In We Jews and Blacks: Memoir With Poems, Willis Barnstone has written a cathartic memoir, an illumination on the role of race and identity. He learns early that much of America recognizes three distinct racial groups — ”whites, Negroes and Jews”— which makes him both unique and somehow irrevocably different from the “real” Americans, who were Christian.
From his older brother, Howard, Barnstone learned to identify himself as a Quaker and thus slip around college admissions quotas. Seduced by the romance of dissent and not by orthodoxy of any sort, he chose not to assimilate, but to dissimulate. It was not until much later in life that he learned his brother’s price for this denial of self.
What little knowledge about Judaism Barnstone possessed derived from other Jews, who were generally no more knowledgeable than he about the history or culture. He admits that he “represented the newly liberated Jew who has lost both vernacular and the classical language of the Jews,” a loss which led to an introspective effort to understand life in the diaspora, as a self-identified exile in college, in Europe and Mexico, and in white America.
Barnstone’s poetry provides a reflection for his feelings at various points in his life and his evident scholarship reveals insights into how ethnic and racial identity influence history. He reserves particular opprobrium for bigotry, forced conversion and the intolerance of victors, both orthodox and heretic. But the most compelling part of this fascinating book is the personal, sometimes painful journey that he allows the reader to share.
Noel Kriftcher was a professor and administrator at Polytechnic University, having previously served as Superintendent of New York City’s Brooklyn & Staten Island High Schools district.