The beginning of the book is good ol’ fashioned storytelling. It has the making of an epic, an up from poverty all-American novel about individual triumph through hard work.
Then the book takes a disconcerting turn. It’s no Triumph of the Will. It’s something much more true to life. It’s literature, not genre fiction. It’s an independent production, not a studio film.
I call Adam in San Francisco Monday morning. We talk for 90 minutes.
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Adam, the eldest of two kids: "I wanted to be a writer."
"It was always pretty clear to me. I was always making up stories, making people take dictation for me before I could write. I have writers in my family. Nobody seemed to think it was that strange. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I was surrounded by people who were like having phone calls every day with their parents, ‘Why don’t you go to law school?’ ‘What’s this bulls— you’re going to do?’"
"My grandmother (Felicia Lamport) was a poet. My grandfather (Ben Kaplan) was a judge but he seemed always to be writing. He was a law professor first. He was known as a pretty great legal writer. My father (Charles Mansbach) is a journalist. He works at the Boston Globe. My mother (Nancy Mansbach), when they met, was a reporter. Her brother is a sportswriter."
"My earliest trajectory as a writer was poetry and lyrics. I was pretty serious about hip hop. I was an MC. Probably the first thing my parents saw me doing circa junior high was writing a lot of rhymes and performing them and recording them. They were perplexed by that because hip hop was not something they were too familiar with. Nobody was in 1987 aside from those committed to it. They appreciated that I was doing something artistic… Hip hop was very political at the time and they were able to make those connections. My father, being a journalist, had a collection of sixties paperbacks on his shelf. I’d be listening to Public Enemy and they’d mention Bobby Seal or Eldridge Cleaver and those were books that were in my house. I was able to make those connections and my parents saw it happening.
"My grandmother’s poetry was analogous. Her s— was satirical and pointed and political and it rhymed. Her wordplay was fantastic. She had a weekly column that was syndicated in a number of newspapers called, ‘The Muse of the Week in Review.’ She’d take classical forms, rewrite them, remix them, about current events. She did a famous piece called ‘The Love Song of R. Millhouse Nixon.’ She took [T.S.] Elliott and turned it on its head. ‘Do I dare them to impeach?’
"In a funny way, my grandmother’s writing was very similar to hip hop. It was rhythmic, it was rhyming. My family was able to see what I was doing without freaking out too much."
"I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. It’s a close suburb to Boston. It’s pretty white, about 40% Jewish. The schools that I went to were fairly diverse, public schools that were part of the bussing program, which was Boston’s unilateral form of school integration. Boston’s a pretty segregated and racist city and it took about 20 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education to desegregate their schools and the way they did it was by bussing black kids from the inner city to suburban schools."
Luke: "Do you have a black accent?"
Adam: "You mean like Barack Obama or Colin Powell?"
Luke: "Umm, I don’t know how to say it. I’m sure there are right and wrong ways how to say it. Has anyone ever? I guess the polite term is urban. Has anyone ever said that to you? Maybe I’m totally out in left field."
Adam: "Yeah, every time I do any kind of public event, to a mostly white or Jewish audience, somebody asks me some kinda questions about the way I speak. I always try to get them to think a little bit critically about what it might mean to sound black or to sound Jewish or to sound urban because we tend to think monolithically about these things. Like anyone else, the way I speak is the some of various experiences and travels. So people always want to ask me that and sometimes they don’t know how to say it. They talk around it. Sometimes they come right out and say, ‘You sound black.’ My impulse is always to f— with people when they ask me that. I don’t know exactly what sounding black means. Who sounds quintessentially black? Jay Zee or Bill Cosby? It’s not a question I have a particularly good answer for except to wonder what it means."
Chaim Amalek emails: "Now who would you rather sound like, James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader), or Woody Allen?"
Josh: he stresses certain consonants like the blacks do
Josh: the hyPOCrisy
Luke: "Barack Obama sometimes speaks differently to a black audience than a white audience. The intonation and accent he uses will change."
Adam: "Yeah, that’s very true. I think there are occasions with all of us, there are infinite variations with the way we present ourselves and speak. The funny thing is I try to sound… I’ve been doing these Jewish book fairs the past couple of months, and I’m certainly trying to come off, I’d really like to avoid that question because I’d like to talk about other s— at these festivals. I try to come off as straight forward. I try to sound as vocally uninteresting and undifferent as possible. I still get this question so maybe there are limits to the amount of control I have over this."
Luke: "At what age did you fall in love with blacks? Or did you?"
Adam: "I don’t fall in love with blacks. I don’t think that ever happened. I got into hip hop when I was about eleven, largely because it was articulating realities that I wasn’t seeing personally but that I knew were out there. It was talking about subjects that were taboo such as racism, police brutality, the inequality in the school systems. These were things I had seen a little bit but nobody I knew was talking honestly about. I was moved by the world-expanding nature of the music. That led me to explore other black cultural forms. When I was 14, I became friends with Delfeayo Marsalis, Branford and Wynton’s younger brother and a trombone player, he was friends with a teacher at my school who was a mentor of mine. He would come to town and I would hang out with him for the week and he would put me on all kinds of jazz which led me to writers like [Ralph] Ellison, Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones), [James] Baldwin.
"I don’t think per se that I ever fell in love with black people. I found inspiration in the art produced under such duress, art made by people who were profoundly marginalized, whose humanity was called into question, and who in some cases responded with works of astounding beauty, honesty and humanism, particularly somebody like Baldwin who was doubly marginalized by being gay and black.
"I started to notice a certain kind of hypocrisy, complacency on the part of a lot of the white kids and families that I was around. That pissed me off and it was more a desire to distance myself or to be critical in some way of white privilege than a desire to be black or falling in love with black people or black culture."
Luke: "Have you seen white people or Jews fall in love with blacks or black culture?"
Adam: "I don’t know. I don’t spend too much time ascribing motives to people for what they do. In the world of hip hop, there’s plenty of white people and there’s a predominant portion of them who are Jewish. Partly because hip hop is a New York-based form and partly because there are certain historical resonances between blacks and Jews that I try to explore in this book.
"The people I’m personally friends with who are white and are involved in some way with hip hop or black culture tend to have traveled a somewhat similar path where some form of black music and in this generation it’s generally going to be hip hop made them aware and critical of what it meant to be white in this country. It’s more of a critical response to whiteness than a falling in love with blackness.
"In this country there’s an enormous sense of voyeurism particularly around hip hop and the fetishization of black bodies, so on a larger level, there’s been a real split in this country where privilege is located. Traditional forms of privilege, economic privilege, has resided where it always has, but cultural privilege and cultural capital has increasingly been associated with blackness. There’s been a lot of confusion for young white kids in particular because they don’t understand that they’re still at the center. They turn on the TV and all of the most glamorous flashy conspicuous wealth they see is in rap videos. So they end up feeling like they don’t have a cultural identity and they’ve been marginalized and that black people are at the center of the universe. There’s a combination of desire and resentment that I’ve seen a lot when I’ve talked to some of these kids."
Adam graduated high school in 1994.
Luke: "What do Jews and blacks have in common in America?"
Adam: "Both groups are dealing with the after-effects of diaspora, whether in the case of blacks the legacy and horrors of slavery and in the case of Jews they kind of repeated banishments from the different countries in Europe. Both groups come to America under a kind of duress that I think is unique. In both groups there is a sense that identity is a multi-faceted and complicated thing. There are wide margins in both communities. For Jews it’s this conflation of ethnicity, religion, culture, history. There are many ways to feel Jewish and also many ways to feel marginal and push away from the core of the Jewish community. You’ve got Jews who say s— like, ‘I’m Jewish but I’m well Buddhist.’ Or people who connect ethnically but not religiously. There is a sense of double consciousness, a sense of being part of a community but also being distant or alienated.
"The same is true for blacks. There’s an essentialization of what it means to be black. An identity that doesn’t fit for a lot of people. There is also the double consciousness inherent to black life in America where you are aware of both yourself and the other, where you’re unseen in the white world and able to gain a certain perspective on it."
"There’s been a progressive alliance, a civil rights alliance, a lot of history of artistic interplay, whether it is jazz in the twenties where Fletcher Henderson is writing all of the arrangements for Benny Goodman’s band. In the 1930s, the Duke Ellington Band got pulled off a train in Germany and harassed by all these Nazi soldiers and they kept calling jazz ‘nigger Jew music.’
"There are great letters between [Ralph] Ellison and [Saul] Bellow. Some of this stuff Bernard Malamud said about wanting to be seen as a writer and not a Jewish writer, wanting to be allowed to speak universally instead of for his marginalized group. It was identical almost to the stuff Frederick Douglass was saying 90 years earlier. And then all the way up to the breakdown of that civil rights alliance in the 1980s. It’s been a subject of conversation even in this presidential race with Obama talking about how he wants to repair relationships in the black and Jewish communities. He was asked to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan. It’s a rich and interesting history, really collaborative at points and tense and fraught at others, particularly in the eighties. These comments that people like Farrakhan, Jackson, Sharpton made have been frozen in amber by the older Jewish generation as a reason for a pullback emotionally and practically from the civil rights alliance of the sixties.
"I think it has to do with Jewish assimilation, a desire to change bedfellows… If you ask a room full of Jewish people over 50 about Jesse Jackson, they’ll all go, ‘He called New York Hymietown in 1983.’ Well, what has he done since then, anything? I’m more disturbed that Jesse Jackson called New York ‘hymietown’ in 1983 is so fixed and central to Jewish memory than the fact that he said it. It implies a lot of things that I’m not too happy about."
"I’d like to be able to say that Jews have more progressive attitudes [than regular white folk] but I don’t know that that is the case. Certainly that was an issue in this election. The New York Times did a good job of going to Florida and finding Jews who were horrifyingly racist and saying ridiculous things. I’d like to think that that is out of the mainstream but it is hard for me to tell. It’s more of a generational thing than anything else."
I ask Adam if he thinks Barack Obama would’ve been elected president if he were white.
Adam: "I have no way of answering that question."
Luke: "How have blacks reacted to your interest in their culture?"
Adam: "Pretty well. I’ve never really had any problems doing what I do. The only people who seem to have a problem with it are white people."
"Anybody who navigates black culture with a sense of respect, a sense of the history, awareness of the tremendous legacies of exploitation and cooption, is usually welcomed. Expectations of white people in black culture are so low, there’s such an expectation that they will act like assholes, that anyone who doesn’t is welcomed probably more than they should be."
Luke emails: Pendergast seems to play for Tristan what Jews have done for blacks — blaze the trail, fund the NAACP, etc…and blacks resent Jews for this for the same reason Tristan resents Pendergast — not for doing too little but for doing too much.
It’s human nature to resent those who help us.
What do you think?
Interesting. I think there’s some truth to the notion, in the abstract, that we resent those who help us – if the help is condescending, comes from self-interest, etc. Not categorically. In terms of blacks and Jews, it doesn’t ring particularly true to me. First of all, I question the assumption that blacks (who, of course, cannot be spoken of monolithically) resent Jews. What is the evidence of this as a tendency prevalent enough to dwell on? In my personal life, in which I interact with blacks and Jews more than any other groups of people, I hardly ever see it; if anything, being Jewish gives you an alternate identity to being white, creates a point of connection: you know, bigots hate you both, that kind of thing.
Secondly, even if we do accept the notion, I don’t think the facts support it: what is the "too much" Jews have done? How can anyone have done "too much" when structural racism remains a fact of American life, from judicial bias to the recent Princeton study indicating that a black job applicant has the same chances of being granted an interview as a white felon? No, I think any resentment stems from the more obvious reasons: a Jewish pullback from the progressive alliance, and old resentments of the kinds created by proximity and changing group fortunes (like the notion of Jews as slumlords, in the first chapter of my book, when Tristan goes to Harlem). I think that when you see conspiracy theories about the influence and power of Jews (in government, in the media) from segments of the black community, this is in large part code for "you assimilated into the mainstream and turned your backs on us – and your assimilation relied on your "otherness" playing off of ours, being more mutable than ours." And I see some truth in that. To connect to something I was saying earlier: 25 years after the "Hymietown" remark, for which he’s apologized repeatedly, after which he’s done major outreach to the Jewish community, Jesse Jackson remains a pariah to many Jews. Meanwhile, the ADL accepts Mel Gibson’s half-assed, incoherent apology, and rabbis line up to meet with him. To me, the deeper story is that keeping Jesse or Sharpton or Farrakhan’s old comments alive well past their expiration date helps to creating excuses for a practical, financial, emotional connection to black people, through the whipped-up specter of black anti-Semitism.
As far as Pendergast, Tristan’s resentment is complicated, but he’s actually happy to accept the benefits of Pendergast’s meddling; it’s the reasons behind them, and the implicit acceptance of Pendergast as an artistic equal, that rankle him. He’s pissed off, on some level, that this guy is even in a position to help him, is venerated as a writer, etc. And he suspects impure, selfish motives for the help, suspects that Pendergast is really reinforcing the differences between them… which, again, I think is usually at the heart of resentments toward those who help us.