Cover image for We Jews and Blacks : memoir with poems
We Jews and Blacks : memoir with poems
Barnstone, Willis, 1927-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Bloomington : Indiana University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
241 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
"With a dialogue and poems by Yusef Komunyakaa."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3552.A722 Z478 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



A poignant memoir that wrestles with problems of identity, difference, and the human condition.

Author Notes

Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine. He attended Bowdoin, Columbia, and Yale, earning his doctorate. Barnstone taught in Greece from 1949 to 1951, and in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War. He went to China during the Cultural Revolution, where he was later a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University from 1984 to 1985.

Barnstone has authored more than forty books, poetry collections, poetry translations, philosophical and religious texts. He is a former O'Connor Professor of Greek at Colgate University, is a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and is in the Institute of Biblical and Literary Studies at Indiana University. He has received numerous awards for his work, among them the Emily Dickinson Award, the W. H. Auden Award, and a PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club Special Citation for translation. Barnstone was also a Guggenheim Fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry.

His titles include The Complete Poems of Sappho,, Translated with an Introduction, Ancient Greek Lyrics, Love Poems, and Café de l'Aube à Paris, Dawn Café in Paris: Poems Composed in French and Their Translation in English.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

This moving, and at times astonishing, memoir is a meditation on the thorny politics of racial and ethnic identity and how they have shaped American life and culture. Barnstone, a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University and the author of two earlier memoirs, was born in the 1920s to a Jewish family (originally Bornstein) but from an early age was taught to "pass" as "white"-i.e., Christian and acceptable to mainstream U.S. culture. The assimilationist messages from his mother were so strong he even slept with his nose braced on his pillow so it would grow a "permanent upward curl." Barnstone is fascinated with the idea of "passing" and how destructive it is. At heart, his memoir is a cry against "the absurdity of those distinctions in ethnicity, religion, and nation when they seem to justify the destruction of the other." And while the memoir's subtext is political, Barnstone melds it neatly with his personal history. From how it felt to be an assimilated American Jew during the Holocaust to contemplating the Nazi extermination of Greek Jews when he lives and teaches in Crete in the 1950s to discussing the similarities of anti-Semitism and racism in his experiences in the U.S. army, Barnstone weaves together life stories with a broad range of history, political analysis and literary criticism. Often his views of geopolitics sound naive ("The gang battles of West Side Story are global"), and he tends at times to the cliche. This is a curious book-half literary autobiography, half political treatise-but it sparkles and informs with intelligence and good intentions. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Verse 1 A Chat with the Readerp. 1
The Hell Face of Sacred Distinctionsp. 3
The Plotp. 6
Verse 2 Jews and Blacks of Early Childhoodp. 7
Swans over Manhattanp. 9
Anatole Broyard (1920-90), the Inventorp. 12
What Was a Jew?p. 14
Dad Grew Up in the Streetsp. 15
Languages of the Jewsp. 18
Spanish Jewsp. 21
Verse 3 Jews and Blacks of Early Adolescencep. 25
"At the Red Sea," by Yusef Komunyakaap. 27
Assimilation and Passing under the Shadow of War and Holocaustp. 29
Yehuda Maccabee and Hellenization of the Jewsp. 33
Gnosticism and Other Heresiesp. 35
A Summer Camp in Maine with the Scent of Palestinep. 36
Sammy Propp of the Black Shoesp. 38
Black Peoplep. 43
Leah Scottp. 47
My Unseen Black Grand-Stepmotherp. 51
Othellop. 52
Reading the Bible in Hebrewp. 59
Bar Mitzvahp. 60
"Othello's Rose," by Yosef Komunyakaap. 63
Verse 4 Early Jewish Corruption and Bayard Rustin, the Black Nightingalep. 65
Early Corruptionp. 67
Yeshua ben Yosef Passing as Jesus Christp. 69
So Long, Sammyp. 74
Off to the Quakersp. 75
Bayard Rustin, the Black Nightingale Singing His People into the Heart of the Makers of the Underground Railroadp. 75
More Deadly Application Blanksp. 83
Verse 5 Jews and Blacks in College, and Freedom in Europep. 87
Bowdoin College: The Jewish and Black Ghetto in Old Longfellow Hallp. 89
A Letter to The Nationp. 96
Coming Out of My Own Ghetto of Silencesp. 99
Off to Europe, Where Old-Fashioned Bigotry Is Huge, yet Now Who Cares? Not Mep. 100
Changing Money on the Rue des Rosiers and Getting Married by the Grand Rabbi of Parisp. 109
Verse 6 Having Fun at Gunpoint in Cretep. 117
Working in Greece for the Kingp. 119
White Islands and Northern Monasteries on Huge Stalagmitesp. 126
Thessaloniki, a City of Peoplesp. 128
Greeks and Jews and Blacks and Russiansp. 130
Jews, Greeks, and Romans in Alexandriap. 132
Cavafy and His Poem "Of the Jews (A.D. 50)"p. 133
Romaniot Jews in Byzantiump. 135
The Sephardim in Muslim Spainp. 135
Jews and Greeks in Thessalonikip. 138
Facts on the Slaughterp. 140
Thessaloniki and Absencep. 143
Days and Nights with Odysseus on the Way to Holy Athosp. 144
The Madness of a Jew Trying to Marry in a Greek Orthodox Church in Cretep. 152
Verse 7 A Black and White Illuminationp. 159
Friendship in Tangier with a French Baroness Who Told Me I Had Killed Her Lordp. 161
Verse 8 "Sound Out Your Race Loud and Clear"p. 165
A Jewman in the U.S. Armyp. 167
A Touch of Freedomp. 169
Fort Dix: "I'm Black and My Balls Are Made of Brass"p. 171
"Sound Out Your Race, Loud and Clear! Caucasian or Negra!" Yelled the White Sergeant in Segregated Georgiap. 173
Holy Communion of Bagels and Lox for Jewish Personnelp. 177
Black Barbers Brought on Base to Cut Black Men's Hairp. 179
Captain Hammond, Baritone, and the Children of the Perigordp. 180
Verse 9 Mumbling about Race and Religion in China, Nigeria, Tuscaloosa, and Buenos Airesp. 187
Ma Ke, a Chinese Jew with Whom I Shared Suppers in Beijingp. 189
Olaudah Equiano Bouncing around the Globe as a Slave Sailor under a Quaker Captain Until He Settles Down in London as a Distinguished Writer and Abolitionistp. 192
"Some of us grow ashamed," by Yusef Komunyakaap. 200
Yusef Komunyakaa, the Black Nightingale Singing on Paper with the Richness of a Sweet Potato (YK & WB)p. 201
A Diversion Down to Argentinap. 206
Verse 10 Saying a Hebrew Prayer at My Brother's Christian Funeralp. 209
Saying a Hebrew Prayer at My Brother's Christian Funeralp. 211
My Brother Needed to Pass Like the Spanish Saints of Jewish Origin. Here Are Ancestors Whom My Brother, Not by Inquisition but by a Deeper Knife of Fire, Emulatedp. 212
My Father, Who Never Tried to Pass, Succumbed to Denial of His Being and Passed from Lifep. 213
Verse 11 Death Has a Wayp. 223
A Little Worldp. 226
Appendixp. 227
Notesp. 229
Indexp. 233