Strong Women

Jeff_combined photosLast week I read Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negrolandin anticipation of an April book discussion at the Evanston Public Library. The discussion can’t come soon enough; I am eager to talk to someone–anyone–about this book. Here is how the book begins:

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant.

I related to part of this underlying tension. The town where I grew up from the age of five until I graduated high school was a small suburb about an hour northeast of Philadelphia. We didn’t know anyone when we moved there, and while there were other Jewish families in our neighborhood, they weren’t prevalent. The nearest synagogue was 20 minutes away by car. In elementary school, more than once I was the only one not celebrating Christmas, and I felt that distinction keenly.

It’s not as if I wanted to celebrate Christmas or was embarrassed to celebrate Chanukah. I did not like was the scrutiny of ‘otherness,’ of feeling like an exotic exhibit outside the safety and security of my home. Otherness often felt isolating, more peculiar than special. Margo experienced a similar flavor of otherness as a black girl throughout her childhood.

Body image is a struggle for many women, and Margo navigated issues dealing with the shade of her skin tone, hair care, and thick lensed glasses due to poor eyesight. She excelled academically, athletically, and musically. Even with all of these accomplishments–and she writes of the period before she won the Pulitzer Prize!–I think this must have been a difficult book to write. She mined her psyche as well as her memories and the memories of her friends and relatives. She is brutally honest about opportunities provided to her and her sister as a result of her parents’ education, and equally candid about the limitations they faced because of racism. The book is not bitter, merely revealing in heart-wrenching detail.

After Negroland, Beyoncé’s new song and video, Formation, suddenly seemed very relevant. I don’t know if I would have thought about the song and accompanying video in any depth except for the kerfuffle surrounding the video’s unannounced presence the day before the Super Bowl. I watched and listened, then did it again. I read about the critics’ and public’s reactions to each, and then watched again.

Brava Beyoncé! Already scrutinized and reviewed countless times, the video offers a proud and unapologetic stance on being a powerful black woman. She is proud of who she is and where she came from. Beyoncé ties in images of and references to New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement and more. (Many of the references I did not understand until I read some of the commentary about the video. Read one here, here, and here. There are plenty of others.) She is a woman in control of her career and her personal life. She revels in the power and friendship of sisterhood. She is proud of her body. She does not shy away from making money and the power that comes with an elevated economic status.

Beyoncé is not apologizing for anything. Good for her. Negroland tells of dreams aborted or postponed; Beyoncé is proactively making her dreams happen. Knowing dreams can come true is good news for all of us.







Paris Dreams

Overseas or international travel can be a wonderful respite, a well-needed jolt of excitement, and an invigorating learning experience. Whether for work or for pure pleasure, once past the hassles of airport security, it always feels to me like a new adventure, a present meant to be opened.

It has been a while since I’ve travelled abroad, but I have wonderful memories of those countries I have visited, including Canada, France, Italy, Israel, Spain, Nepal, Chile, and Argentina. France was one of the first countries to entice me. When I finally arrived there during the vacation between fall and spring semesters of my junior year in undergraduate school, it did not disappoint. Subsequent visits cemented the adoration despite my feeble attempts to speak French with any elegance or fluency.

Francophiles will rejoice with a new memoir entitled My Paris Dream, written by Kate Betts, former editor of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Time. It recounts her experiences as a young woman finding her way in Paris: renting a room from a young family (the perfect way to learn French slang), looking for work, making friends, falling in love. It tells how her hard work paid off and her writing caught the eye of John Fairchild, publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, and what it was like to work for him during the 1980’s when she met practically anyone and everyone of significance within the fashion industry.

I especially liked Betts’ candid reflections about how she behaved, and not always with the poise and sensitivity she knew she was capable of demonstrating. She matured a lot during the years captured in the span of the book, and she is direct about what she could have done better. For young people, especially young women, pursuing a dream and trying to figure out what they want out of life, this candid self-reflection is welcome. She struggled, made mistakes, and learned. Despite the so-called glamour of her journalistic pursuits, she never lost her grip on reality and eventually blossomed in a way that one can only admire.


Another French valentine is Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. Written in the late 1990’s and published in 2000, it recounts a Francophile’s impressions of the City of Light while navigating daily life and first-time parenthood. The writing is delicious–more nuanced and detailed than My Paris Dream, but just as real.

February 17 is National Café au Lait Day, but you don’t need to wait until then to savor your Paris dream. Purchase or borrow a copy of both books, settle in to one of Evanston’s many coffee shops, and delve into your own mini vacance.  It’s a terrific way to ward off the chill and transport yourself.








Thinking About Racism

This past Friday evening I attended Sabbath services at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, located at 1224 Dempster. The guest speaker was Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced fu-NAY) of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi Funnye also participated in a panel discussion after a delicious Shabbat dinner attended by about 200 people and catered by Curt’s Café.

The panel was moderated by Rabbi Andrea London, Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet. In addition to Rabbi Funnye, the people on the panel included:

Each person shared their personal perspectives about how they see and experience racism. Every speaker was poised and articulate, easily connecting with the supportive crowd.

I learned many new facts that evening and considered things which I previously took for granted or never bothered to re-examine. For instance, Evanston Public Library is one of the jewels of our city and one I’ve written about here. I live within walking distance of two out of the three library locations, yet it never occurred to me to consider why a branch is not located further south or west for the convenience of residents who live there. Admittedly, this lack of thinking on my part is endemic of the overall problem–real change has to come from people who benefit from the inequity and who are motivated to upend the status quo.

This geographical disadvantage is not just about borrowing books and videos; it is about access to tools and skills for finding employment and other essential resources. Libraries have public access computers and librarians can instruct technologically unfamiliar patrons how to establish an email address, complete an online job application, create a document in Word or save one as a PDF. Online access is essential in the twenty-first century. Do we have a responsibility to make that access easily available to more residents, especially those who do not have those resources at home? I think we do.

Drs. Witherspoon and Campbell spoke movingly about the positive changes they are starting to see in test scores at ETHS. Eight years ago, when Dr. Witherspoon first started at ETHS, he noticed that Advanced Placement (A.P.) classes were filled with white students and regular classes were filled with minority and low-income students. He realized students were automatically being tracked into particular courses based on the results of their eighth grade standardized tests. Past behavior was establishing future expectations with little opportunity for the impacted students to request or make a change.

To combat this institutional and systemic racism, Dr. Witherspoon set the bar higher and increased expectations across the board. All incoming freshmen were automatically enrolled in honors-level English and humanities (a history class). The goal was to help as many students as possible be prepared for A.P. courses by eleventh grade. Not only were more students enrolled in more A.P. courses, but the school developed all kinds of support for students under the aegis of teamASAP (Team Access and Success in Advanced Placement). Tellingly, as success was expected and encouraged by the school administration, the students delivered.

Between 2011 and 2014, A.P. enrollment at ETHS was up 30%. When tracked by racial group, each student group showed an increase: 19% among white students, 35% among black students, and 78% among Hispanic students. The number of white, black, and Hispanic students achieving a score of three (out of five) or better on an A.P. test., typically high enough for college credit, also increased. The increases by racial group for students taking A.P. exams and scoring three or better were startling: 31% among white students; 98% among black students; 116% among Hispanic students. Not surprisingly, Drs. Witherspoon and Campbell are just getting started: their work is not done at ETHS in spite of well-deserved national attention. Listen to a PBS News Hour podcast about these amazing results here.

One of the most poignant and inspiring speakers of the evening was the sole ETHS student on the panel, Cameron English. She spoke of her work with SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) and what SOAR is doing to increase awareness of racist attitudes and opinions among fellow students both at ETHS and other schools along the North Shore. SOAR works with Northwestern University to conduct programs twice a year. I look forward to hearing more about SOAR’s–and Cameron’s–good work in the future.

One of the questions asked of the panel toward the end of the evening was what each of us could do to be part of the change and make a difference going forward. The suggestions were elegant and simple: Listen more. Go outside your comfort zone. Read a book by a black author. Listen to music or go to a movie by a black artist. Expand your set of experiences. Try to see what life is like from another’s perspective. Embrace another’s reality as your own. Recognize that racism affects all of us regardless of skin color.

It was a lovely and heartfelt evening. I learned a lot. I met new people. I am proud of my synagogue for hosting such a program and shining a light on this important social issue. But I left feeling humbled and chastened by how much more I need to do.

The year is still young. I resolve to do better. Will you join me?

[Post Script: For more information about the locations of the library branches and who can easily access them, refer to this article and this part of the city budget.]