We Jews and Blacks: Mem­oir With Poems

  • Review
By – August 13, 2012
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.

Discussion Questions