Culture, someone once said, is the story we tell about ourselves. In that story can be found the meaning we give to our human existence. Out of our memories and experiences we weave our identity. The story of any human life is full of the complexities and paradoxes of the human condition. It has all the color and flavor of the particular tradition that life is rooted in. The poet-artist William Blake urged us "to labor well the minute particularities," for "general forms have their value in particulars. And every particular is a man."
The "minute particularities . . ." said Blake. In our America, that means: of Hispanic culture, of Chinese, of African-American, Jewish, Polish, Irish, Armenian, Greek culture. The list can go on. Anyone walking the streets of our cities can see -- and hear -- how increasingly diverse our nation is becoming. The population experts predict that early in the next century, which is just around the corner, minorities will become the majority in fifty of our largest cities. And the work force will be largely composed of members of today's minority groups. Schools are already being challenged to educate children who come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.
But what about the assimilation that has already occurred in varied direction and degree? In the 1990 Census, 78 million Americans replied that they are some kind of mixture, and another 40 million put down that they are simply "Americans" or could not specify a lineage. The ubiquity of intermarriage continues to blur even more ancestries. As just one example, about half of all Japanese American women marry men of other national origins.
As teachers, as authors, we must prepare children to live and work as harmoniously and productively as possible in this multiracial and multicultural society.
But how good are our chances to achieve harmony and peaceful cooperation? The white male Protestant monoculture that held sway in our country for many generations has declined. As never before, minority groups are asserting themselves in public life, seeking recognition of their own concerns. Will integration into community life take place? Will people of different color, religion, and national origin come together with a common desire to make life better for all?
Or will the current multicultural emphasis on language, custom and lineage, and on preserving folkways from simpler days keep us apart? Good multicultural literature intensifies sensitivity to the feelings of others. But will it prevail against the centrifugal spin of the whole world? Every day in the mass media we see stews of hate bubbling to the surface in country after country, on continent after continent. The former Yugoslavia is unhappily but one of the appalling examples. Movements inspired by xenophobic nationalism and religious intolerance are destroying people in what amounts to another tragic round of Holocausts. Nationalist, ethnic, and fundamentalist ideologies -- credos of intolerance -- have proved to be devastating.
What can we -- teachers or writers -- do about it?
There are lots of things we all can do, personally and professionally, to help break down the walls of prejudice, discrimination, racism. What teachers and librarians can do, I leave to them. We writers have written many books for young people that open them up to the history of particular ethnic and racial groups. The historical silence imposed for so long upon many minorities has been cracked and even shattered. Now we begin to learn something about the people, the uncelebrated and unmentioned, who have made and are making history.
In my own writing, I try to provide the rich detail of everyday life, of the types of work people do, of the communities they create, of the cultures they bring with them, and how they adapt them to the circumstances of America.
To accomplish this I use the testimony of the people themselves, letting them speak in their own words -- through diaries, journals, memoirs, letters, songs, speeches, poetry. And I add the more public sources: newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts, testimony from public hearings and trials. It is the everyday quality of life I try to get into my books, the situations and dilemmas that resonate in the experience of every reader. The result is a chorus of voices that conveys living history.
My hope with all such books about ethnic or racial groups is that they will reach beyond the people who are central to the story. If only the books will be read by other groups! For example, white Americans should know the history of African-Americans. And vice versa. The threads of their experiences are woven tightly together throughout our past and they powerfully shape what both are today.
What I look for in my research is expression of a sense of self and for forces that mold that self. Who am I, coming from a family that goes back to Eastern Europe just one generation ago? What was the family history? Why did my parents migrate to America? What effect did that transplantation have upon them, and inevitably upon me and my brothers?
What neighborhood did I grow up in? What work did my parents do, and myself as a youngster? What schooling did I have? What stereotypes about my own people and other people did I encounter? Whom did I love or fear? What friends or enemies did I make?
Not long ago I tried to answer those questions by writing a memoir of my childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts. It's called Starting from Home: A Writer's Beginnings . As old as I am now, there were still discoveries to be made about myself and my family. And yet, though the book is about a particular family, a Jewish immigrant family, judging by reviews and letters and personal comments, it seems to have something to say to people so apparently different from myself.
In that book I tried to recall those "minute particulars" William Blake wrote of. Being Jewish, for instance: what did it mean to me?
Whatever being Jewish meant to my mother and father, they took for granted. It was passed on unself-consciously to their children. They could not articulate it. Still, their behavior -- the way they moved, walked, laughed, cried, talked -- their attitudes, the way our family functioned, imprinted upon us something of the social history they brought with them.
If they did not tell me what a Jew was and why I was one, did the world outside? Only in the negative sense: the cost of being a Jew, the insults voiced, the jobs denied, the housing restricted, the club doors closed, the colleges on quotas. And that history -- the very calendar that hung in Jewish homes marking the anniversaries, most of which were catastrophes, followed only sometimes by salvation. Passover, to celebrate the escape from ancient enslavement under the Pharaohs. Purim, the time when Haman's plan to exterminate all the Jews of Persia had been foiled by Esther. Hanukkah, which marks the victory of the guerrilla fighters led by the Maccabees over the ruthless despot, Antiochus, who tried to suppress the religion and the culture of the Jews. And the Ninth of Ab, which is the fast day for remembering, and mourning, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the first time by the Babylonians, the second time by the Romans. But so many were the national disasters that followed, the fast day became a reservoir into which have been poured all the misfortunes of the Jews down through Hitler's Holocaust.
No wonder, then, an alarm bell rang whenever I heard or saw the word "Jew" in an unexpected setting. It might have been the sound of that word slashing into my ears while I played basketball in the gym. Or the sight of those three letters on the page of a book I was reading. Two novels especially, which I read as a youngster, stick in my mind. One was Ivanhoe , and the other Oliver Twist . Harmless in appearance, but poisonous in effect, as I now see them. I would guess that most readers, asked to recall whether there was anything about Jews in Ivanhoe , would remember Scott's sympathetic portrayal of Rebecca. What they forget are the innumerable references to Jews as usurers, liars, hypocrites, as covetous, contemptible, inhuman. The marvelous story Scott told captivated me; I tried to ignore everything in the novel that nourished anti-Semitism. But how can the young reader, Jew or non-Jew, escape the insidious influence of such a book?
And then there was Charles Dickens. I was drawn at once into the wanderings of Oliver Twist , the lost child, the rejected child, full of fear and hope, daydreaming of discovery in the dark places of London. My child's sense of justice was enraged by Dickens's exposure of the vast cruelty and greed, the indifference to humankind which birthed the slums and the haunts of crime the novel moves through. But over everything in the story fell the shadow of Fagin, that "villainous-looking," "repulsive," "greasy," "old shrivelled Jew," to use Dickens's opening description of the master criminal into whose hands the tender and innocent little Oliver comes. In the dark, monstrous visage and the wicked, staring eyes of Fagin, I saw the devil himself. The power of Dickens to draw characters by an intense poetic simplification made the anti-Semitic caricature all the more horrifying. I remember hurrying my eyes over those pages in which he appeared, anxious to get on to passages less painful to me as a Jewish child.
Of course, I encountered Christians in the novel who were vicious, like the brutal Bill Sikes. But my hero and all the other good people were Christians. They more than overbalanced a Sikes. And the fact that Sikes was a villain had nothing to do with his being a Christian. In the case of Fagin, his villainy was made identical with his Jewishness. To be a Jew, one could only conclude, is to be a villain.
If additional force was needed to confirm that image of oneself, there was The Merchant of Venice . Shakespeare's play was used in my high school English classes. We read it aloud and discussed it. That the characterization of Shylock disturbed me goes with saying. Years later, I found Professor Mark Van Doren putting his finger on how it was done. Shakespeare, he said, had not made the "least inch" of Shylock "lovely." "He would seem in fact to have attempted a monster, one whose question whether a Jew hath eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, and passions would reveal its rhetorical form, the answer being no . . . Shylock . . . is a man thrust into a world bound not to endure him. In such a world he necessarily looks and sounds ugly." Whoever reads or sees the play, he added, "should have no difficulty in recognizing Shylock as the alien element in a world of love and friendship, of nightingales and moonlight sleeping sweetly on a bank."
My high school teacher reveled in the superb lines; she talked of imagery and rhythm, of dramatic structure, of the position of the play in the body of Shakespeare's work. She said nothing of Shylock as Jew. It was not explained to us how church and state cooperated in the medieval centuries to make the Jews outcasts, shut them off from the land, excluded them from the Christian guilds so they could no longer practice their crafts and trades, and forced them to become merchants and moneylenders. As soon as the economy of each European country advanced, such Jews were restricted to smaller and smaller roles. And when they were no longer considered essential, their Christian rivals called them avaricious and heartless -- the image perpetuated by Shakespeare's Shylock -- and then took over their functions.
It is not only from the medieval mind that such abuse and contempt springs. We encounter it in many national literatures of later times, at least those I have some knowledge of. Take the Russians, whose novels, short stories, and plays I began reading in college years. Some of the young Jews of eastern Europe who took part in the revolutionary ferment of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were hostile to everything Jewish. They feared their Jewishness would block them from reaching the Russian people. They often came from families that had assimilated. They thought fighting for a revolutionary overturn of czarist society would mean creating a world in which all religions would disappear. There would then be no Jews, no distinction between themselves and everyone else.
Why did they feel so inferior? Why should they hope that a change in the social system would eliminate their own people? In part, it is due to the Russian literature they were raised on, rooted as it was in the ancient anti-Semitic tradition of the church. Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, all depicted Jews as vile creatures. Russian fiction, drama, and poetry portrayed the Jew as dirty, dishonest, contemptible; as parasite, opportunist, fiend. Their Jewish characters would do anything for money, betray anyone for their own advantage. The Russian writers, who were respected for their sensitivity to the human soul, could not see in the Jew anything human.
English literature is not much different, with some honorable exceptions such as George Eliot. To the writers I named earlier one could add many more. The French? The same. And the Germans? In the early nineteenth century Germany became the fountainhead of modern anti-Semitism. An endless stream of anti-Semitic books and pamphlets polluted the culture. Some of the most distinguished philosophers and poets contributed to it, among them Fichte and Goethe. It was reflected, of course, in children's literature. The brothers Grimm, whose collection of folktales has delighted children for generations, are also known for their devotion to the study of the German language. They produced the classic Deutsches Worterbuch , which, under the term Jew, broadcasts an appalling variety of offensive definitions culled from German literature.
A Jewish stereotype was shaped in widely-read German novels. The Jew was puny and cowardly, his eyes gleamed with the "calculated cunning of his race," his foreignness was evidenced in the jumble of Yiddish and German he was made to speak. He was inherently bad, this villain, and few readers would lament the violently cruel death the author invariably sentenced him to. Down deep into the twentieth century this caricature of the Jew appeared and reappeared in popular culture. Entrenched as an article of German faith, it would have the power of an atomic arsenal when Hitler triggered it.
And what of American writers? Not until the past few decades have Jewish characters become major figures in American literature. Earlier there were too few Jews in America to write about. The literary artists of the American Renaissance -- Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Whitman -- made glancing references, if any, to the contemporary Jew. But most Americans, then as now, were not paying attention to our major writers. They were reading popular novels and seeing popular plays created by hack writers who rang endless changes upon the Shylock theme. These writers, like their betters, had little or no connections with Jews, and when they wrote about them, fell back on the stereotype. If Jews were present in this cheap fiction, it was usually as ugly, unscrupulous members of that money-obsessed tribe of Israel. As soon as I began reading dime novels, I became painfully aware of how common this portrait was.
Later, in high school, I read The Education of Henry Adams . In Massachusetts we were expected to venerate the native Adams clan which had given so much to American political and intellectual life. Yet here was Henry Adams writing of a "furtive Jacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish." Traveling abroad, Mr. Adams looked out his train window and saw "a Polish Jew . . . in all his weird horror." The Jew, he wrote, "makes me creep." I soon discovered that nearly all the Boston Brahmins displayed the same contempt, although Henry Adams earns first rank for the intensity of his feeling.
Less possessed and more conventional was the antipathy found in the novelists I began reading in those years -- Edith Wharton, Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe -- and the poets -- Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings. Anti-Jewish attitudes were widespread and even fashionable in that era. Not until Hitler's Holocaust did they go out of style.
But then, sadly, only for a while. It surfaced again, with the appearance of articles and books denying the very fact of the Holocaust, and the resurgence of prejudice and racism and violence in the media, from comic books and TV and the movies to the lyrics of hip-hop music. In neighborhood after neighborhood, even on the campuses of the colleges and universities for some years now, we've seen outbursts of racial incidents that range from vicious insult to murder.
And now a vast new wave of mass immigration comes at a time when the political, economic, and social fabric of America is tearing apart. From our very beginning our nation defined itself as a land of refuge. But just how welcoming we should be is now the subject of great debate. Although we want the "downtrodden" (often because we need their labor), we often recoil from the cultural baggage they bring. That ambivalence over newcomers has characterized us since before we won our independence. In the 19th century the rising tide of non-English immigrants caused such great resentment that we suffered a surge of nativism. One distinguished professor of that time, Edward Ross, called the newcomers "beaten men from beaten races, repeating the worse failures in the struggle for existence." Italians, Slavs, Jews, whatever -- he sneered at them all. But in 1965 we came to see that quotas limiting immigration for those outside northern Europe were undeniably racist. And a new set of laws opened our doors to millions from all over the world.
What can be done today to make life better for the newcomers and, therefore, for all the rest of us? It's a terribly hard question to answer. The schools, many say, have failed in the task of educating children about their ethnic heritage, and teaching them constructive ways of confronting prejudice and fear. Because parents are often the source of their children's prejudice, schools need to be all the more active in fighting racism.
Do the schools in the large cities where so many of the newcomers collect do enough to prepare those students to compete for jobs or responsible positions in society? When educators expect little from such students and lower their standards, students come to believe that they are inferior and that they cannot compete with others. As the African American psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark pointed out, this contributes to a dehumanizing cycle of pathology. Often, he says, parents can do little to help their children because they have become dehumanized themselves.
"I don't think schools should just reflect society," said Dr. Clark. "Schools should help society move beyond idiocies." He might have been referring to the outbursts of racial incidents in schools and colleges in the last few years. As those events make headlines, they remind us that racism has never vanished in our country. Schools, parents, the churches have not given most of our children the historical framework to help them understand the differences and similarities between peoples and cultures.
Ethnicity is more than food and festivals. It is values and beliefs. It is family and community. We need to champion multi-ethnic programs in the schools, to teach our kids to appreciate and respect their own and other people's identities.
What about we who write for young readers? Inevitably, we too are teachers of a sort. We have the same obligation. To provide authentic portrayals of the lives whose stories we choose to tell. To convey those lives in all their ethnic particularity. To take account of every shaping influence, whether we write about the poor, the affluent, or for those in between.
But not to overstress identity at the cost of rejecting community. Almost everyone recognizes now how our social fabric has shredded to tatters, and how urgent it is to rebuild family, neighborhood, morality in American life. We need as teachers or writers to offer a vision of what binds us together -- men, women and children, gays and straights, blacks and whites, Jews and non-Jews. The "minute particularity," yes, but not to set our differences above the goal of solidarity.
We face great obstacles in moving toward the goal of community. Our economic system -- the market economy -- the regulator of our lives, is a great atomizer. It throws us on our own resources, to sink or swim. It nourishes greed and a code of self-interest. When everything is calculated by the bottom line, it undermines the trust and cooperation on which civil society ultimately depends.
The fruit of such a system is rapidly creating a global surplus population. Unemployment in Canada, in Mexico, in Europe, in Japan, reaches new highs. In the former Communist countries it runs from 20 to 40 percent. The United Nations estimates some 700 million people are unemployed or under-employed in the developing world.
The crisis of unemployment generates many forms of misery. In poor communities of our own country, real unemployment often exceeds 40 percent, and infant mortality surpasses that of third world countries.
Our system wastes human potential. It fails miserably to come anywhere near achieving distributive justice. What kind of America is it that produces such extremes of wealth for the very few and poverty for such large numbers of others? Does anyone care that the top five percent of households earn more than the bottom fifty percent? In a recent symposium, 19 black writers of varied viewpoints agreed that, despite their centuries in this continent, descendants of slaves will never be allowed to become full Americans. That racial and cultural divide sends a message to young blacks that most of them are not wanted or needed. Out of the pain and suffering caused by inequality and injustice come humiliation, self-loathing, hatred, rage. People's problems are blamed not on those who control the economic system but on racial, ethnic, religious and national scapegoats. It is a time that echoes ominously the fascism of the 1930s.
We who write -- whether it be history, biography or fiction -- are custodians of the past. We need to write about that past honestly and well. We can demonstrate what human beings are capable of -- for good or evil -- by showing what they have been and what they have done. In my own work I have tried to reveal how ordinary human beings -- the great unknown -- have been as much agents in the historical process as they were its victims and its silent witnesses. It is a way of uncovering the history of people long said to be without history.
Most of us are curious about our past, not only as individuals, but as a people. As writers we try to satisfy this curiosity, but without falsification, without glorification. Nothing is permanent, everything changes, in ourselves, our nation, our world. We can help today's generation to grasp what earlier generations went through, and to see the present with all its contradictions, its uncertainties, its reality, its freedom, its hope.