SUP: David, you’ve written extensively on Winslow Homer. What drew you to dedicate so much of your time exploring the life and work of this 19th century world-renowned American Artist?
DT: You are right in saying that a good deal of my published work concerns the artist Winslow Homer. This has been encouraged by the fact that the sites in which Homer sets his work: Boston, New York, The Adirondacks, Quebec, and London are places I know well, and in which I feel at home. This adds a further element of realism to what I see in his work.
SUP: This book happens to be about one of Winslow Homer’s most creative and productive times in his life, which many refer to as his “turning point.” What are the main aspects that you think influence this? What do you think made this time so influential for him?
DT: Yes, you are right on the mark when you say that the book is about one of Homer’s most creative and productive times. This was indeed a “turning point”, but it seems to me that the meanings typically given to that term in the Homer literature tend to be unhelpful. Some claim that homer’s subjects shifted wholesale to scenes of storms at seas and of fishermen coping with dangers, but scarcely any of these things have prominence or even simple appearances in his work. There was indeed a “turning” and it proved to be a major one. The change was not in Homer’s paintings so much as in his standing as an artist. The Cullercoats paintings and those that quickly followed established him as stronger, more powerful painter than his preceding paintings had suggested. After his final exhibition of Cullercoats paintings in New York and those that quickly followed, Homer was clearly a “major” American painter and then some. This was his “turning.”
SUP: Was there any specific work of art that stood out to you from Winslow Homer’s time in Cullercoats?
DT: Yes indeed. Top of the list is Beach Scene 1881. An amazing composition of four human figures, you don’t forget that dangling arm vividly set against a wrecked coble and then a misty background of other figures. In these respects, there is nothing else quite like it in Homer’s work. I wonder whether his No. 1 Cullercoats model, Maggie Jefferson, may have had a hand in organizing this work. She is the child minder in this scene.
SUP: It seems as if many different historians have their own take on Winslow Homer’s life. Are there any misconceptions about him that you would like readers to know?
DT: Many different historians have varied “takes” on Homer as a person, but all present him as a deeply serious artist much attached to his parents and other family members, and quite reserved even with his few friends. He was not a “hermit” as the press sometimes described him. He was certainly well respected as a person in Cullercoats.
SUP: This point in time is seen as a very influential time in Winslow Homer’s life. Mariana Van Rensselaer said in one of her reviews that his style shifted to having a “freedom from conventionality of thought” during this time. What aspects of this time do you think aided him in this?
DT: I am glad that you have cited Mariana Van Rensselaer’s essay on Homer, for though it considers him as still a relatively young man and developing artist, it remains a wonderfully insightful essay on both the artist and his works the years in and surrounding his time in Cullercoats. His new concept of the essence of the experiences of working women – an essence distinctly positive in every respect – is revelatory. He shows little of the hard laboring men–the fishermen–but makes it abundantly clear that these are not peasants nor are their wives. In this he broke from long standing traditions on the Continent and even elsewhere in England, to define and portray fisherfolk as of a lower social class.
SUP: Winslow Homer’s work during this time strayed away from focusing on the men of the community and placed an emphasis on nature and younger women in this area. What aspects of his life in Cullercoats do you assume made him more successful than other artists in the area who might have had a more holistic inspirational view of Cullercoats?
DT: Homer seems to have spent more time with the village women and older girls than did other artists in the community or beyond, and in this he is certain to have used his American mannerisms–social openness, good humor–generosity of spirit–and so forth. He transformed the manner in which he had painted American younger women a few years earlier.
SUP: Do you think your knowledge of art history has impacted your writing style? If so, how?
DT: I believe that my knowledge of art history, both from its literature and from my familiarity with various masterworks, has had relatively little impact on the writing style of evident in my books and articles about Homer.
SUP: Winslow Homer later decided to make renditions of his watercolor works into etched pieces. He took out certain aspects of pieces to make other parts stand out more, such as the handrail in etched version of Perils of The Sea. How do you think changing medium/technique impacted his work?
DT: I am sure that Homer turned to etching as a medium for revised versions of a few of his Cullercoats paintings for two reasons. First, his income. There was a fair chance that new and revised versions of certain of his Cullercoats paintings, now printed on paper, would add a welcome amount to his income. Second, a vogue for the medium of etching had arisen among American fine artists and it seemed likely that Homer saw a way to excel while remaining a fellow participant in the uses of the new medium.
“Great regional lists are essential because they do such heavy lifting – they expose the charm of a region, they help us look truthfully at the sometimes painful and sometimes joyful history of a region, and they’re truly unique to each university press.”-Peggy Solic
As the acquisitions editor for Syracuse University Press’ New York State series, I think our regional list is our most mission-driven – these are the books that tether us most closely to and hopefully reflect the community in which we live and work. Really, the only thing that ties one book to another is that they have to relate to the community that we’ve loosely defined as New York State. History! Geography! Art! Architecture! Food! Drink! Travel! Nature! Politics! Photography! Upstate! Central New York! Western New York! New York City! The Adirondacks! The Catskills! You name it, if it has a connection to New York State, I’m willing to consider it.
The first question I ask myself when I open a proposal for a manuscript in our New York State series is: Does it excite me? That is the great fun (and the great privilege) of acquiring regional titles! More importantly, however, it also has to serve the readers of New York State as well as the mission of the press to “preserve the history, literature, and culture of our region.” So, I also ask myself: Does it tell me something new or original or unknown or interesting about New York State? Does it feature individuals or voices we haven’t heard before? Does it provide us with new perspective on the region? For example, we recently opened a new series, Haudenosaunee and Indigenous Worlds, which I hope, while not geographically limited to New York State, will drive discussion on important regional issues. Syracuse University and Syracuse University Press now stand on the ancestral lands of the Onondaga Nation, firekeepers of the Haudenosaunee.
My acquisitions strategy in this area is, I’ll admit, somewhat self-serving – manuscripts have to tick certain boxes to fit our list, but I also want books and projects that will pull me further into the community and teach me something about a region that is fairly new to me. I moved to Syracuse a year and a half ago and having spent six months of that time mostly at home I’ve counted on our regional list to help transport me around the state! I’ve used Chuck D’Imperio’s many travel books to help plan road trips, been inspired to take up a meditative walking habit after reading Nina Shengold’s Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days, and bought some new snow shovels after reading Timothy Kneeland’s forthcoming Declaring Disaster: Buffalo’s Blizzard of ’77 and the Creation of FEMA.
Great regional lists are essential because they do such heavy lifting – they expose the charm of a region, they help us look truthfully at the sometimes painful and sometimes joyful history of a region, and they’re truly unique to each university press. They reflect the best of what university presses exist to do – to publish authors that might be overlooked elsewhere but whose work is essential to understanding and appreciating a region.
#RaiseUP is the 2020 theme of the year. It highlights the role that the university press community plays in elevating authors, subjects, and whole disciplines that bring new perspectives, ideas, and voices to readers around the globe—in partnership with booksellers, librarians, and others. #UPWeek
Laurence Hauptman is a SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History who first attended and presented at the Iroquois Research Conference in 1974. Hauptman is the author of eight books published by Syracuse University Press including Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership: The Six Nations Since 1800 that focuses on the lives and contributions of numerous women and men who shaped Haudenosaunee history.
SUP:Professor Hauptman– You have written numerous articles as well as 8 books on the Haudenosaunee/ Iroquois published by Syracuse University Press. Yet, you yourself are not a member of the Six Nations. What drew you to your lifetime commitment to write their history and what why did you approach the subject in the way you did?
LH: Fifty years ago, after reading Anthony F. C. Wallace’s The Death and Rebirth of theSeneca while in graduate school, I made it my point to familiarize myself with the literature on the Haudenosaunee, I noticed that most of the scholarship was written by anthropologists and that there was a gap in the historical literature after the death of Handsome Lake in 1815. Encouraged by a friends, anthropologist Jack Campisi, and historian William T. Hagan, I was determined to fill in that gap by writing 19th and 20th century Haudenosaunee history.
My career as a historian also grew out of a boyhood interest in the American Civil War. I was a junior in high school during the centennial of the Civil War in 1961. From this research, I learned an important lesson, namely that military historians visit the National Archives, but also go to visit and walk the ground of Civil War sites to gain a firsthand understanding of the topography of the battlefield. Combining archival research with on-site visits and interviews in Native communities grew out of this thinking. In the process of doing fieldwork, I was to meet some of the most amazing and heroic Haudenosaunee people from Hogansburg to Green Bay and learn valuable lessons, especially from Gordy McLester, my dear friend and co-author/ co-editor on five books,. who died from Covid-19 in May..
My graduate-school training at New York University led me first to American diplomatic history and then to coursework in anthropology. After reading the wonderful writings of historian Akira Iriye, I understood how important it is to look at competing sides in international relations and what he meant by a “culture and power” approach, namely how nations see their interests through the prism of their own cultures. Hence, I never saw doing Native American history as racial minority history with all the assumptions that that conveys, but rather in a global framework since they are transnational peoples with treaties. By studying international relations, I became more aware of the need for fieldwork to understand how people think, and that to do Iroquois history, you could not merely view things from what is in the archives in Washington. Albany, or Ottawa.
In early 1968, my mentor Bayrd Still, a fine teacher-scholar of urban America and the American West, gave me advice: “We historians here do not know about Indians.” To him, the only scholars interested in what was considered an esoteric subject at the time were anthropologists. Praising his friend, the well-known anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel, he pointed across campus to the anthropology department. When I took my first anthropology course with the eminent anthropologist June Nash, she described her own work with the Maya in Guatemala and indicated to all five of us in her graduate seminar that contact with living people was acceptable and even encouraged by the discipline of anthropology. I had not heard that point made in any of my history classes before. A light bulb appeared in my head — the exciting thought of schmoozing with live human beings! [My father was a great “schmoozer” who could make conversation with anyone, especially about baseball; he apparently gave me this ”gift.”]
My first venture into “Indian history” was my masters-level essay on the (Dawes) General Allotment Act and post-Civil War reform, completed in 1968. In 1971, in one of the ironies of my life, I was hired at SUNY New Paltz, just 5 miles from where these reformers had met at Lake Mohonk to discuss the merits of the Dawes General Allotment Act from the early 1880s until 1929.
SUP: Which of the numerous women and men you treated in Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership: The Six Nations since 1800 made the biggest impression on you and changed your thinking?
LH:Ernest Benedict (Mohawk). I had the privilege of knowing Chief Benedict for a quarter of a century thanks to his niece, my friend Kay Olan. He represented the very best in the Haudenosaunee world, a true intellectual and one totally committed to the ideals set forth in the Great Law of Peace. Sometimes historians are too cynical and miss the point that sheer idealism can be a motivating factor in human behavior. Chief Benedict cared deeply about his people and fought from the age of fifteen for Haudenosaunee border crossing rights set under the Jay Treaty of 1794. He viewed Native Peoples in an international context whose existence was being threatened by the ever-increasing pressures of “development” worldwide, leading him to found the influential Akwesasne Notes on his kitchen table in the late 1960s.
SUP: If you were able to magically go back in time and sit down with an Haudenosaunee leader from one of your books, which one would it be and why?
LH:Chief Daniel Bread (Oneida). I wrote about Chief Bread in a chapter in Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership published by Syracuse University Press and a in a full scale biography co-written by my dear friend, the late Gordy McLester, published by the University of Oklahoma University Press. I was fascinated by Bread’s skills as a politician. He managed to hold onto power from the 1820s to the 1870s. His skill led the Oneidas to plant permanent roots in Wisconsin. He carefully brought the influential Jackson Kemper, first Frontier Bishop of the Episcopal Church and later Bishop of Wisconsin, into the Oneida orbit, using Haudenosaunee metaphors reminiscent of the Condolence Council; Kemper responded by becoming the Oneidas’ protector in Wisconsin. Bread even debated Indian removal and the fate of his Oneidas with President Andrew Jackson at the White House in 1831.
SUP: Your most recent book published with the Syracuse University Press was An Oneida Indian inForeign Waters The Life of Chief Chapman Scanandoah, 1870-1953 (2017). Tell us about what makes Chief Chapman Scanandoah so important for you to write his biography?
LH: Chief Chapman Scanandoah. Chief Chapman Scanandoah was truly a remarkable individual. He was a well-trained mechanic, a decorated Navy veteran, a prize-winning agronomist, a historian, linguist, and philosopher, an early leader of the Oneida land claims movement, and a chief of the Oneidas. However, his fame today among his Oneida people rests with his career as an inventor. His whole life, he challenged stereotypes. On March 1, 1926, a reporter wrote about Scanandoah’s scientific accomplishments:“Chief Chapman Schanandoah [Scanandoah], sachem, Oneida Tribe of Iroquois and a resident of the Onondaga reservation at Nedrow, has won recognition from the Great White Father as an inventor in the realm of science which always has seemed the white man’s realm… He holds the confidence and the rapport of the dusky men and women in the midst of where he lives. They are glad he has won this honor in the world outside their valley and has proved the Indian of today knows tools, machines, and molecules.” His life, 1870 to 1953, illustrates the Haudenosaunees’ remarkable ability to adapt to change, a major reason why all of the Six Nations in New York still maintain today a government-to-government relationship with the United States.
Scanandoah successfully managed to succeed in nearly everything he did. He was an outsider at the primarily African American Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia where he was educated in the late 1880s and early 1890s; one of the very few Native Americans in the United States Navy from 1897 to 1912 who traveled throughout the world; an Oneida with no land or political rights on the Onondaga Reservation where he resided for much of his life; a litigant in the white man’s court attempting to prevent the loss of the last remaining Oneida lands in the Empire State; a Native American inventor earning patents in the age of Thomas Edison; and one of the founders of the Indian Village at the New York State Fair.
SUP: If you were to write another book about the Haudenosaunee people in 2020, what would you focus on?
LH: I would write about the important roles attorneys play and have played in Haudenosaunee existence. Over the past half century, much of my historical research and consulting work has led me to examine historic litigation by numerous attorneys, thirty- three in all, hired to protect tribal lands and sovereignty. Although some were incompetent or unscrupulous, others I encountered in my research—e.g. James Clark Strong and George Palmer Decker – or personally worked for—e.g. George Shattuck, Arlinda Locklear (Lumbee), Jeanne Whiteing (Blackfeet)—were well versed in Haudenosaunee and American history. In order to develop strategies and represent their clients well, they like historians had to master the documents. I have found that too often historians equate the origins of every strategy affecting Native Americans in the courts entirely with chiefs, tribal chairman, and tribal councils. They all were/are very important, but many of the legal theories used in litigation were hatched by their attorneys.
The House of Representatives’ Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs’ Subcommittee on Indian Affairs’ hearing on the Seneca Nation Settlement Bill, September 13, 1990. Shown left to right are three who testified on the Seneca Nation’s behalf: Congressman Amory Houghton, Jr., the sponsor of the legislation; Dr. Laurence M. Hauptman, who served as the historical expert witness on the leases; and Dennis Lay, President of the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Today in honor of International Translation Day the Syracuse University Press would like to introduce you to ‘The Rivals and Other Stories’ translator Rachel Mines, a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow and recently retired teacher in the English Department at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada.
SUP: ‘The Rivals and Other Stories’ has been called “a hidden treasure of modern Yiddish literature” what can you tell us about the author Jonah Rosenfeld?
RM: Jonah Rosenfeld was a prolific and popular writer in his time, but because he wrote exclusively in Yiddish and was hardly ever translated, he has virtually vanished from the American literary canon. Rosenfeld deserves to be put back on the map because so many of his stories are relevant today – and not only for Jewish readers.
Rosenfeld was born in 1881 into a poor family in Chartorysk, Volhynia, in the Russian Empire. His first years were tragic. When he was 13 years old, his parents died and his brothers sent him to Odessa to learn a trade. He was apprenticed to a lathe operator. According to his autobiography, he was abused and his teenage years were miserable.
Perhaps seeking an outlet for his feelings, Rosenfeld began writing in his early 20s. He published his first story in 1904 and his first collection of short stories appeared five years later. In 1921, Rosenfeld emigrated to New York City, where he became a major literary contributor to the leading Yiddish newspaper, the Forverts. He was known as a psychological writer, an author who dove deep into his characters’ psyches to explore their subconscious feelings and urges.
SUP: This work has been called an original contribution to the art of Yiddish short fiction in English translation.What drew you to the field of translating Yiddish works?
RM: I was raised by Yiddish-speaking parents, but I wasn’t much interested in the language or literature until about 15 years ago, when I met my mother’s cousin, who had survived the Holocaust and was living in Latvia. I got inspired to return to Yiddish so I could speak with Bella in her own language. Eventually I decided I wanted to take my studies further. As a literature teacher, I came to realize that Yiddish literature in translation could be taught in the classroom – even to students like my own, who weren’t necessarily Jewish. So translating seemed like the next logical step.
I also wanted to contribute to scholarship in general. Yiddish literature (and other texts in Yiddish) are not accessible to the great majority of scholars and researchers. Therefore, we can’t even start to address topics such as the place of Jonah Rosenfeld – to take just one example – in the American literary canon. Many fields of Yiddish writing are still waiting to be explored, but the works need to be translated first.
SUP: The Yiddish Book Center has uncovered over a million books originally written in Yiddish. Can you tell our readers what drew you to Jonah Rosenfeld’s short fiction?
RM: Some years ago, I was looking online for short stories I could read to practice my Yiddish. I found two of Jonah Rosenfeld’s stories on the Mendele website (https://sites.google.com/site/mendeledervaylik/library). I was so impressed that I decided to translate them, just for fun and to practice my Yiddish. Later on, I found that the English translations had already been published in Howe and Greenberg’s A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, but by then I was hooked on both Rosenfeld and Yiddish translation.
So what exactly impressed me about Rosenfeld’s stories? I’d have to say, first and foremost, it’s his psychological insights. He’s not entirely alone in that: other authors of his time were psychologically astute and wrote compelling character studies. But Rosenfeld went a bit beyond, in that his stories are like Greek tragedies. His protagonists fail in their quests for love, belonging, and security, not because of external forces, but because of internal, self-defeating habits of thought that they may not be consciously aware of. Rosenfeld isn’t the only author to use this psychological approach in fiction, but he does so consistently and, to my mind, very believably.
SUP: How are Jonah Rosenfeld’s stories different from the idealized portraits of shtetl life written by Rosenfeld’s peers at the time?
RM: First, I’d like to say that not all of Rosenfeld’s peers were writing idealized portraits of shtetl life, although some were – perhaps as a nostalgic response to emigration to the US and other countries. Naturally people missed the communities and traditions they’d left behind and wrote sentimental stories, plays, and songs about them. Also, there is a tendency among those of us who never experienced pre-Holocaust Jewish culture to sentimentalize our ancestors’ way of life – “Fiddler on the Roof” is an obvious example. However, as more and more Yiddish literature is being translated and published nowadays, we can see that many authors, like Rosenfeld, present a more nuanced and challenging perspective on prewar Jewish life.
Having said that, I do think most of Rosenfeld’s stories are different from many of those his contemporaries wrote.
First, Rosenfeld’s stories typically focus on an individual who does not have the support of family, friends, community, or traditions and is often at odds – even in open conflict – with them. His characters are typically those who are socially marginalized, such as women, children, older people, immigrants, and others who are alienated and impoverished: financially, socially, and spiritually. They are solitary individuals who struggle, almost always unsuccessfully, to build bridges between themselves and the hostile, rapidly changing world around them.
In our time of social and physical isolation, fragmenting communities, and rapid social change, Rosenfeld’s stories have a particular resonance.
SUP: Jonah Rosenfeld was a major literary figure of his time. Why do you feel his stories about loneliness, social anxiety, and longing for meaningful relationships are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in the 1920’s?
RM: What’s not relevant about loneliness, social anxiety and the longing for satisfying relationships – not to mention male-female relationships, generational conflict, immigration, culture clash, child and spousal abuse, abortion, suicide, and prejudice? These are obviously deeply meaningful human issues that, 100 years after Rosenfeld’s stories were written, we grapple with today. We are struggling with the concept of impending, frightening change even more than ever.
Rosenfeld’s psychological insights are also relevant today. The author was an intuitive psychologist, and many of his stories stand up well to current theories of human thought and behavior. For example, the protagonist of “The Rivals” is a classic malignant narcissist. It’s interesting to note that the story was first published in 1909, several years before Otto Rank’s and Sigmund Freud’s theories of narcissism came out. So despite his characters living in a social, historical, and political milieu that’s different from ours in many regards, their actions and reactions are deeply human and understandable to the modern reader.
SUP: You selected 19 stories for this book. What make these stories important?
RM: We’ve already talked about Rosenfeld’s themes of social alienation and his psychological insights. To take a somewhat different perspective on the importance of his work, I want to focus on readers.
I’ve taught both business and academic writing, and I know one of the most important things for a writer to consider is the reader. Even before I started putting together the collection, I wondered who its readers would be. Because I’ve been teaching undergraduate literature courses for many years, I decided I wanted the stories to be read by students, and not necessarily just Jewish students. So I chose stories that I thought would work well in the classroom: stories that would be of interest to students and instructors and that would be teachable in terms of their themes, characters, symbols, imagery, and so on.
Eventually, after gathering my courage a bit, I taught a number of the stories in the collection to my students at Langara College. None, or almost none, are Jewish. Many are immigrants or international students from South and Central America, India, China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. A number of students are themselves struggling with the issues that Rosenfeld’s stories address.
Students LOVED the stories! They commented on Rosenfeld’s understanding of women, marveled that these 100-year-old stories were so relevant to their lives, wanted to know more about Yiddish and Jewish culture, and wondered where they could find similar stories. Some students confided to me that Rosenfeld’s stories had helped them understand their own family dynamics better. Occasionally I found it difficult to cover the points I wanted to make in class because the students were so eager to discuss the stories that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise!
SUP: What makes this book a must-read for fans of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture?
RM: Let me sum up: First, Jonah Rosenfeld’s stories address many concerns that are deeply relevant to us today. Second, his psychological insight into his characters make the stories quirky, interesting, and relatable. Third, for those teachers among us, the stories are fun to teach, meaningful to students, and lend themselves to assignments that are hard to plagiarize.
SUP: Of course, in this collection we’re not reading Jonah Rosenfeld’s original words, which were Yiddish, but your translation of them. What was the most challenging thing about translating these stories?
RM: All translators struggle with various elements of language: vocabulary, register (formal versus informal), idioms, word order, and so on. When translating Rosenfeld, I was also dealing with ideas relating to Jewish culture and religion. “Shabbes,” for instance, obviously means Saturday, but the connotations run much deeper in a Jewish religious or cultural context. So how to translate the word? That’s just one small example. Another problem I ran into repeatedly has do with simple matters of daily life that were very different 100 years ago than today. For example, in one story, a character drives his wife to the doctor’s office “in his own car.” Most people didn’t have their own cars at that time, so “own” implies a certain degree of wealth and social status. But times have changed, and now the phrase looks a bit strange.
And then there’s that paragraph in “Francisco” in which the main character does a quick repair job on a samovar. Not being intimately familiar with samovars (let alone broken ones), I had to figure out what was going on in that passage, which required hours of research – thank you, Google! – before I could even begin to translate it.
SUP: If you could turn back time and sit down for a cup of coffee with Jonah Rosenfeld, what’s the first question you would ask him?
RM: Mr. Rosenfeld, how do you fix a samovar?
No seriously … I think it’d be, “What were your literary influences?” What fiction did Rosenfeld read? As an author who wrote about the subconscious, was he familiar with Freud? To what degree did his own life and experiences influence his dark view of human nature?
I should add here that, at least according to what I’ve read, Rosenfeld’s contemporaries did not see him as a dark, gloomy person. They described him as melancholy at times (who isn’t?), but also as humorous, friendly, and good-natured.
SUP: Which is your favorite story in the book and why?
RM: I like all the stories, but one that stands out for me is “Here’s the Story.” Here the author takes a different approach. The main character is a stand-in for Rosenfeld himself – a writer of Yiddish stories on a reading tour in some non-specified eastern European shtetl. There he’s introduced to a “shegetz,” a gentile who is fluent in Yiddish, loves Yiddish literature, and becomes Rosenfeld’s rival in a love interest. In this rare departure, a comedy (though not without its darker elements), the author explores Jewish-Christian relationships, class relationships within the shtetl community, and attitudes towards Yiddish language and literature. It’s a peek into shtetl life – a prewar Jewish society many of us never imagined.
SUP: Your dedication to the preservation of Jewish history is evident with the publication of this book. You’ve also created the website https://shtetlshkud.com/ dedicated to a once-vibrant and thriving Jewish community in Lithuania . Can you tell us more about this site?
RM: Feel free to click on the link and take a quick tour! But here’s some background. My father, a Holocaust survivor, was born and raised in Skuodas, Lithuania. He rarely talked about his youth or family there. Over 25 years after his death, my brother and I first visited Skuodas, after which I’ve been back several times and have made – and continue to make – friends and connections among the citizens. Many of have them shared their stories of the prewar Jewish community. Assembling all of the information I could possibly find, I attempted, on this website, to “recreate” the prewar Jewish community as a memorial and also as a place for other Skuodas descendants to find out about their ancestral town and families.
With all the talk in the media about domestic terrorism, now seems to be the right time for an interview of Kerry Noble, the author of ‘Tabernacle of Hate Seduction into Right-Wing Extremism, Second Edition’ an unprecedented first-person account of how a small spiritual community moved from mainstream religious beliefs to increasingly extreme positions, eventually transforming into a domestic terrorist organization.
SUP: Kerry tell us a little bit about your background and what made you write ‘Tabernacle of Hate’
Kerry Noble: My wife, Kay, and I moved to a small, rural Christian community in 1977. At that time, it was a peaceful, non-racist, non-violent group, where some Christian families wanted to raise their families in the country, away from the chaos of the big cities, work together, live on the same property together and fellowship together. Everything was great for the first year until we started meeting the wrong people at the wrong time. Although we were an apocalyptic church, preparing for the last days for Christ’s return, we weren’t setting any dates for whatever scenario might occur.
Then in 1978, we came upon a man talking about groups preparing, like us, storing food, clothing and supplies to house people when the chaos occurred. He asked how would we protect ourselves from all the looters coming from the big cities? This really had not occurred to us. He said we needed to protect ourselves with guns. This made sense, so over the next 18 months we spent $52,000 on guns, ammo, and military gear. We began to train with the weapons and eventually our group was large enough that we started forming paramilitary squads and we learned to be Survivalists. We eventually set up a training school and built a 4-block mock town to train in, called Silhouette City. We became known as the #1 civilian SWAT team in America.
In late 1979 we were introduced to a theology known as Christian Identity. They taught that the Jews were a counterfeit race, descended from Eve having sex with the devil in the Garden of Eden, and that the white race was the true Israel of the Bible and that the non-white races were inferior races, created before Adam. This was pretty foreign to us but by the spring of 1980 we had adapted it into our own theology. Now we were racists.
In 1981 we adapted the name CSA – the Covenant, Sword & Arm of the Lord – the now-public name for our paramilitary unit, rather than using our church name (Zarephath-Horeb Community Church) during the publicity we received over the next 4 years. Unfortunately, our group became so radicalized we began doing illegal activities off our property – we plotted the original bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1983 and the assassination of a federal judge, federal prosecuting attorney, and an FBI agent in that same year. The plans were unsuccessful in their planning, fortunately. By then we had automatic weapons, silencers, C-4 explosives, a LAW rocket, and hand grenades. In the summer of 1984, I went to Kansas City to murder gays at a park and to blow up an adult video store. Those were unsuccessful also. But the next day I took a bomb into a gay church with the intention of blowing it up during the Sunday service. Because of the actions of the gay community at that church, I decided not to set the bomb and walked out. The gay community unknowingly saved my life and began my own transition away from hate.
In the fall of 1984 members of the Order, another extremist group that had robbed armored vehicles, counterfeited money and had assassinated Jewish talk-show host, Alan Berg, began to get arrested. Some of those members were former members of CSA who eventually turned state’s evidence against us, testifying against us in 1985.
Because of this and our own illegal activities, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, with 300 federal, state and local officers, raised our group on April 19,1985 and we had a 4-day armed standoff, until the leader of our group agreed to surrender. I had been the negotiator between our group and the FBI – I had also been the PR guy for our group and the main Bible study teacher. By the end of May 1985 all the other leaders of the group, including myself, were arrested. I pled down to a conspiracy charge, received a 5-year sentence, and served 26 months in jail and prison. I finished my time in 1990.
I wrote “Tabernacle of Hate” originally as therapy and healing for myself, plus to get the record straight about what happened during those days. Several books had been written that included us, most of which had wrong information. I also wanted people to understand the theology and extremist mindset behind right-wing, hate mentality, with all its conspiracy theories, and to help others understand how the leaders of this movement manipulated followers with fear and hate, behind the cloak of patriotism and Christianity.
SUP: The Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord (CSA) was an extremist paramilitary group in the 1970s and 80’s. Where are they now, and what can religious organizations today learn from their experience?
Kerry Noble: CSA disbanded in 1986 after the siege and almost all the men were arrested. The women and children scattered, mostly returning to the original areas they had come from. As the men were released, they joined their families. Almost all the families turned their backs on right-wing movement and its’ racism. A few still hold the previous views.
Religious organizations today need to understand that scripture says that judgement begins in the house of God – with the church. Judgement is not what Jesus came to do. Most churches preach judgment and “sin” of others, while ignoring the sins of their own congregation or of other Christian organizations. It’s the same old “us vs. them” mentality of covering up one’s own failures while pointing the fingers to others they disagree with.
SUP: As the group’s spiritual leader you helped negotiate for a peaceful surrender in an intense stand-off with federal agents, this negotiation is considered by federal agencies to be one of their greatest successes when faced with what we today would call domestic terrorism. What do you remember most about this situation and what contributed to your success?
Kerry Noble: I remember it all as if it were yesterday. By the second day I thought we were going to die in a shootout with the government. But by the grace of God, the leader of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Teamhad been told to negotiate as well, which he had never done before. He and I hit it off immediately and I felt like I could trust him. Ten years later we met again and eventually became friends. It’s something I am very proud of and thankful for. After the leader of our group surrendered, the ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent 4 days searching the property for evidence. They took care of our animals and pretty much cleaned up after themselves by the time they left. I was very impressed. What impressed me most was that the federal government, whom I had learned to distrust, kept their word, whereas the right-wing leaders, including our own, had consistently lied and had revealed their true motives – fame, some wealth, and a lot of polygamy.
SUP: ‘Tabernacle of Hate’ includes two pamphlets: “Witchcraft and the Illuminati” and “Prepare War” that you wrote for the CSA that are otherwise unavailable. Can you tell us about them and why you included them in the book?
Kerry Noble: I wrote 5 or 6 booklets but these two were the most popular, along with our training manual. Originally they were propaganda books, espousing our doctrine of Christian Identity and the source behind the troubles in America and the world, and our scripture basis for making war during the Tribulation period of the last days, since we did not believe in the Rapture before the Coming of Christ, where Christians would be taken to heaven before the world was judged.
I wanted them in the 2nd edition to help people understand the depth of deception that surrounds and penetrates those who are involved in right-wing extremism, from evangelical church to the KKK and to the Lone Wolf ideology of war. It all has a common thread of fear and hate and division, which, unfortunately, still exists today and is tearing this country apart.
SUP: The book has been described as the only first-hand account available to scholars from the leader of a right-wing cult that describes how a cult develops from a mainstream community, and how people can emerge from cult beliefs. What are the most important takeaways from this book?
Kerry Noble: Wow, there are so many. I am honored that this book stands above all others written about the extremist movement and mentality and am very thankful for how it has been received, and for Syracuse University Press’ courage to republish it. Some of the takeaways are:
Anyone can be deceived to the point of becoming the antithesis of the original individual. One does not have to be crazy or have come from a bad environment to end up an extremist. One of the main purposes of my book was to help people see and understand how one can go from point A to point Z almost logically.
The rhetoric and mentality of “us vs them” is not exclusive to right-wingers but to left-wing extremists also. The mentality of separation and division never solves problems – it is only the consensus of “WE” (Without Exclusion) that can solve the difficult world we live in.
There is always Hope. We were so blessed with being able to have come out of CSA as well as we did. Almost all of us have gone on with life. Becoming friends with the FBI leader was a huge irony, one of many. Had it not been for him and the grace of God, I’d have never seen my children grown up and I might never have heard the word “Papa” from my grandchildren. I am a blessed man.
My later book is called, “Tabernacle of Hope: Bridging Your Darkened Past Toward a Brighter Future.” It’s about the lessons I learn in my journey and that hope is there. It is my prayer that America bridges its now-darkened present toward what can be a much brighter future for us all. Thank you.
For more information on ‘Tabernacle of Hate’ click on the book below.
We couldn’t celebrate International Literacy Day without interviewing author Ruth Colvin, a woman who has dedicated her life to literacy, founded Literacy Volunteers of America, and written the fascinating memoir “Off the Beaten Path” about her experiences providing literacy training around the globe.
SUP: What inspired you to spend a lifetime promoting literacy around the world, what was it that drew you to this career?
Ruth Colvin: I can’t believe a life without reading, so in 1960 when I saw in our local paper the 1960 US Census figures stating that there were 11,055 functional illiterates in MY city of Syracuse, NY, I wondered who they were, why couldn’t they read, and what was being done about it. My research showed that nothing was being done. So, I had a coffee at my home, inviting members of the Board of Education, Presidents of non-profits, all men except one woman. They were as shocked as I was, but no one offered to do anything except the one woman from Church Women United, representing the women of 90 churches. She asked me to speak to her group, and they voted unanimously to start a literacy project but only if I would take charge. That was the start of Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA). But it was when I asked Syracuse University’s professional reading experts to help me that I learned the basics of teaching literacy, never dreaming that it was a national problem and that LVA would grow around the entire country.
SUP: Did you realize at the time how far around the world your passion would take you?
Ruth Colvin: I never dreamed that it was a world problem and that I would be invited to give literacy training in 26 developing countries.
SUP: You’ve met people from all walks of life—a holy man in India, a banned leader and a revolutionary in the apartheid system of South Africa, lepers in India and Madagascar, and survivors of Pol Pot’s Cambodia to mention a few. Of all the people you’ve met along the way, who had the greatest impact on you and why?
Ruth Colvin: Each developing country was a learning experience for me, but it was the people I met who touched my life – the poorest people living in hutments, in poverty, having had no education, who were surviving and always helping each other, and the leaders who were amazing, most working hard to solve the problems of their country.
SUP: Author David Baldacci has said “Ruth Colvin exemplifies the power of one individual changing the world for the better,” and former first lady Barbara Bush has described you as “a living testament to the literacy cause.” Of all the things that you have done, what would you say makes you the proudest?
Ruth Colvin: I think I’m most proud of those that helped me along the way, for it has been lifelong learning for me. And for those that listened and learned, and it became their passion as well as mine, for after I left, they had to carry on. I’m so proud of the students, the tutors, the board members and staff of affiliates around the country, and for them to be creative, sharing their successes with ProLiteracy to share around the world.
SUP: If you could throw a dinner party and invite one person you haven’t already met from anywhere in the world to sit and discuss literacy, who would it be?
Ruth Colvin: Looking back, I think it would be someone who I had taught to read and write, who because of that had a most successful life, helping others.
SUP: Your passion for literacy has earned you nine honorary doctorates, the highest award for volunteerism in the United States, the President’s Volunteer Action Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, your passion inspires the world. Who inspired you along the way?
Ruth Colvin: People have heard of my successes, but few have heard of my rejections, for I was living in a “man’s world,” where women weren’t allowed or expected to create anything new, to lead in any way, no matter how much it was needed. It was Bob, my husband, the love of my life, who saw and understood my passion, and supported me all the way, keeping my passion and inspiration alive.
SUP: In your personal opinion, what impact do you think the current pandemic will have on literacy?
Ruth Colvin: The current pandemic has an impact on everyone and everything, but because I always have a positive attitude, I look to see how Literacy Volunteers of America (now ProLiteracy) can be helpful. It’s impossible for most one-on-one meetings to continue, but we must look to the future and encourage tutors and learners not lose contact, so we’re suggesting they keep in contact by phone, by sharing the same books and sharing lesson plans by mail, so some lessons can continue. Many of the immigrants who have very limited English as a second language, don’t understand the pandemic necessities. It’s individual tutors who have been working with them that they trust. Those tutors then, by Skype, by Zoom, by iPhone, by phone, can explain, in the simplest language, why masks sanitation and social distancing are so important.
SUP: “Off the Beaten Path: Stories of People Around the World” takes readers along your journey around the world promoting literacy. What do you think readers will enjoy the most about your book and your adventures in teaching?
Ruth Colvin: Because travel is so limited now, I think readers will enjoy sharing my travels to places where it’s impossible for them to be. Again I say, it’s lifelong learning, and readers can learn about geography, about how people live around the world, those in poverty and those in leadership and wealth, and how we can help each other.
The 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues has been a highly anticipated celebration, with plans for many MLB teams to honor the historic players throughout the 2020 baseball season. Although these plans are rescheduled until 2021, there has been no shortage of memorials from a wide variety of fans–including a few former presidents.
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and columnist Joe Posnanski joined efforts to create the “Tipping Your Cap” campaign. Beginning in mid-June, the ‘TipYourCap2020’ Twitter account has gathered over 2,000 followers in about a month. Beginning with fans posting videos and photos, the campaign quickly caught the attention of former players and presidents, as well as the Hollywood community.
We joined the campaign on Twitter with a photo of our editor tipping her cap to the great Negro Leagues players and we’ve highlighted two SU Press books that honor these activists and their efforts. These books follow the Negro Leagues from their birth, highlighting many accomplishments, until their eventual collapse providing a history rarely discussed in such detail.
In Black Baseball Entrepreneurs 1860-1901, Lomax reflects on black baseball’s beginning as exercise or a pastime. He follows the incredible transition into a lucrative opportunity for black entrepreneurs as black baseball became an organization and commercialized amusement. The black baseball community began earning respect and paving the way for future athletes and activists with these originating efforts.
In the second and final book in the mini-series, Black Baseball Entrepreneurs 1902-1931: Operating by Any Means Necessary, Lomax continues with the development of black baseball as an organization and the way it was promoted. Focusing on how race influenced the institutional development of black baseball, Lomax discusses the decision made by Black baseball managers to distance themselves from white clubs and managers. This book is an informative and interesting take on the promotion of the Negro Leagues and how that influenced the success of this organization.
My kids and I worked out in our backyard before the implementation of Manila’s “Enhanced Community Quarantine.” Since the lockdown, our Sunday morning tradition of kettle bells, calisthenics, and striking has morphed into an every-other-day agenda item on our Groundhog Day schedule.My 13-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son fussed and fought their way through push-ups, lunges, burpees, rolls-to-jumps, bear crawls, crab walks, prisoner squats, planks, tabletops, flutter kicks, and good old-fashioned sit-ups — boot camp-like routines designed to encourage behavioral compliance through physical exhaustion. And, like young marines, Tessa and Lev proved hard to manage but easy to inspire. Every other day for the last 12 weeks, we’ve hardly missed a day out on “the grinder.”
Halfway through one session, Tessa ripped open the Velcro strap on one of her boxing gloves with her teeth and asked, “Do you want me to join the military?”
My kids and I tend to have our deepest conversations during the lull between sets. Panting with their fingers intertwined behind their heads, Tessa and Lev have brought up everything from evolutionary biology to gender inequality. – Questions sure to win them a breather by sparking the sort of nurturing and formative conversations for which I became a parent in the first place.
Back when Tessa was Lev’s age, she dropped this doozy between rounds on the heavy bag in our garden in Kenya: “Did you want black kids?”
SUP: You’ve published books on Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther, and other historic figures. What drew you to civil rights activist Franklin Kameny and how important did you feel it was to tell the world his story?
Michael Long: I first came across Kameny when researching connections between the modern civil rights movement and the early LGBTQ rights movement. That research led me to the collection of his papers at the Library of Congress, where I found a treasure trove of his unpublished letters.
I’ve read thousands and thousands of letters in my life—Robinson’s, Marshall’s, Bayard Rustin’s—and I dare say I’ve enjoyed none more than Kameny’s.
I was captivated not just because of their rich historical quality, but especially because of their style. His letters are strident and loud. Clear and logical. Demanding and urgent. Full of capitalized words and exclamation points. Like his brash personality, they’re brutally honest and transparent. Kameny bled all over the page.
Given my long-term interest in the letters of historical figures, you can understand why I was hooked.
I was also attracted to the project because at that time there was no other single book devoted to Kameny. Historians had largely ignored him, even though he was one of the most influential leaders of the early LGBTQ movement. So telling his story was important for correcting his ongoing erasure from much of history.
SUP: How does your book and the 150 letters included give voice to his drive for equality?
Michael Long: The letters track Kameny’s transition from a relatively closeted gay man to an activist picketing the White House and marching through New York City.
Kameny was fired from his federal job as an astronomer during the height of the Lavender Scare, when the federal government deemed LGBTQ individuals as significant threats to national security. Typically, gay men and lesbians fired during at this point retreated into the private sector without publicly protesting their dismissals. But Kameny was far from typical.
Not long after he begged for the return of his job—and I mean begged—he began demanding equality for all “homosexuals” in the federal government and throughout the public square. It’s really a breathtaking transition. The letters show how the government unintentionally radicalized him and pushed him to become a hard-driving pioneer in the early homophile movement.
Perhaps what’s best about Gay Is Good is that it offers Kameny’s unfiltered voice. The letters reveal his feelings in all their intensity—his despondency after losing his job, his fury at the government’s treatment of “homosexuals,” his arrogance when dealing with anyone who wants to treat LGBTQ individuals as second-class citizens, his relentless passion for gay rights everywhere, and his pride about making the government treat LGBTQ individuals with respect, dignity, and equality.
SUP: Why do you feel Franklin Kameny isn’t as well-known as Harvey Milk when it comes to LGBTQ history?
Michael Long: Kameny had a much greater impact on the national LGBTQ movement than Milk did, especially in shaping federal policy, declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, and organizing marches for gay rights at the White House and other public institutions long before the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. But Kameny could be abrasive, and he possessed none of Milk’s political charm and willingness to compromise. He alienated a lot of people.
Milk was also seemed more adept at building a constituency of younger people in the growing LGBTQ movement, the ones who would become its future leaders. Compared to Milk, Kameny appeared staid and conventional. Plus, after Milk was assassinated in 1978, his life took on a near-mythological quality.
SUP: What unique contribution does Gay is Good make to LGBTQ history?
Michael Long: Gay Is Good gives Kameny his rightful place in LGBTQ history, and it makes a compelling case that his name deserves to be uttered in the same breath as Milk’s. Indeed, our book clearly shows that it’s utterly impossible to tell the story of the early LGBTQ rights movement without placing Kameny at its center.
By the way, one of the interesting things about the early LGBTQ rights movement in the United States is that it’s so diffuse. Unlike the black civil rights movement, the LGBTQ rights movement never had a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure—a single leader who represented the general movement. But this does not mean that the LGBTQ rights movement lacked individuals whose ambition was to become its national leader. In fact, Gay Is Good shows that Kameny struggled mightily to become the single leader. He failed at that, but he certainly gave it his all.
SUP: Are there a few specific letters or writings that really stood out to you when working on the book?
Michael Long: One of my favorite excerpts comes from a letter he wrote to his mother in 1972:
“Some thirty years ago, I told you that if society and I differ on anything, I will give society a second chance to convince me. If it fails, then I am right and society is wrong, and if society gets in my way, it will be society which will change, not I. That was so alien to your life that you responded with disdain. It has been a guiding principle in my life. Society was wrong. I am making society change.“
Another favorite writing comes from his petition to the Supreme Court. Given the year he wrote this—1961—it’s quite the radical sentence:
“Petitioner asserts, flatly, unequivocally, and absolutely uncompromisingly, that homosexuality, whether by mere inclination or by overt act, is not only not immoral, but that, for those choosing voluntarily to engage in homosexual acts, such acts are moral in a real and positive sense, and are good, right, and desirable, socially and personally.“
Still another comes from a 1965 letter he wrote to the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), who had expressed reservations about picketing for “homosexual rights”:
“[W]e were informed that DOB would picket only when the action was backed by the larger community.
First, this is arrant nonsense! When one has reached the stage where picketing is backed by the larger community, such picketing is no longer necessary. The entire force and thrust of picketing is a protest on issues not yet supported or backed by the larger community, in order to bring issues to the fore, and to help elicit that support.
Second, this is in keeping with a mentality which has pervaded this movement from its beginning—homosexuals must never do anything for themselves; they must never come out into the open. They must work through and behind others. They must never present their own case—let others do so for them. We have outgrown this “closet queen” type of approach, and it is well that we have.“
SUP: Are there any misconceptions about Franklin Kameny that you’d like readers to know about?
Michael Long: I’m less concerned about misconceptions than I am about the lack of basic knowledge about Kameny’s life and legacy. I implore the readers here to dig in and learn about the person I consider to be the most important pioneer of the early LGBTQ rights movement.
SUP: If a movie was made about Franklin Kameny, what actor do you feel would best portray Kameny’s powerful voice?
Michael Long: Billy Eichner would be an excellent choice!
SUP: Your work, Arab Americans in Film, compares Arab American portrayals in both the movie making hubs of Hollywood and Egypt. Why these two culture centers? And what is gained by surveying these film landscapes side by side?
WM: Indeed, these are important movie-making hubs. For decades, Hollywood filmmakers have produced works that model good citizenship and normalize what it means to be American in ways that alienate Arab and Muslim Americans along with indigenous Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, and African Americans, among other minorities. When it comes to subverting Hollywood in the Arab world, the most important media culture to examine is that of Egypt, home to the largest, most popular, and most prolific Arabic film industry. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and boasts a critical history in developing anticolonial and postcolonial narratives of struggle for Arabic and Islamic identities.
Both industries have played major roles in mediating the collective imagination of the dominant forces in the two respective cultures. Comparing them reveals clues about East-West polarization in the cultural imaginations of “Self” and “Other” that exist in both US and Arab nationalist rhetoric. Despite major differences between the two cinematic industries in power, production, and circulation, I argue, the filmmakers in these filmic sites have subjected their imagery of Arab Americans to binaristic portrayals through glorification of Americanness and vilification of Arabness in Hollywood and vice versa in Egyptian cinema, leaving no imagination of Arab Americans as complex communities defined by a multitude of identities and experiences.
SUP:Today’s media environment is a crowded one. From traditional forms like broadcast television and music, to new social media platforms and streaming services, audiences don’t have to look far for cultural productions. Why did you choose film as the means for your comparative analysis? What does film uniquely offer as a site of inquiry?
WM: It is true that our age is saturated with content, especially with the quality improvement of television series and emergence of social media as well as subscription-based platforms. Film remains an important medium with multi-layered importance in popular culture, especially in countries like the United States and Egypt, as it serves a venue for both entertainment and education.
Films are intriguing because they mold visual imagery into codes that reflect and shape both a nation’s collective memory and national identity in an entertaining way. They tend to be accessible to audiences regardless of their language competency, educational status, or cultural background. They often serve as educational tools in a world increasingly centered around, if not mobilized by, mediated images and messages. They also have the power to function as tools for visibility, podiums for authenticity, and mirrors of reality.
And when adding the enriching effects of genres, it becomes obvious that the medium of film is a vehicle of thoughts and emotions that is often packaged as mere entertainment, but that carries the power to connect with audiences in personal terms, voice social commentary, mobilize public sentiments, and patrol the boundaries of national and cultural realms of belonging.
And the process of inclusion and exclusion that goes into all aspects of film making presents itself as a rich site for analysis of constraints and monopolies of power. Therefore, I should emphasize the instrumentality of film imagery especially in relation to this book’s critical site of inquiry, i.e., identity and representation.
SUP:How have your experiences influenced and inspired the task of writing this book?
WM: One of the key contributions of the book is to illustrate how Arab Americans’ struggle for belonging and citizenship is not exclusively a product of US Orientalist and racialized histories. I rather imagine this struggle as one against existing polarizations in the cultural imaginations in both US and Arab state nationalist narratives. This argument is inspired by my personal experience as an Arab American of Yemeni background constantly wrestling with American, Arab, Muslim, and Yemeni narratives of belonging and citizenship.
In my travels, I have encountered conflicting public attitudes and government policies preconfigured to define me and confine my identity within a specific national, ethnic, or even religious frame. During trips to Malaysia, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Yemen over the past few years, people would often question me about US foreign policy towards Arabs and Muslims. Uniting such questions, in most cases, was not so much interest in my scholarship but rather a desire to read my responses through the prism of allegiance. My interlocutors sought to package me as either an American or a Yemeni—identities implicitly presumed to be incompatible.
In the meantime, my return story to the US in the aftermath of every overseas trip has involved an additional layer of security, whether before boarding in Tokyo, London, Dubai, Doha, and Amman, or when landing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The “SSSS” designation on my boarding passes, which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, speaks of an institutional anxiety around my ethnic background and conflates it with a potential act of terrorism.
Since I consider myself as a film buff, I have watched hundreds of films that perpetuate the sense of alienation that I have experienced in travels and while growing up in both Arabic and American cultures. This sense of alienation strips Arab Americans like me of our capability of occupying our own third space, one that does not have to be completely rooted in either Arabic or American cultures, and one that does not present Arab Americans as either aliens to our American culture or traitors to our Arabic heritage. And that’s why the book adds emerging Arab Americans films, limiting as they may be, as an important site for projecting a sense of Arab American authenticity that is about how Arab American individuals define themselves rather than how others define them.
SUP:The American dream is one subject that Egyptian cinema constantly returns to in its portrayals of the Arab American experience. In certain segments of US society there is an increasing disillusionment surrounding the idea of the American dream. Do you see a similar cynicism toward the American dream in more recent Egyptian films?
WM: Egyptian filmmakers have always attached a sense of disillusionment to the American dream and presented it as unrealizable and unrewarding, urging their audience to seek out their own dreams in Egypt. As early as the film Amricany min Ṭanṭa (An American from Tanta, 1954) and as late as Talq Senaʿi (Induced Labor, 2018), Egyptian films have done so as part of a nationalist critique of the public fascination with the American culture. And as I argue in the book, this sentiment is driven less by a hatred of the US than by a sense of insecurity, loss, and anxiety regarding Egypt’s relative appeal as a place to live in and build a future. This is especially the case since many Egyptians would express a desire to live in the US, where hard work, social mobility, and justice are relatively cherished. Some Egyptian corporations have even capitalized on this fascination with the American dream via consumerist trends that primarily market US commodities, pop culture products, and shopping malls.
That’s why Egyptian films not only articulate disillusionment in the American dream but also imagine and advance an alternative Egyptian dream, one predicated on deterring Egyptians from leaving their homeland. This alternative dream will be made in Egypt, one in which migrating in search of social mobility, individual success, and even personal ambition is considered a selfish measure divorced from a commitment to one’s own Egyptian community. It is also worth noting that this simultaneous critique of and construction of alternatives to the American dream not only is limited to the films’ portrayals of Egyptian immigrants but also is deeply critical of the Egyptian elite’s promotion of consumerism and neoliberal economics as a global fulfillment of the American dream in Egypt.
As for American-based experiences, the American dream has always been a socio-political construct meant to uphold the American nationalist project, often entrenched in white privilege, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color. The surveyed Arab American films in the book both celebrate and critique the limitations of the American dream. The films present Arab immigrant characters seeking to fulfill their own aspirations in the US but not without providing insightful critiques of the American dream notion as a celebratory site of inclusion in the American society. The lead Arab immigrant characters in films like American East (2007), Amreeka (2009), and The Citizen (2012) have various strives to fulfill material desires (e.g., houses, jobs, cars, etc.) and seek belonging to the United States, but they are forced to navigate both a racialized system and a post-9/11 reality that constantly challenge their American cultural citizenship. The characters enjoy happy endings with their dreams fulfilled or reconciled but the films are filled with situations and images that question the very idea of dreaming in a country that itself questions the presence of Arab immigrants.
The fact that many Arab American filmmakers and actors have struggled for decades to make their voices heard in Hollywood, an industry reluctant to embrace diverse Arab and Muslim perspectives, is a testimony to many of the critiques that the films themselves communicate.
SUP: In a post 9/11 world, there is an issue of typecasting Arab American talent. But, film making is a multilayered operation. From funding producers, to script writers, and even on marketing teams, what area of film making do you see as most in need of Arab American self-representation?
WM: 9/11, the growth of Arab and Arab American independent film festivals, particularly in the US, has provided Arab American filmmakers with a valuable alternative to casting and narrating their communities, with some limited success in distribution. And the prospect of providing support for Arab Americans seems promising with the competitive rise of such content-streaming services as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Yet, Hollywood presents an institutionalized challenge for truly diverse narratives and experiences. Most Arab and Arab American actors, for example, have struggled against a casting practice that feeds on their vulnerability. Their roles are usually subsidiary and deeply entrenched in a racial hierarchy—despite evidence suggesting consumer demand for more diversity in lead roles.
It is certainly hard to prioritize any aspect of film making because production, writing, acting, filming, and marketing are all parts of a crucial process in film making. But I see the most urgent and past due change within Hollywood is to mainstream images of Arab Americans’ experiences beyond stereotypical lenses of national security and foreign policy. While some Arab American actors like Emmy Award winners Tony Shalhoub and Rami Malek have achieved prominence in Hollywood and transcended being cast in stereotypical ethnic roles, I am not convinced that success for such actors should only be limited to the desire of the privilege of being non-racialized in the industry.
I am for once hopeful that Hollywood’s production companies will experience a shift from their institutionalized lack of appetite to entertain non-mainstream perspectives, particularly ones that feature critical voices and ethnic community narratives. But this will not be possible without truly embracing the notion of multiculturalism. Until then, Hollywood’s positive portrayals of Arab Americans are merely sympathetic and function no more than tokens for inclusion in films that primarily entertain white perspectives.