So the publisher announces on the back of Jason Reynolds‘ and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped. Jacqueline Woodson blurbs: “Stamped is the book I wish I had as a young person and am so grateful my own children have now.” Renée Watson concurs: “This is the history book I needed as a teen.”
As a white man, I cannot say that I needed it as a young person. I can say that when I turned it over and thumbed its pages, it seemed like the book I needed (or wanted) right then. I had heard more than a few commentators on my weekly podcasts lament the strawman of “traditional history” that we are all supposedly taught. I chafed at these remarks because it seems only natural–a phenomenon repeated always and everywhere–that we discover the world is more complex than we had thought. It’s called growing up. But here was a book that purported to get it right, to set the record straight on the most intractable issue in our history, the R-word: race. Stamped is a book, not a curriculum. Yet it has an ambitious air about it: Its publisher provides a 20-page educator guide on the web site. This book is changing, and will continue to change, the way race is taught in America. I read it in one sitting, or at least in one day.
Even in the best history classrooms, learners graduate with a simplified understanding of events. By definition. Their brains are not fully formed; their experience is limited (more limited than most of us adults’). Reynolds, adapting Kendi’s adult book of a similar name, acknowledges this by adopting a colloquial style and writing a readable book, equal parts entertaining, moving, and enraging. He simplifies the story.
In the introduction, Kendi simplifies his own work that he developed in Stamped from the Beginning(which I have not read). He condenses his framework on racism to a few tight sentences: “The assimilationists believe that Black people as a group can be changed for the better, and segregationists do not. …The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything wrong with racism. …The anti-racists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.” [xiii] These are words and ideas that young people can understand, and his model is an extremely useful tool for all of us, as long as we remember that it is a model, not necessarily reality itself. There is a danger in reducing complex people to categories that define them as good, bad, or just ok.
The authors counter this essentialist critique directly, stating outright that people are not usually one thing but more often a mix, not usually consistent but more likely to change over time. (I can’t find the quote that I’m convinced I remember reading!) Moreover, their non-history history abounds with figures who exemplify change and contradiction. No less an icon than Barack Obama changed positions from anti-racist to assimilationist, in their view. They show him splashing on the scene in 2004, countering Bill Cosby’s “personal responsibility” message–before showing him hammering Cosby-like tropes during his presidency. As Reynolds writes, “Obama fell in line with the likes of Lincoln, DuBois, Washington, Douglass, and many others, who had flashes–true moments–of antiracist thought, but always seemed to assimilate under pressure.”  He was in good company, in other words. And like so many other icons of racial progress in America (see above), he is not beyond critique. This is powerful stuff for young readers, though some may struggle against the disillusionment.
W. E. B. DuBois went in the other direction. After decades of Talented Tenth and moral suasion thinking (with periodic flashes of antiracism), DuBois finally saw the folly in asking black people to live up to white ideals. Instead, writes Reynolds, “He just wanted Black people to be self-sufficient. To be Black. And for that to be enough.”  Though his earlier advocacy had been assimilationist, the authors aver, “Ultimately, he was arguing what he’d been arguing in various different ways, and what Fredrick Douglass [mostly assimilationist], Sojourner Truth [antiracist], Booker T. Washington [assimilationist], Ida B. Wells Barnett [antiracist], Marcus Garvey [antiracist], and many others before him had argued ad nauseum: that Black people were human.” The emphasis on black humanity, good and bad, echoed Kendi’s words from the foreword: “There are lazy, hardworking, wise, unwise, harmless, and harmful individuals of every race, but no racial group is better or worse than another racial group in any way.” [xv] Here he makes antiracism sound easy. Much of the rest of the book emphasizes how difficult it is to achieve in practice. (See: Douglass, Lincoln, and Obama).
Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned “All men are created equal,” couldn’t live it, that’s for sure. Reynolds portrays him over the course of several chapters as a farrago of internal contradictions. His final words, describing Jefferson on his deathbed, rise to the level of poetry, not for the first or last time in the book. They are both affecting and effective:
He knew slavery was wrong, but not wrong enough to free his own slaves. He knew as a child that Black people were people, but never fully treated them as such. Saw them as “friends” but never saw them. …He knew that all men are created equal. He wrote it. But couldn’t rewrite his own racist ideas. And the irony in that is now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Jefferson lay there dying–death being the ultimate equalizer–in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt. 
One of the strong points of the book for me, and one potentially appealing to young readers, is the author’s discussion of race in popular culture. I grew up with Tarzan, Planet of the Apes, and Rocky but lacked the critical ability to perceive their racist underpinnings. Did they assert their pernicious influence on my still-forming mind? Hard to say. I grew up at a time–the 1970s–when blacks were allegedly perceived (once again) to be newly empowered and a threat to white American culture/society. Tarzan evokes white colonialist fears more than domestic American ones, so it seems less directly relevant. Planet of the Apes both enthralled and terrified me. Was this a racist terror, at heart? I suspect not. From my suburban upbringing, I had no experience of so-called “ghetto” blacks (other than the comic strip Quincy, which made 1970’s Harlem feel charming), so talking apes were unlikely to evoke them, even subconsciously. But I do remember Apollo Creed in Rocky. By then I think I even had the critical ability to think, vaguely, “Can they do that? Make a black man so obviously the villain?”
These three cultural touchpoints may be less familiar to Reynolds’ and Kendi’s readers (or not, what with You Tube and digital reproductions of old film and TV). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Birth of a Nation, however, are likely to be black boxes. So Reynolds gives the Cliff’s Notes of the Cliff’s Notes version.
“Here’s the basic plot,” Reynolds writes before reducing Birth of a Nation, a three-hour, 12-reel film, to four bullet-points (three if you don’t count “The end”). Only the ugly climactic events of the final 20 minutes, are included.  There is more than enough cringe-worthy racism to decry in the other eleven reels, but they would only complicate the story (that Reynolds is trying to tell). Does his simplification bring out a larger truth, or is truth sacrificed when built on misrepresentation or over-simplification? It is a question I couldn’t avoid asking myself.
Summarizing Uncle Tom, Reynolds uses a full ten bullet items but hardly captures the breadth of an admittedly long book. He elides the first, Kentucky section of the book entirely and covers the final, Simon Legree section in two bullet points. His main interest is with Tom and Little Eva in New Orleans because that is where the author’s assimilationist message comes through mostly clearly. “The moral of the story:” Reynolds explains pithily after “listing” Tom’s martyrdom (#10), “We all must be slaves…to God. And since docile Black people made the best slaves (to man), they made the best Christians. And since domineering Whites made the worst slaves, they made the worst Christians. So, slavery, though a brutal attack on Black humanity, was really just proof that White people were bad believers in Jesus.”  Well, maybe. Reynolds’ (and perhaps Kendi’s) analysis is astute, but a dismissive tone creeps in that feels counterproductive. “I know,” Reynolds writes, “But, hey, it didn’t have to make too much sense.” Really? He has just spent a page and a half showing that, in fact, Stowe made very clear assimilationist sense. As a reader, I ended up feeling more defensive of Stowe than enlightened or empowered by their critique. I’ve read her book. As a critical-thinking, middle-aged adult.
Telling young readers what to think about a book they haven’t read seems unfair to me, especially when it’s done so cavalierly. Reynolds and Kendi instigate so much critical thought it is a shame that they shut some down by hammering their message too insistently. They have achieved their own impressive insight after years of living and reading and thinking, yet, in their eagerness to provide the book they wish they had had at that age, they may be packaging it up too-neatly for their readers. Questions will add mileage to their wise answers.
Reynolds opens the afterword with a question, a good one: “How do you feel?” He might have used the rest of the paragraph or the entire page to acknowledge feelings he imagines readers would have. He might have explained that no one feeling is the right one in reaction the book. He might have nudged readers toward possible next steps to take in response to their feelings. Instead he writes, without pausing, “I mean, I hope after reading this not history history book, you’re left with some answers.” No questions?
Reynolds does ask his readers another question on the book’s final page: “…the question of whether you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).”  But that sounds and feels an awful lot like an essentialist rhetorical question.
This is a powerful book. It is easy to imagine it will be one many readers, black and white, need at the time they pick it up. Yet it is possible to imagine other readers, too, perhaps fewer in number but, still, both black and white, whose reactions will be more ambivalent. Years later these readers may well pick up a different book that provides a new synthesis on racial issues, a book they might say they wished they had had when they were that age.
Antisemitism in the nation’s capital, circa 1928, was “below the surface,” according to Ronald Clark, William Friedman’s biographer. Latent, yet also “ever-present.” There was an “us-them feel,” he wrote, and William Friedman was one of “them.” [Clark 86] I wanted to know more about how antisemitism might have affected the great cryptanalyst. To what extent did he experience prejudice? How did he handle it? I thought Joseph Bendersky’s The “Jewish Threat”: Anti-Semitic Politics of the U.S. Army might help me answer those questions. After all, Friedman spent a quarter-century serving in the Army, ultimately earning the rank of colonel. There were no direct answers, but the book did fill out the context in which Friedman lived, breathed, and worked.
Bendersky spent most of a decade combing through the Army’s extensive archival material, declassified only after decades guarded from sight. The mental world of Army officers that he reveals is ugly indeed. “Below the surface” the prejudice may have been, but it was, in many notable cases, not at all subtle. Officers read books and otherwise absorbed ideas that claimed a veneer of scientific truth. Biology, in the context of the Darwinian revolution, was in ascendance. Race was ineluctable fact, and racial characteristics were open to “scientific” study. The laws of nature applied to humans, and harsh conclusions could be drawn by anyone cold-eyed enough to face the facts.
“Watch a herd of animals. If a member of the herd becomes unfit…the unfortunate is recognized at once and driven out of the herd, only to be eaten by the timer wolves. That seems hard–but is it, in fact? The suffering is thus limited to one. The disease is not allowed to attack others… With us humans, what we call civilization compels us to carry along the unfit in ever increasing proportions.” –General George Van Horn Mosely [Bendersky 27]
“We are infinitely more careful in the selection of animals for breeding purposes than we are in the selection of our incoming aliens. …an unfit animal is an unfit animal, whether it be man or woman, horse or sheep.” –Representative Albert Johnson (R, Washington), sponsor Immigration Act of 1924 [Bendersky 165]
The origin of their fears can be traced to the mid-1890s when immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began to eclipse those from the north and west. (We’ll ignore, for now, similar concerns over Chinese immigration on America’s other shore, which preceded these by a generation.) American identity was changing and would change irrevocably, these men argued, if the tide could not be stemmed. The chief culprits: eastern European Jews, “the dregs from Russia,” with their “long black coats, greasy beards, little curls over their ears, round black hats.” Religion, custom, language, “a lack of national feeling,” “a certain aloofness”: all conspired to make Jews doubly foreign and “a race apart.” [Bendersky 202, 86, 183]
If that were not enough, by 1919 Jews had become almost synonymous with the most un-American of political animals: the communist. In the thinking of the Army intelligence officers of MID, Jews were a combination of dirty proletarians, money-grubbing merchants, millionaire bankers, and conniving political schemers. The conspiracy theorists made the dots connect despite obvious contradictions. “Jewish multi-millionaires” financing the Russian revolution in support of “Jewish proletarians” toward an ultimate goal of world domination somehow passed the smell test. [Bendersky 57] The publication of the first English edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, titled The Jewish Peril, confirmed all their worst fears. The revelation the next year that it was a forgery dampened the paranoia only marginally.
After passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, the frenzy did begin to ebb. I, for one, was fascinated to read how readily nativists backpedaled when the politics began to shift on the House floor and in the papers. No, they denied, their bill was not “directed at the Jews” or “any particular type of immigrant.” Nor was it built on “the desirability of the ‘Nordic’ race.” [Bendersky 165] Nothing of the sort. The incident showed once again that ideas do not live apart from human affairs, waiting to be plucked from the ether and espoused as true. I think of the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, who backed off some of his forcefully stated positions under the bright lights of the Senate. And Marjorie Taylor Green who disavowed her earlier outrages when challenged by her new, more discriminating, colleagues in the House of Representatives.
This small account of Bendersky’s (he provides others like it) goes a long way to explain the “below the surface” quality of antisemitism in Washington, DC, in the 1920s and 1930s. In the privacy of their letters, officers could share mutual admiration for the likes of Stoddard and Grant, but if aired in society these same views might fail the test of public scrutiny. Even so, William Friedman was rubbing elbows daily with men (and women, too) who carried prejudiced thoughts in their head every time they interacted with him. Friedman was a “good Jew”–assimilated, educated, well-dressed–yet questions would still have hovered in the air. [Bendersky 43]
Friedman’s brainy cleverness, his effeminate sensitivity might have played to stereotype. Sociologist Edward Ross had described the “Hebrew” type as “the polar opposite of our pioneer breed.” He said they were “undersized and weak-muscled…shun bodily activity and are exceedingly sensitive to pain.” This in contrast to the alleged American type defined by “great physical self-control, gritty, uncomplaining, merciless to the body for fear of becoming ‘soft.'” The city-dwelling, merchant-class Jew could not have been farther from the “roaming, hunting, exploring, adventurous breed” that was the American male. [Bendersky 35]
My thoughts are drawn to the Jewish Back-to-the-Land movement to which William Friedman himself was drawn in the first decade of the twentieth century. The impetus to settle and to farm had many sources: a liberal desire to break free of czarist restrictions, socialistic ideas of ownership and autonomy, religious hopes for redemption and renewal. Was there within it an assertive response to critiques like Ross’s above? Was there, somewhere within the movement, a need to prove that the Jewish male could survive and thrive in dawn-to-dusk farm labor as well as his gentile brethren? As it happened, the vast majority of Jewish farm settlements neither survived nor thrived. They failed within two years.
William Friedman matriculated at Michigan Agricultural College with “notions of scratching a living out of the soil when the ‘back to the farm’ movement hit this country in 1910.” Did he feel the need to prove himself tough enough for rustic labor? Whether yes or no, he quickly learned that the farm life was not at all for him: “A few weeks of preparation for the ‘return’ showed me that Mother Nature got the wrong number when I answered that call.” [Clark 16-17] He needed brainier work. He tried genetics, but a series of fortuitous events led him into cryptology. When war came, he used his codebreaking talents to help defend his country.
“A race that will not fight is a base race, a slave race… and when not fighting, they still find weapons–of passive resistance, and calculating intelligence….” –Major Gordon Young [Bendersky 212]
Did such “racial” stereotypes affect Friedman’s decision to enlist in the Army in the summer of 1917? Did they add to his sense of obligation above that of other men? Perhaps. Enlisting also kept him out of the draft as a possible infantry soldier. It represented a possible career move for a man dependent on the largesse of a quirky millionaire, George Fabyan.
Once with the U.S. Army Signal Corps and later as director of the Signal Intelligence Service, was his loyalty ever questioned or doubted because of his Jewish heritage? According to Bendersky, officers had been concerned about a cabal of International Jewry since at least 1917. I have seen no evidence that Friedman suffered from suspicion. Even when many of his books were confiscated in Cold War years, the actions stemmed more from over-active paranoia regarding security than about specific concerns of communist activity.
Fagone gives at least one instance of William being affected by “casual” antisemitism. When he was stiffed by a client for a freelance decryption job, William chose not to demand payment lest he risk playing to the “money-grubbing Jew” stereotype. [Fagone 130] What today we call micro-aggressions were surely a regular part of his life in Washington, DC.
William Friedman was not a religious Jew. He and Elizebeth were married by a rabbi, but I have no evidence he attended synagogue or otherwise practiced his religion after marriage. On the other hand, the Friedmans did send out Christmas cards…as cryptograms! William had been bar mitzvahed and likely had a positive relationship with his rabbi at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Michael Fried. Evidence suggests his parents were less than active members. In the Tree of Life Golden Anniversary album, Mrs. Rosa Friedman is conspicuously absent from a list of more than a hundred and twenty-five names in the Ladies Auxiliary Society, who, by my calculations, represented about 85% of the dues-paying membership. Of the Friedman parents it might be said, as it was of many of their contemporaries, “their Jewishness was…an incidental factor, to be neither repudiated nor cultivated.” [Davis 205-206] Maybe. But by joining Tree of Life congregation, they did choose to have Jewishness cultivated in their children.
Judaism surely had a different meaning for William than it did for his parents. For them, it was the Old World they had escaped. It came accompanied by the shackles of restrictive laws and sometimes violent discrimination. Leaving it behind might well have felt welcome. For William, a second-generation American (though actually born in Kishinev), the Americanized form of his religion was nevertheless a tangible connection to his Russian heritage and a defining element of his identity. But he married a goy and worked in the Army. He may not have repudiated his religion, yet neither did he feel free to cultivate it. Indeed, he rarely spoke of it in the public record, as far as I know. The repression of that side of himself must have been a burden, as evinced by a comment he made in the last year of his life when he finally felt free to lament “the five thousand years of oppression to which thousands of my ancestors and myself were subjected by the enlightened non-Jews of all the continents of the world[.]” [Clark 10]
Maybe the prejudice wasn’t as below-the-surface as all that.