found that particular neighborhood at that particular time.

The area had been built around the turn of the 20th century and ranged from mansions to more-than-comfortable homes. By the Great Depression, the fancy part of town had moved North and West to Country Club Park. During those tough years of the 1930's, many of the great homes of West Adams took in boarders while paint faded on their mammoth walls.

By 1947 and 48, the first Negroes (as they were then called in polite company) moved in. These were the educated and the well-to-do--lawyers, insurance company owners, teachers, nurses, doctors, some of them movie stars on the order of Hattie McDaniels, the first African-American to win an Oscar. That didn't matter.  The impolite response was burned crosses, minor riots and white flight. Soon the neighborhood was almost completely Black with a smattering of Asian, mostly Japanese.

But it turned out, our block had someone of color who had moved in long before 1947. According a neighbor down the street, her great-aunt had built their sweet Craftsman cottage in 1908, when that branch of the family was passing for white. Successfully--Nonny (not her real name) even mentioned one of them who was an Admiral. In the Navy. Yup.

Her story started me on the long road to writing my novel, "The Color of Safety," which is about a hundred years in one house in West Adams, and which is in part about someone in the first half of the last century who is "passing for white," as that slip across the color line is called.

But trying to research what it was like to pass proved tough. Oh, there are literary sources. Charles W. Chestnutt wrote of men who succeeded and women who were punished for crossing the line. Nella Larsen, who was scarred emotionally when her mother crossed over, leaving her behind,  wrote of passing in terms that screamed, "Danger, Danger." Chester Himes wrote a painfully hilarious almost-sketch of a story (Dirty Deceivers, 1948) in which a couple, both passing, believe they have married "up"(i.e. white) only discover that their beloved wife/husband is--yes--just a person of color, passing, like they are. Though at first, they are delighted--it turns out they are even distantly related--within paragraphs, they feel cheated that they didn't manage to catch someone 100% white. The very short story ends with them suing for divorce. So, yes, those literary sources certainly gave me insight, particularly Himes'.

But I wanted details. After all, if you're going to write a novel, you have to know about, oh, smells, sounds, tastes. What you're seeking are those perfect minutia, that pebble in the shoe that makes each moment come alive as someone reads it. Those--those just weren't there.

So I started calling around academia, history departments, looking for any kind of oral histories. And I ran, slam, into a stone wall. Sure, okay, I get it, white woman doing research on passing? In most well-to-do families, the idea of passing was a shameful thing. Only classless people would not want to be wealthy and African-American.

And today, it really carries a sense of shame, as if these people didn't realize that Black is Beautiful, without much understanding of what folks in the past were really up against.

So what I heard was, "Oh, well, that sort of thing really didn't happen. I mean, people would pass to sit in the front of the street car, or maybe to get a job, but then they'd come home and within a block, they could go back to being Negro again, return to the family, relax."

"But," I'd say, "What about what Walter White said in his autobiography?" (Ironically titled, "A Man Called White" since White was then the blue-eyed, blond-haired, fair-skinned president of the NAACP.) "In 1948, White wrote: 'Every year approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the fourteen million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing”—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them."

"And," I'd say, "What about Melba Pattilo Beals? You remember, she was one of the kids who integrated Little Rock High school. She wrote in her absolutely brilliant memoir, 'White is a State of Mind,' about her fair-skinned cousin, Griffin, who went north to college and on his first day, fell madly in love with a white woman, love at first sight. Knowing she was from Alabama, he was instantly sure she would never marry him if she knew he was Negro, so he called his mother and said he was going to live his life white.  And now this cousin, Griffin, was a sheriff in a small southern town by day and a member of the Klan by night. He had to be, or he would have been found out (and couldn't have maintained his place in Alabama society.) And he was calling to warn Beals' parents that the Klan was offering a reward to anybody to kill all five of the children integrating the school."

That was when my academics would start to talk. Not that they had much to offer. Because how do you get oral histories of people who have vanished into the whitewashed woodwork? Even Shirlee Taylor Haizlip couldn't do it. Taylor Haizlip, in case you missed the Oprah episodes like I did (because my kids leave me no time to watch TV) by dint of persistence and energy, found and reconnected with her aunt who had left the ranks of "Colored" around 1916. But--and for me, this was a huge but--though she talked with her new-found "white" cousins, Taylor Haizlip was too kind to ask her eighty-some-year-old aunt the questions that would have come out of me like a hail storm, rat-a-tat-a. Not. . .not ethical questions, no. I understand that there was--and probably still is--a tangible need to pass. After all, I am a blonde Jew who could easily pass for English or Swedish and I am married to the child of Holocaust survivors. Of the very few Jewish children who survived the Holocaust, almost all of them were able to pass. If those eleven cousins of my husband who died during WWII had been fair enough (and lucky enough--at least two of them were blond, so we're told by those who still miss them) and if parents' Polish or French had been good enough, and if all the stars had aligned enough, they might have survived the war.

What haunted me, though, was the idea that this cousin of Beals, Griffin, was not only a sheriff, but had joined the Klan. But of course, he would have to, wouldn't he? If you were passing, you'd have to be the worst of them. And you'd have to keep an eye on them, the way Griffin did for his little cousin, Melba, back in Little Rock. You'd have to brag about your pure white sheet and trash-talk Niggers--and maybe even lynch a few--in order to survive.

And then there was the rest of Walter White's introduction to his autobiography: "Often these emigrants have success in business, the professions, the arts and sciences. Some of them have married white people, lived happily with them, and produced families. Sometimes they tell their husbands and wives of their Negro blood, sometimes not. Who are they? Mostly people of no great importance, but some of them prominent figures, including a few members of Congress, certain writers, and several organizers of movements to “keep the Negroes and other minorities in their places.” Some of the most vehement public haters of Negroes are themselves secretly Negroes.”

My (Jewish) mother always said to me, "Be careful about marrying out of faith. Because if you don't teach your children to be proud of being Jewish, the world will teach them to be ashamed of it. And if you scratch the grandchild of someone who converted to Christianity, you're likely to find an anti-Semite." Of course,  Mom's rule doesn't hold true for all the world, but there is something twisting in  having to hide who you are. (And one other Jewish girl in my class (there were only about seven in my whole school) the one whose Dad had married a non-Jew, used to wear a cross on a chain around her neck, and pretend nobody at her house at matza around Easter)

And if you have to hide who you are in a world that holds who you are in contempt, then who do you become? What happens to you on the outside? What happens to you on the inside? Do you become that mouth-foaming, gay-hating politician who plays footsie in the Minneapolis airport? Do you become Griffin, the Klan Klegal, who is secretly black?

That was the origin of my complicated novel, the Color of Safety. I hope to lead you on the journey of discovery along with me as I finish the last section of the book.

Sara Selznick