Monday, September 28, 2015

A Post-It for White America

Dear fellow white folks,

While white culture is nowhere near beyond reproach, there are certain parts that are entertaining. Wearing Birkenstocks year round, making acoustic versions of metal songs, petitioning to allow Snuggies in your office dress code, and coming up with puns that would make Catwoman cringe are all lofty and noble pursuits. That being said, there are other things we tend to do which are notably less acceptable. Residents of Caucasia, here are a few points I hope we can try to remember. So, before we head off to add sea salt to everything, let’s sprinkle a little into our coffee while we chat about uncomfortable things. (Relax, we’ll get through it. We’ve never had a problem being awkward.)

You’ve probably gathered that what I want to talk about is racism, so here goes.

The first point of contention is something I’ve noticed pretty often: Non-black folks using MLK quotes, or quotes from other civil rights leaders, to scold black people. Some don’t intend it to sound hostile, but that doesn’t stop it from coming across that way. It’s patronizing. Most of the people who do this want to claim solidarity with MLK, yet they’re far removed from his philosophies. Yes, he preached unity, but he was an adamant critic of white complacency and white moderates. He also voiced a lot of on-point criticisms of capitalism. Martin Luther King was substantially more intelligent and complex than our pop historical summary makes him out to be. He wanted oppression to end, and understood that white supremacist attitudes had to be thoroughly eviscerated before “we all bleed red” could hold weight. Instead of watering him down with platitudes or using his quotes to lecture minorities, let’s do more research into what he taught. The King can’t be summed up in an Instagram quote next to artful snapshots of mimosas.

And this leads into the subject of oppression. If you take nothing else from this blog post, then double, triple please remember this: being offended doesn’t amount to being oppressed. If you’re inclined to respond with “Yeah, tell that to [insert minority group here]!”, then you’re missing the point even more than you miss late ‘90s nostalgia. Being a brown person and watching your white neighbors freak out and pack up when people with your skin color move into the neighborhood is oppression (white flight). Being arrested at a higher rate for drug possession, even though your race uses illegal substances at an equal rate to whites, is oppression (and let’s be real; white people love weed so much that they probably dedicate scrapbooks to it). And that’s not even scratching the surface of history.

If you’re a white person who’s told to refrain from using a racial slur or dressing as a “sexy Mexican” for a costume party, you’re not being oppressed. Rather, there’s a pretty good chance those behaviors are infringing upon others. That's because they reinforce a historical and institutional dynamic which hurts minority groups in a broader way. The same is true for demanding that minorities stop discussing discrimination. Hearing a non-white person talk about being persecuted isn’t persecution. Telling them to shut up about it is. I understand it doesn’t feel good when somebody advises you to stop doing something you enjoy, or makes you feel as if you’re partly responsible for their struggle, but that isn’t oppression. It may feel like an irritation to you, but it will pass. On that note, people talking about racism aren’t “trying to make you feel guilty” or holding you responsible for what other white people have done. They’re aren’t looking to punish you. They want to educate. And if white people can dedicate themselves to learning how to ride unicycles through Williamsburg and braid flowers into beards, we can definitely learn to listen more attentively.

When called on troublesome behavior, the first defense of many is to use non-white friends as shields. This may not be meant as exploitative, but it is. As others have said, saying and doing racist things while having minority friends doesn’t make someone non-racist. It makes them a disloyal friend. Also, if you’re a white person who lives in a diverse area or has an active online presence, there’s no reason to only have white friends. I’m not suggesting that you go out specifically looking for racial minorities to socialize with, since that would value them for their ethnicity instead of for who they are. If the vast majority of the people you’re close to are white, though, it would be worth examining why.

That’s all for now, pasty peers. I might add more later. If you’re still reading this, then I assume I’m still invited to the annual Smooth Jazz and Mayonnaise Party (and you win a prize if you get that reference).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Eulogy for a great creator

My grandparents in New Haven, CT in 1948, when Harold was a student at Yale Art School.

In one of my earliest memories of my grandpa Harold, we celebrated Hanukkah with a menorah shaped like a Christmas tree.
He wasn’t strictly religious, but he had a love for certain traditions. He didn’t follow them as prescribed, though. He had a way of making everything his own.
Passover meant sitting around my grandparents’ table with all my cousins while Harold told the story of Moses, passing candy around to demonstrate the ten plagues. The chocolate chips he gave us represented boils, and there were gummy frogs. The grand finale came when he’d bring out a big bowl of red Jell-O and “part” it by spraying a line of whipped cream down the center. Then he’d drop a handful of little plastic soldiers into the bowl, and we’d all dig in.
One year he told the Passover story by putting on a shadow play with my aunts and uncles. They set up a big screen and a light in the living room. Harold narrated while they acted it out with shadows of puppets. My grandma Kiki had made a witch puppet for the Angel of Death. She flew it across the screen on a cardboard broomstick, making it cackle with glee. Aunt Abbie’s hair was the burning bush. She crouched behind the sofa, revealing the silhouette of her wild curls as she shook her head around, mimicking fire.
Harold was an incredible storyteller. He didn’t write, but his inventive and articulate style met perfectly with his theatrical flair. He came up with thrilling sagas to tell his kids and then his grandchildren. He brought stories from the Torah to pulsating life. He invented epics about dragons and monsters. His sound effects were flawless. He knew when to whisper and when to shout. His eyes would pop wide as the momentum built. These adventures left us gripping our seats or shrieking with laughter. His everyday manner was as animated as his stories and art.
Harold did everything to maximum capacity, sucking the last bit of air from every experience yet leaving more for everyone else. He danced on tables. He rolled in the autumn leaves. He watched sad movies with tears streaming down his face. He smacked his lips in appreciation while he ate. I used to try to correct his table manners as a toddler. When I was two years old, I’d shake a finger at him and say, “Grandpa, you’re not supposed to chew with your mouth open. You’re supposed to chew like this!” I’d stuff my face and chew exaggeratedly, mouth closed, cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk. My whole family would laugh hysterically and I wouldn’t know why. Harold ate just as he was supposed to, though. He consumed, and he gave, with unrestrained joy.
It seems so appropriate that his middle name was Wolf. He always reminded me of a canine with his exuberant manner and love of people and food. With his exploratory nature and endless curiosity, he always seemed to gather a following that became his lifelong pack. Even his physical features were embracing and full. His round face, broad nose, and full lips conveyed generosity. I’ve never known someone so financially thrifty who gave so much.
The frugality had a lot to do with his upbringing. He grew up during the Great Depression in a family where he had to vie with his brothers for food. But this seemed to only feed his resourcefulness. When my mother and her siblings were little, he’d take them on family trips to the Bethany dump. They’d explore the junkyard to look for materials they could use in art projects. This became a time honored Rabinowitz tradition.
I can’t think of Harold without remembering that, or without thinking of Kiki. He and my grandma are forever linked in my mind. I’ve always said them as one word: “HaroldandKiki.” One of my favorite stories was the memory of how they got together. They knew each other from the time they were children. They went to junior high and high school together, but were only distant acquaintances back then. In their class photo, they’re seated next to each other. On the last day of high school, Harold signed Kiki’s yearbook with, “I’ll be seeing you! Ha ha ha.” Neither of them had any idea they’d see each other every day for seventy years.
They reconnected three years later on the day World War II ended. They found themselves at a mutual friend’s party to celebrate. They sensed an interest in each other they hadn’t felt before, and started dating. Kiki told me they went to a carnival for their first date. At one point during the night, they got stuck at the top of the ferris wheel. Harold smiled at her and asked, “Can I kiss you?” She laughed and said, “Well, I guess I can’t run away.”
            They were married a year later and rode their bicycles cross country for their honeymoon. And then, in the early ‘50s, they built their tall, gorgeously chaotic, ramshackle stone house. Kiki built it while she was pregnant. That’s how badass she is. They made friends wherever they went with their playful antics. After Kiki gave birth to their sixth child, they gifted the nurse with a watermelon wrapped in a baby blanket. Kiki told her, “We’re returning the baby. It leaks.”
Over the years, their house became a haven. It was a community in itself. They took in family friends. Many of their kids knew someone who, at least briefly, had lived at their home. They started their family business there, Rabinowitz Design Workshop (later renamed Witz End Workshop). Creative Arts Workshop also began at their house when they gave art lessons to kids from the area. They used to come over, and Kiki would make them all a big pot of spaghetti and hot dogs.
For two people who seemed like one entity, Kiki and Harold butted heads a lot. They had some pretty hilarious arguments. I’ll always remember them fighting over directions in the car. They’d be equally insistent about which way to turn. Finally Kiki would shout, “Goddammit, Harold, I’m not going to listen to you anymore!” and pointedly veer off in the opposite direction, even if it got them briefly lost. He’d do the same when he was the one driving. Despite this, I’ve never met two people more wildly in love.
They loved to dance together. Any time I visited, I’d see him grab Kiki and twirl her around in the kitchen while they laughed. If there was no music, they’d invent their own. They were constantly ad libbing silly songs and rhymes together. Harold was a master of words. He invented a game to play with his children, and later his grandkids, called Stinky Pinky. In the game, people took turns coming up with a pair of words that rhymed and then gave a short description. Everyone else had to guess what it was. For example, someone would say, “A wet puppy.” Others would guess what they had in mind until somebody said, “Soggy doggy.” If you guessed it, you won that round.
Harold could speak in iambic pentameter off the top of his head and improvise limericks and poetry. This made him really popular at parties. At one event he donned Kiki’s purple muumuu, held a pineapple in his outstretched hand, and began to recite Hamlet. At another he stood under the balcony in his living room and extended his wine glass, shouting “My cup runneth over!” At that exact moment, a guest tried to pour wine over the balcony into his glass, but it ended up spilling on his head.
               And, of course, there was the time his son had Show and Tell back in first grade and decided to stand up in front of the class and announce, “Last weekend my dad was at a party and had a lot to drink and fell into a big bucket of popcorn!” My uncle hadn’t been there to see it, but he’d heard the story. Harold wrote legends just by living.
This is why it was so sad when Harold had a stroke back in 2000 and lost a lot of his verbal abilities. He went from someone who could keep a whole room in stitches to having trouble articulating basic thoughts. I remember the look of anguish on his face as he once said, “I can’t say what I mean to say.” And, for a short time, he referred to everyone he spoke to as Kiki. It was because of the stroke, but it made sense. He loved Kiki so much that he saw a part of her in everyone.
Even so, he never stopped enjoying life. He still drew beautifully. He still saw friends and rejoiced in family. He laughed until the end and died surrounded by everyone who loved him; all the lives he had changed. In the end, I can only regret that he won’t be a part of the memorial celebration, because it would be just like him to surprise everyone by showing up in a jester hat or a purple dress, ad libbing satirical poetry. But he’ll be there regardless, because he is everywhere he’s painted and joked and sang.
          Harold is the world he created.