Lois Leveen

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June 28, 2012

Sarah’s Key, Mary’s Secrets, and Truth That’s Stranger Than Fiction

I have once again hit the trifecta of Jewish book publications, with this piece about Sarah's Key and The Secrets of Mary Bowser.

For witty commentary on the punning names of the various online Jewish publications, check out my Tuesday blog post, below.
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June 26, 2012

Funny, You Don’t Book Jewish

Turns out, Jews have a way with words. Especially when it comes to describing their way with words.

Check out Funny, You Don't Book Jewish, a piece I wrote that explores what counts as Jewish American literature, and for that matter what counts as Chinese American literature. The piece is available via these punalicious outlets:

The Prosen People (hosted by the Jewish Book Council)
Members of the Scribe (hosted by MyJewishLearning.com)
Arty Semites (hosted by The Daily Forward)

And if you don't get the puns above, just ask. You know how my tribe likes to explicate a text.
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June 21, 2012

Black Slave, White House, Gray Lady

You know you are a geek when . . . your book is already published, but you're still doing research.

When I set out to write The Secrets of Mary Bowser, there very little documented evidence of Bowser's life. Since then, a few key historians have uncovered new information. And I've learned that many common beliefs about Bowser are embellished or completely unproven.

This New York Times article, The Black Slave in the Confederate White House, details my most recent research on Bowser. It includes my analysis of what we can learn from what we don't know about her.

It also includes the only known physical description of Bowser, as recorded by Reverend Charles Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother.
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June 19, 2012

Take the Juneteenth Challenge

Happy holiday.

Didn't know you were having one?

Here's
a snip from the Huffington Post
to catch you up:

Today is Juneteenth. This holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery, tells us as much about what America means as the Fourth of July, Presidents Day, or Memorial Day. What distinguishes the United States is our nation's persistent struggle to make real a set of ideals that have been contested and contentious from the earliest days of the republic. It's particularly worth remembering Juneteenth this year, as people across the country mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.


You can read the full piece at the Huff Post website, and take the Juneteenth Challenge: name 5 African Americans who helped end slavery--besides Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman?

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June 18, 2012

Michelle Obama’s DNA

There's a great piece in the New York Times about Michelle Obama's forebears, and her distant cousins.

The white ones.

While most of us are aware that Barack Obama is biracial, Michelle's mixed ancestry is less well known. Or it has been, until some author (you know how they are) started researching the topic, using DNA evidence (for more on DNA evidence and a different case of interracial presidential genetics, check out this clip).

The article talks about what it means for whites today to come to terms not only with the fact that their ancestors not only owned slaves, but with the likelihood that a particular great-great-grandfather raped some of those slaves. Not an easy thing to think about. Actually, even writing that sentence was hard. I want to say "abused" or "forced" as though maybe those words are less ugly, less brutal. But why pretend anything about the topic isn't brutal and ugly?

The article reminded me of two very good, though very different, books. One is The Alchemy of Race and Rights, by the law professor Patricia Williams. In the book, Williams talk about how, when she was accepted to law school, her mother said that wasn't surprising, since they had lawyering in their family. What shocked Williams was that the lawyer in question, Austin Miller, was a slaveowner. He bought an eleven-year-old slave, who within a year had borne his child. That slave was Williams' great-great-grandmother, and Miller was her great-great-grandfather. He was a demon in the story of her family. But he was also as much a part of her as the young girl whose identity Williams and her sister researched, in their efforts to understand how slavery touched their family.

The second book is Kindred, by Octavia Butler. In that novel, the main character, a black woman married to a white man and living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, is repeatedly transported back in time to the nineteenth century, when she happens about a young white boy in trouble. He's in trouble a lot. She saves him. A lot. And then she realizes he will grow up to be the person who rapes *her* great-great-grandmother. She's left to choose whether to rescue him, or to let him die, or to take some action to kill him. And in that process, the novel reveals how much the protagonist owes to the very acts of violence and systematic oppression she has always hated.

I've taught both these books, together. Because I think it's not just Williams or the fictional character in Kindred or Michelle Obama's "white" cousins who need to think about these things. Ultimately, this nation is the offspring of that brutal, awful, despicable institution. Slavery financed early America. Slavery financed some of our greatest thinkers and most powerful institutions. Slavery allowed some of Americans to enjoy freedom they never would have had otherwise. My family immigrated to America long after slavery was outlawed here. But I recognize that the America that offered them a haven only existed because of the way it embraced slavery in earlier generations (and that it continued to support things like red-lining and segregation in ways that privileged white immigrants over blacks whose families had been Americans for generations).

So in a way, we're all descended from slavery.

Which does not mean I will start calling Michelle Obama cousin. Unless she asks me to. In which case I will totally do it.
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