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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: January 2015

Guest writer, Naphtali Rivkin:

Zorro_(novel)_cover brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao-by-junot-diaz

Junot Diaz, in The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, and Isabella Allende, in her rendition of Zorro, both interweave a bildungsroman with questions of ethnic identity.  Both novelists seem to indicate that coming to terms with one’s ethnic identity, however complicated, is a necessary part of growing up.  The novelists’ claims seem to hold water even beyond the realm of literature, where real studies of “young adolescents of color” and children of immigrants in Spain have demonstrated that developing a sense of ethnicity is vital to healthy human growth, especially to children living in a culture where their ethnicity is not the normative ethnicity.  But while both novelists claim coming-of-age and ethnic identity is inextricably connected, they might disagree with each other about the best method for coming to terms with complicated ethnic identities.  Diaz’s Oscar Wao transcends his internal and external ethnic conflicts by actively embracing his ethnicity, while Allende’s titular Zorro escapes his identity conflicts altogether by crafting a non-ethnic masked persona.  Diego grows up to become Zorro the Superhero, whose origin story serves to rid him of his humanity and ethnicities, while Oscar evolves into the far more complex, relatable, and admirable super hero, whose brief and wondrous life transforms him into an adult.

Allende and Diaz both seem to reflect scientific realities of ethnicity’s role in a young man’s coming-of-age through their psychologically real narratives.  In so doing, they both would agree that, in their bildungsroman novels, “ethnicity is…a factor in identity formation, which it is not in the (older) European bildungsroman” (Iversen 197).  James Hardin, in his compendium Reflection and Action, attempts to define the 17th century German term bildungsroman, but it seems the only consensus his contributors come to is that “Bildung [in its oldest, original connotation] is a verbal noun meaning ‘formation,’ transferring the formation of external features to the features of the personality as a whole” (Hardin xi).  By defining a bildungsroman as a coming-of-age story where a character is formed through the influence of his surroundings, it can be said that the current scientific studies about ethnicity and identity formation resonate with a 300-year-old literary genre in the works of Allende and Diaz.

Studies have shown that ethnicity matters, particularly to children who grow up in a society where their ethnicity is not the normative one.  Diaz’s Oscar struggles to understand the hyper-masculine expectations associated with his Dominican heritage in the context of his upbringing as an overweight New Jersey “nerd.”  Diego, the boy who becomes Allende’s Zorro, faces the perhaps more complicated task of reconciling his mixed Native-American and Spanish colonial birth while studying in traditional Spain under the occupation of Napoleonic France and traveling with gypsies and creole pirates.  Diego and Oscar’s struggles with ethnic identity reflect the psychologically real process that boys in alien societies must confront in order to come of age.

In her study on “Teaching Young Adolescents of Color,” Geneva Gay defines what we mean by ethnic identity in the context of coming of age.  It is

the dimension of a person’s social identity and self-concept that derives from knowledge, values, attitudes, the sense of belonging, and the emotional significance associated with membership in a particular ethnic group. Whether and how it is achieved affect many other dimensions of students’ personal, social, and academic attitudes and behaviors. A clarified ethnic identity is central to the psycho-social well-being and educational success of youth of color (Gay 151)

Diaz’s Oscar Wao, a “youth of color” growing up outside of his element, struggles to find that sense of belonging with his ethnic group that Gay claims is vital to psycho-social well-being.  While it is sadly routine for people of one race to treat the other poorly, it is downright tragic when Oscar must convince even his own people that “I am Dominican, I am” (Diaz 180).  Oscar struggles with depression to the point of attempting suicide largely because he feels like he does not share the knowledge, values, or attitudes of either his own ethnicity of the normative white ethnicity in New Jersey. Dominicans question Oscar’s virility and ethnicity simultaneously because Oscar does not seem to know how to get women to sleep with him, seems to value fantasy and the pursuit of writing more than a Dominican “should,” and speaks with a literary vocabulary, reflecting an attitude that the Dominicans around him find wholly contrived and off-putting.  Growing up in an alien society of New Jersey, where White is the normative ethnicity, Oscar cannot even rely on the comfort of his own ethnic family (or literal family) to shepherd him through his coming-of-age.

Allende’s Diego similarly faces complex ethnic boundaries to his coming-of-age, but his ethnic issues differ from Oscar’s.  Diego can soundly rely on the support of an almost unrealistic variety of ethnic representatives.  His Native-American heritage grants him powerful tools, friends, and pseudo-mystical powers; his colonial Californian father gives him money and a proud lineage; his Spanish hosts educate him; their French conquerors incite his indignity; the gypsies shelter and develop his physical prowess, while the creole pirates sharpen Diego’s indispensible savvy and worldliness.  Diego, unlike Oscar, is spoiled for choice in the ethnicity department, which begs the question, who is Diego?

Diego’s case reflects the current, real problem of immigrants “coming of age in Spain,” which The British Journal of Sociology attempts to address.

On its part, self-esteem has been consistently associated with positive academic outcomes and is influenced, in turn, by the quality of relations with parents and by past experiences of acceptance or rejection in the host society.  Our analysis reveals an initially anomalous result: the majority of children of immigrants in Spain neither identify with the country nor intend to live there as adults. (From Article chapter “Conclusion”)

It seems that since Diego checks all of the journal’s boxes for a positive self-perception considering his legendary “good luck” and a knack for fitting in wherever he goes, it’s no wonder Diego does not ultimately associate with any particular country or ethnicity in the same way that the successful children of Spanish immigrants do not identify with the country where they came-of-age.

But while both stories include elements typical of a bildungsroman, I think that the end result of Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao fits the bildungsroman mold better than Allende’s Zorro.  In fact, while both Diaz’s and Allende’s novels can be read as a coming-of-age story guided by the scientific realities of ethnicity in identity formation, Allende’s novel can be read as a superhero origin story, which differs from a bildungsroman in its end result.  A superhero origin story, according to Peter Coogan, creates a superhero, who is something other-than-human, and therefore, by definition, without ethnicity.

Diego, in Allende’s novel, may have many ethnicities, but with each of those ethnicities come special powers or privileges that transform Diego into Zorro, who is a superhero.  Zorro meets Coogan’s three criteria for superhero status: namely, a mission, powers, and identity (Coogan 39).  Zorro’s “pro-social mission” is “to seek justice, nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, protect widows and orphans, give shelter to the stranger, and never spill innocent blood” (Allende 154).  Just in case the reader may begin to consider Oscar as a superhero as well, I will point out here that Oscar’s mission, in contrast, is, at worst, to get laid, and at best, to find love.  Zorro also meets Coogan’s “powers” criterion for superheroes.  He’s an unmatched fencer, intelligent, lucky, possesses unique tools like his grandmother’s sleep potion; he can pick locks, jump like an acrobat and can see very well.  Even if we left aside his potentially magical link to Bernardo and the Fox (since Oscar too has supernatural experiences with a small mammal), Zorro has abilities which make others perceive him as superhuman, like when the pirates aboard his ship took him for a ghost or when Moncada’s men thought Zorro was in two places at once.

Finally, and most importantly, Zorro meets Coogan’s criterion for a superhero identity.  By becoming a symbol through his costume and iconic “Z” sign, Zorro transcends human characteristics and therefore escapes the human need for an ethnic identity.  The ultimate proof to this is that literally anyone who puts on Zorro’s costume can be Zorro, regardless of his or her ethnic identity— a small Spanish girl, an adult Native-American man, or Diego.  Conversely, there is no way to become Oscar without going through Oscar’s unique combination of ethnic self-identification and coming-of-age.

By growing up into the superhero Zorro, Diego sheds his ethnic identities whenever he is in Zorro costume.

Diego realized that, without planning it, he was playing the part of two different persons, determined by the circumstances and the clothing he was wearing…He supposed that his true character lay somewhere in between, but he didn’t know who he was: neither of the two nor the sum of both…He would assume that he was two persons and turn that to his advantage (Allende 232)

By definition, the bildungsroman cannot end in a conflict of identities.  It implies the forming of a holistic person, who “comes to a better understanding of self” (Hardin xiii) as a result of his coming-of-age.  Instead of understanding himself better through confronting his multiple ethnic allegiances, Diego finds comfort (indeed, he finds charisma, confidence, and virility) in donning the mask of Zorro and escaping the question of ethnicity altogether.

Though Diego’s coming-of-age reflects the psychologically real process of wrestling with ethnicity, the result of his coming-of-age is not typical of a bildungsroman but is instead typical of a superhero origin story.  Conversely, Oscar’s story can and should be read as a prototypical bildungsroman with an ending that would satisfy the genre’s criteria.

Oscar’s formation (bildung) as an adult mirrors his pursuit of the Dominican ethnic identity that his family lost generations ago.  Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, began his break with Dominican ethnicity when he realized his daughters might fall victim to Trujillo’s rape.  Instead of taking action—sending his daughters to Cuba, for instance—he hesitated indefinitely; “instead of making his move, Abelard fretted and temporized and despaired” (Diaz 231).  Dominicans, as Diaz would have his readers understand them, are decisive and aggressive, almost to a fault.  Take Lola, for instance, who runs away to Wildwood on the whim that she simply cannot stay in her mother’s house any longer.  Abelard, in contrast to Lola and Diaz’s typical Dominicans, cannot even die decisively; while all the other people in his life die quick deaths, Abelard is cursed by his indecision to meekly shuffle through prison—purgatory—half-lobotomized, in his pajamas, ad infinitum.

Perhaps Oscar is Abelard’s second chance—his spiritual reincarnation—as the next male Dominican born to Abelard’s family.  As a member of the Dominican ethnic family, Oscar is expected to sleep with any woman he wants, like Yunior, without compunction or effort.  This described Dominican promiscuity is the manifestation of a Dominican’s ability to take action.  “Did you fuck her?” asks Lola.  “I do not move so precipitously,” sighs Oscar, who still carries his grandfather Abelard’s indecisive genes.  Oscar tries, periodically, to take his life into his own hands, like when he agrees to go running with Yunior.  But it seems Diaz shows the readers this episode just to highlight how much of Oscar’s bad shape (mentally and physically) is his own doing.  “He quit,” Diaz unequivocally tells the readers through Yunior, the narrator.  “I will run again no more, he [Oscar] intoned from under his pillow” (Diaz 178), showing and telling Yunior that he prefers inaction to action, literally and metaphorically.

When it comes to love and sex, Oscar is similarly indecisive.  When Oscar falls in love with Ybon in the Dominican Republic (on a trip he took because he had nothing else to do during the summer), he finds himself pathologically incapable of acting.  “Did they the ever fuck? Of course not…He watched her for the signs…that would tell him she loved him” (Diaz 290) instead of confessing his love himself.  He does not kiss her for the first time; she kisses him in her Pathfinder.  And when Ybon’s kiss gets Oscar beat up by her jealous boyfriend, Oscar “thought about escaping, thought about jumping, out of the car and running down the street…but he couldn’t do it” (Diaz 297).  It is fitting, then, that Oscar gets beaten to near-death like his predecessor Abelard—cursed by his indecision to live in pain.

By going back to the Dominican Republic at great peril to himself specifically to confess his love to Ybon, Oscar comes of age through the fulfillment of his ethnic identity.  It is important to note, however, that love and sex is simply the context in which Oscar finds his identity.  Objectively, perhaps the fact that Oscar somehow accedes to his ethnic misogynistic expectations is not all good.  But love and sex are simply the tools of the Dominican ethnicity, and Oscar uses them to come into himself.  It is vital, for Diaz, that Oscar grow up, and grow up Dominican—and being Dominican means taking action, for better or worse.  Oscar ultimately does take action, for worse. He actively loves Ybon at pain of death.  Most importantly, though, he finds that Dominican compulsion with his last breath.  “Fire, he blurted out, unable to help himself” (Diaz 322); the old Oscar would not have been able to pull his own trigger for love.  He finally does what Abelard couldn’t do—acted, even if it kills him.

Oscar’s bildungsroman teaches us that you don’t get to just excuse yourself from your history, ethnicity, and human experience.  Growing up and becoming an adult in real life means coping with all the ethnic baggage you were given; only superheroes like Zorro can don a mask and escape.   Zorro, as a superhero, escapes all ethnic considerations and qualifications, but in so doing, he gives up his uniqueness as a human being, becoming a symbol instead that can belong to anyone.  As a human, you have to deal with both the good and the bad of your ethnicity in order to develop a unique identity.  Perhaps the greatest super hero is not the guy who leaves earth in a single bound, but the braver person who accepts who he is, where he’s from, and does something about it.

(Naphtali Rivkin is a senior English and Russian Area Studies double major at Washington and Lee University. He recently published a piece called “Why Everything you need to know about politics you can learn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar” in the the Ukrainian Philosophical Foundation’s journal, Future Human Image. Currently, he is writing an English honors thesis on early 20th century Socialist American writers. He wrote “ADULTMAN: An Origin Story” in Professor Gavaler’s course 21st Century North American Fiction.)

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In honor of MLK Day, a different kind of superheroism: how my parents helped to desegregate our suburban police department in the early 1970s.


Guest blogger, John Gavaler


In area, Penn Hills Township is Pittsburgh’s largest suburb. Despite its size, prior to World War II, it had a population of only a few thousand people. This changed dramatically after the war, for a variety of reasons. Because of the availability of inexpensive land, many returning veterans built homes there. Also, shortly after the war, Westinghouse, Gulf, and U.S. Steel each built large research laboratories east of Pittsburgh, all of which were located within easy commuting distance of Penn Hills. Unfortunately, there was also one more major reason for the population explosion in Penn Hills.

During the war, there was a large migration of black families from the South to the large northern industrial cities – lured by jobs created by the thriving war economy. These were the times when segregation was in full bloom, guaranteeing that all of the new arrivals were destined to live in highly segregated black ghettos. In Pittsburgh, it was the “Hill District”, an area immediately adjacent to Downtown. The influx of the large new black population turned this previously poor but mixed neighborhood into one that was almost 100% black.

Following the war, an expanding population together with “urban renewal” forced many black families to search for housing outside of the Hill. The city had decided that it needed a new auditorium and that the best location for it was at the edge of Downtown. In short order, blocks and blocks of houses and businesses in the Hill District were demolished and replaced by the Civic Arena and a plethora of parking lots. In the best of worlds the displaced people could easily have been assimilated throughout the city without any major upheaval. However in those days, Jim Crow ruled unchallenged. That meant that all of the Blacks looking for homes were funneled into a new black ghetto, created expressly for them. It was all done very consciously. Real estate companies in tacit or overt collusion chose to show houses in certain neighborhoods only to Whites and houses in others neighborhood, only to Blacks.

Geographically, the most likely section of Pittsburgh to which Hill District families might have moved would be Oakland, since it is immediately adjacent to the Hill on its eastern side. However, in Oakland there were too many expensive homes, owned by too many rich and powerful people, to make it a fertile territory for a new black ghetto. The same was true about Shadyside, which is adjacent to Oakland. But unlike Oakland and Shadyside, Homewood, located on the eastern edge of Pittsburgh, right next to Penn Hills, was completely vulnerable.

Until about 1950, Homewood was a vibrant neighborhood, populated almost exclusively by blue-collar workers of Irish and Italian descent. Most of the people lived in substantial, well-kept, middle-class homes. The way the real estate people attacked Homewood was simple, effective, and now totally illegal. (Actually it may also have been illegal then, however if it were, nobody cared enough or was brave enough to enforce the law.)

The trick was to first find a homeowner in a particular block who was willing to sell his house to a black family. Because of the high level of prejudice against Blacks, this was the hardest step. However, invariably, someone was found who was willing – either because he desperately needed the money, or because he was angry at his neighbors and did it for spite. After that, it was easy. Handbills would appear at the front doors of all the houses on the block warning them of the immanent decline in property values that was about to occur and offering to sell their houses now, before it was too late.

It would not be long before another house was sold – again, of course, to a black family. Then there would be another, and another, and soon panic selling was on. Real estate agents made a killing. In a period of time during which, ordinarily, they might obtain commissions from selling two or three houses, they were now receiving commissions on ten or twenty times that many. The whole process took only about ten years. By the early 1960’s the complexion of Homewood was almost totally changed from white to black. People who had planned to live out their lives in Homewood sold their houses at small fractions of their real value and retreated to the suburbs. A great many of them landed in Penn Hills bringing with them a deep antipathy toward the “Coloreds” whom they believed were responsible for their travails. Few recognized that it was not the Coloreds but a combination of their fears fed by prejudice, and the greed and mendacity of the real estate establishment that actually deserved most of the credit.

Judy and I were married in November of 1962. Initially, we lived in an apartment in Shadyside but quickly decided to find a place closer to the Westinghouse Labs where we both worked. A friend of Judy’s lived in Jefferson Highlands, a new development in Penn Hills that was only about a 10-minute drive from the Labs. We checked out the houses there and found a four-bedroom ranch model that we both liked. Construction was started in April and completed in three months. On a sunny summer’s day in July of 1963, we moved into our new home on 21 Edinburg Drive.

Penn Hills by this time had a population of well over 60,000 people. It was something like 80% white and 20% black. The great majority of the Blacks lived in Lincoln Park, which is immediately adjacent to Homewood. Because of Lincoln Park’s close proximity to Homewood it had picked up some of its spillover during the migration of Blacks from the Hill. All of the many new developments, including ours, were 100% lily white. The few black families that did not live in Lincoln Park were in houses that they had bought long before the mass exodus of Whites to the suburbs had begun.

Joan was born in September of ‘63 and Christopher in June of ‘66. With our two new kids we had enough to worry about without getting involved in the anti-Vietnam War and the pro-Civil rights movements that were blossoming at that time. But things changed in the summer of 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated.  The anger of the Blacks overflowed and there were riots in all of the major cities, including Pittsburgh. When the school year started in September, fights broke out repeatedly in the senior high school. Many times the situation got so out of control that the police had to be called. (I should mention that because there is only one senior high school in Penn Hills, it could not avoid being integrated.) Realizing that it would be only a few short years before Joan and Chris would be entering this environment, we decided that perhaps it was time for us to “get involved” – as they say. And so we did.

Because of the well-publicized problems at the high school, Penn Hills gained the reputation of being an especially bigoted and racist community. My guess is that it was actually no worse than anywhere else. The only reason the other suburbs around Pittsburgh did not experience similar racial clashes was because none of them had any significant black population. The spectrum of racial attitudes in Penn Hills was fairly standard. On the left there was a contingent who strongly supported the civil rights movement. On the right were those who thought it was part of a Communist plot to take over the country. And in the middle, where most of the people resided, the feeling was that the status quo was just fine and that the Blacks along with their white Liberal supporters were a bunch of troublemakers.

When we first entered the fray, a battle was in progress revolving around the attempt by the liberal contingent to get a Human Relations Commission for Penn Hills. The principle forum for the battle was the monthly Township Commissioners’ Meeting. My, but those were raucous affairs. To get a seat one had to come at least a half hour early. Most stood, lining the walls along the back and sides of the room. After a few particularly rowdy meetings, a policy was instituted that only those who had asked and been granted a place on the agenda, would be allowed to speak.

I can still remember how moving some of the black speakers were – talking passionately about all the injustices that had been visited upon them in Penn Hills. It was at these meetings that I learned, among other horror stories, how the all-white police had handled the fights at the senior high school. They would charge into the school and grab hold of the black kids who were fighting. Then they would question the white kids, standing there untouched, on how the fight had started and who was responsible. The usual result would be a suspension for some of the black kids. The depressing thing was that most of the audience sympathized with the police, defending their behavior as entirely appropriate.

I never had enough courage to make a presentation in front of that wild gathering. Most of my white compatriots felt equally reticent. Fortunately, one of our group was a friend of the president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. We asked for his help and he responded by donating one of his young lawyers to our cause. That is how I got to know Stanley Stein. Stanley would have had no trouble playing a lawyer on television. He was handsome, intelligent, articulate, and as tough as nails. We got him on the agenda to speak as often as we could. I envied his ability to stand in front of a largely hostile crowd, telling them things that they really didn’t want to hear, without ever showing even a trace of nervousness or unease. I suppose this ability is a requisite if you work for the ACLU.

Although we worked long and hard for it, the probability of our actually getting a Human Relations Commission for Penn Hills was always quite small, because of the local political situation. The most powerful politician in the township was Phyllis Kernick, the tax collector, and she fought adamantly against it. (Why the most powerful politician would choose to be the tax collector was a residue from the days when Penn Hills consisted of sparsely populated farm country and the only political job of any significance was collecting taxes.)

Phyllis Kernick was a fairly attractive, intelligent, but rather hard-looking woman in her late thirties or early forties. I never figured out whether she was actually as prejudiced as she appeared to be or if she was just reflecting the majority public opinion for political purposes. If she did not control the Board of Commissioners, she certainly exerted a strong influence on it, as evidenced by the fact that one of her political stooges was the Chairman.

Roger Sebastian or “Sebastian the Snake” as we fondly called him, was a classic. He was the prototypal sleazy politician. One of his more endearing qualities was his inability to give an honest and direct answer to any question, regardless how innocuous it might be. I remember at one Board Meeting, Stanley Stein was scheduled to speak but at the last minute couldn’t make it. When his name came up on the agenda, I stood up, made an excuse for his absence and then asked whether he could be placed on next month’s agenda. Instead of simply saying either “yes” or “no”, Roger launched into a long rambling response about fairness and about everyone having a chance to talk and about a lot of other things – from which one could safely infer he was saying “no”. Instead of sitting down, however, I took his refusal to give a direct answer as a challenge, so I rephrased my question and asked it again. I got the same result. So I did it once more. By this time, everybody knew what was happening, except Roger. He was still talking when one of the other Commissioners interrupted and told him that what I was trying to do was to get him to actually say the word “no” – so please would he do it so they could get on with the meeting. He finally did say “no”, but with a pained look on his face suggesting he was betraying something fundamental in his nature.

In addition to her political clout Phyllis Kernick, our most potent adversary, had another weapon at her disposal. She and her husband published a free weekly newspaper, called the “Green Tab”, which was distributed throughout the township. It contained mostly advertising with only a few scattered news items. However, it did have an editorial page. Week after week she would fill that page with some of the most scurrilous stuff you could imagine. One could never accuse her of subtlety. Civil rights workers, anti-Vietnam war protesters, Communists, Liberals, Pinkos, Reds – all were interchangeable words and all were identified with the forces of evil that were intent on destroying the country.  A major frustration was that there was no way to get an opposing point of view into print. The chance of a letter being published in the “Green Tab” that disagreed with her screeds was nil.

There was another newspaper published in Penn Hills, called the “ Progress”, which could have provided a counter voice, if it had chosen to do so.  It even had an editor who was pro civil rights. Unfortunately, the owner’s sole purpose for publishing the paper was to make money so he forbade any controversial editorials that might anger people and produce a loss in circulation. Naturally enough the editor, when he found this out, was ready to quit immediately. However, because he needed the money he decided to stay on for a while until he could find another job. This decision, as things developed later, turned out to be a most fortunate one for our cause.

Despite any and all opposition, we kept beating on the Commissioners to create a Human Relations Commission in Penn Hills. Finally, after months of trying, we gained a small victory. They agreed to hold a special meeting at which we could present our best arguments for such a commission and then they would vote it either up or down. Until then Chairman Roger Sebastion had never even allowed a vote. I do not know whether we ever really had a chance to win. The whole thing may well have been just a charade – something to get us off their backs. At the time, however, I thought we had a chance. Two of the Commissioners had publicly said they thought it was a good idea. That meant all we had to do was to provoke an attack of conscience in two of the other five Commissioners, and we were in.

One of the people pressing hardest for a Human Relations Commission was a Pittsburgh radio talk-show host, who happened to live in Penn Hills. Merle Pollis spent much of the time on his show haranguing against the bigotry and prejudice of people who were against Civil Rights. Although he usually attended our strategy meetings, he never showed himself at any of the Commissioners’ meetings. He said he feared for his safety. I always thought he was a bit paranoid, but in reality he was being very prudent. Several years later a left-wing talk-show host in Denver was shot to death by a right-wing crazy.

Merle was very eager to be the one to make our presentation at the special Board meeting. Safety was not a concern since only an invited audience of about a dozen people would be there. In several ways he was an excellent choice. He had a great voice, was very glib, and he enjoyed speaking in public. And importantly, unlike Stanley Stein, he could not be accused of being an outside troublemaker. My only worry about Merle was that his mouth sometimes worked faster than his brain. However, because of his talk show experience, he knew all the arguments. All he had to do was to present them in some logical order and he would be fine. So we all agreed that he would be our prime spokesman.

When I first saw Merle on the evening of the meeting I immediately knew he was taking his responsibility very seriously. It was the first time I had ever seen him all dressed up. While the rest of us were in casual clothes, appropriate for a warm June evening, he was wearing what appeared to be a brand new leisure suit. When I talked to him it was noticeable that he was quite nervous, which worried me a lot. But after he began speaking, all my apprehension disappeared. It was obvious he had done a lot of preparation. He was doing a terrific job. In about 20 minutes he presented the case for a Human Relations Commission in Penn Hills as well as it possibly could have been presented. I began to believe that we really had a chance. Then everything fell apart.

Merle kept on talking. The adrenaline was running so high that he apparently was incapable of stopping and sitting down. It was obvious he had used up all the material that he had prepared and was now talking off the top of his head. If I were a quicker thinker, I would have done something to get him to stop – such as feigning a heart attack. But I wasn’t and he didn’t.

He began talking about himself. We learned about how tough it was for him as a Jewish kid to break into and then to get to the top in radio, because of all the prejudiced people who stood in the way. But nobody was ever able to stop him – and those who tried got stomped on. His ramblings only got worse. He next claimed that when he made up his mind, he always got what he wanted, and right now he wanted a Human Rights Commission in Penn Hills. He warned them if they didn’t vote one in, they would pay the price. I didn’t want to believe what I was hearing. Merle had completely lost it. He was standing there threatening these people with some sort of reprisal if they didn’t do as they were told. When he finally sat down there was not a shred of doubt in my mind that it was all over. The only surprise for me was that we managed to keep the two votes we had, before Merle started talking.

In the aftermath of the debacle no one was unkind enough to tell Merle that his threatening the Commissioners was not such a swift idea. We generally concluded that we would have lost regardless of what he had said. The whole episode was probably staged just to humor us, in hopes we would then go away. But we had no intention of going away. There was disappointment at our failure, but not discouragement. We decided that since we had spent months trying to change the minds of the Commissioners without success, it was time to move in another direction. The way to go was to get involved in the electoral process. We would enter our own candidate for Commissioner in the next election. Morton Stanfield, one of our most devoted activists, volunteered to make the run.

In many ways Mort was a perfect candidate. He was young, energetic, bright, personable, well spoken, deeply committed to Civil Rights, and a life-long resident of Penn Hills. However, he did have one serious flaw for anyone running for office in Penn Hills during that time period. He was black.

I am sure that if we had brought in an outside consultant, he would have said something like this. “There is no doubt that Mr. Stanfield is well qualified, if not over-qualified, to be an excellent Commissioner. However, from my observation of the political climate in Penn Hills, I suggest that he step aside. If you are to have any chance of winning, you must have a white candidate.” If anyone had ever actually made such a recommendation, it would have been met with outrage. We were all true liberals and the hallmark of a true liberal is that he would rather lose than compromise his principles.

There is a funny thing about elections. They seem to have the capability of putting people into a fantasy world in which they start believing that something can happen that even a casual outside observer knows can not. This phenomenon is observable every four years when a passel of candidates, who have absolutely zero chance of winning, spend an enormous amount of time, money, and energy running for president. They lose, of course, but four years later they’re usually at it again.

I’m afraid most of us entered into this fantasy world during Mort’s election campaign. Money was raised, strategy meetings held, signs painted, posters printed, and speeches made – all done with great enthusiasm and a feeling that we can do it. Unfortunately, as we soon found out, we could not do it. Mort lost and it wasn’t even close.

After this defeat there was both disappointment and discouragement among the ranks. Many drifted off to work on other causes such as the anti-war movement or the budding McGovern presidential campaign. They must have felt Penn Hills was a lost cause and that their time and energy could be put to better use elsewhere. I may be remembering incorrectly but I think there were only five people at a meeting at our house when we decided what our next move should be.

Stanley Stein was there. Stanley had originally been sent to Penn Hills by the ACLU as part of their policy to have new members contribute some pro bono work to a worthy cause.  By this time, he had long since fulfilled this obligation. However he continued coming to our meetings because he had become emotionally involved in our cause. Fr. Don Metzger, an assistant at St. Susanna Catholic Church in Penn Hills and a very dedicated Civil Rights activist, was there. I think the only other person present, other than Judy and I, was Mort Stanfield.

We were all feeling very frustrated. Phyllis Kernick and her cohorts were riding high. Particularly galling was that she had beaten down her opponents so successfully that she now had the stage all to herself. Penn Hills was controlled by a bunch of right-wing bigots and there was not a single entity in the Township willing to raise its voice in opposition. We decided that we would create a new organization that would provide such a voice.

First, we had to come up with a good name. It had to sound provocative to make sure it would grab people’s attention. I suggested (only in jest) “Penn Hillians United for Community Kinship” (PHUCK).  We agreed that might be a little too provocative. Because the words, “People’s” and “Coalition” were often used in the names of radical left-wing organizations, we settled on, “The People’s Coalition Against Discrimination” (PCAD).

I think it is fair to say that the PCAD may have been one of the more unusual organizations that ever came into being. It didn’t have any constitution or by-laws. It never had officers. And, in a sense it didn’t even have members since we never had anything resembling a membership list. However, it was not without resources. First and foremost it had an excellent legal department (Stanley Stein). Later, through a combination of good luck and good management, it developed an outstanding publicity department.

Shortly after our meeting we thought it would be worth trying to get something into the “Progress” about the PCAD. So I wrote an article describing the formation of an important new Civil Rights organization in Penn Hills. Instead of mailing the piece in, I carried it up to the “Progress” offices and handed it directly to the editor, Bob McCarthey. I asked him if he could find some space for it in his paper. (As I mentioned earlier, McCarthey was a good liberal who was pro civil rights. However, his publisher prohibited him from expressing any views on controversial civil rights issues for fear of alienating readers and losing subscriptions.) He scanned my stuff for several seconds, put it down on his desk, and mumbled something like, “I’ll see what I can do”. I thanked him and left.

I spent the next couple of days wondering what, if anything, would appear in the paper. I accepted the possibility that after I left, McCarthey may have simply deposited my material into a wastebasket and there would be nothing. But I didn’t really think that had happened. What I expected to see was a greatly condensed version of my piece stuck somewhere in the back pages, perhaps used as a filler item. What I actually saw, when I opened up the paper, was my entire piece exactly as written, prominently displayed on the second page. It seemed that the PCAD had stumbled across a remarkably valuable ally.

That we had, indeed, done just that was confirmed a few weeks later. I wrote a longer, much more strident article in which the PCAD attacked Phyllis Kernick in general, and her atrocious record on civil rights in particular. As in the first case, it was written in third person to make it look as if it had been done by a reporter. I delivered it to the “Progress” and waited to see what would happen. This time the article appeared on the bottom half of the first page, again exactly as written. After that, whenever the occasion called for it, I would crank out something for the “Progress” expressing the views of the PCAD. Every one of them was printed without a single addition, deletion, or change. And the strangest part was that McCarthey never asked me a single question, either about who I was or anything about the PCAD. In fact, the only direct interaction I ever had with him was our brief conversation on that first day. All of the other times, I would put my material into an envelope with his name on it, hand it to the first person I saw in the office, and then quickly leave.

For me, it was a perfect situation. I could not only get all of the “PCAD Press Releases” I wrote printed in the only real newspaper in Penn Hills, but I could do it with complete anonymity. I should admit that my desire for anonymity was not totally due to my innate sense of modesty. There was a little cowardice involved also. Judy and I had gained a bit of visibility in the Civil Rights movement from our participation in the effort to get a Human Relations Commission and in Mort Stanfield’s election campaign. This visibility had led to some low level harassment.

One morning we found a dead mouse in our milk box. We also had some eggs thrown at our windows and on one occasion somebody used chalk to scrawl “nigger lover” on the side of the house. The harassment was so sporadic and of such a low level that it never really bothered either one of us a great deal. However it did cause me to muse about what I would do if our bigoted friends dialed up the pressure. What if, for example, they put a live rat in our milk box instead of a dead mouse, or if they threw bricks at our windows instead of eggs, or if they smeared our house with paint instead of using chalk. I didn’t know what I would do and I was not eager to find out.

Along with the “Progress” articles, the gospel was spread in other ways. Mort Stanfield, Fr. Metzger, and Judy were very active and had many contacts in the community, which they used to good advantage. Our old buddy, Merle Pollis, could always be counted on for a positive word on his radio show. And Stanley Stein by simply identifying himself as the “Attorney for the People’s Coalition Against Discrimination” did wonders for our image. Overall, I had the feeling we were putting a small dent into Penn Hills’ reputation as an unchallenged bastion of bigotry. We were beginning to create the perception that a battle was going on there between the forces of good and evil.

After a few months, although our psychological campaign was going well, we felt that it was time that the PCAD did something more concrete – something that would have a major impact. I don’t remember who first had the idea. I wish I could claim that it was me, but unfortunately I can’t. In any case, the decision was made. The PCAD would take Penn Hills Township to Federal Court and force it to integrate its all white police force.

I remember the first time I talked with Stanley about the idea. It was the only time he ever showed signs of nervousness. I learned the reason why. For a lawyer, going into Federal Court was playing in the Big Leagues. He had never done it before, and now he was considering doing it with practically no resources behind him. The PCAD did, in fact, have a little money. Mort had found a friendly Methodist Church group who had given us a grant of something like $5,000. But this was a pittance compared to what lawyers usually need to construct a case. But Stanley decided to plough ahead anyway.

Superficially, one would think that to prove discrimination in Penn Hills should have been easy. Everyone knew the reason there were no black policeman in the Township was because no Black had any chance of being hired, regardless of his qualifications. But that was the problem. Because everybody knew that, very few Blacks had ever bothered to apply. Stanley and Mort were able to track down only four men who had actually applied and been turned down.

Unfortunately, three of the four were not terribly impressive. I talked to them once and found them to be nice enough guys but, to put it diplomatically, not gifted intellectually. I got the sense that because they were out of work they had applied for a job on the police force almost as a lark, with no real expectation of being hired. They were, of course, turned down with the explanation that they had scored too low in the written test.

Because low test scores were often used to justify not hiring Blacks, Stanley enlisted the help of a lawyer from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission who had experience in this area. They were able to recruit a professor from the University of Pittsburgh who was an expert in the field, and who would testify that Penn Hills was using a test that was culturally biased against Blacks. Now, if this were our entire arsenal, I would have been extremely pessimistic about our chances. The best we could hope for was that the judge would buy this argument and then order a new test to be given that was not culturally biased. I had the strong suspicion that our three guys would bomb on that one, too.

Fortunately, the fourth guy Stanley and Mort had found was pure gold. Curtis Brown had also applied for a position on the police force and been turned down. But unlike the other three fellows, he had met all the requirements including a high test score. And what was even more beautiful, after having been rejected by Penn Hills, he had applied to the Pennsylvania State Police and had been accepted. He was now a state trooper. To prove that he had been turned down for cause, and not because he was black, the Township would have to convince the judge that the qualifications for being a policeman in Penn Hills were more stringent than those of the Pennsylvania State Police – the elite police organization in the state. I liked our chances. As far as I was concerned, Stanley should forget everybody else and just put Curtis Brown on the stand.

The Sunday before the Monday morning we were scheduled to go to court, Judy and I were watching television when, at about 10 o’clock in the evening, we heard a knock at the door. It was Stanley Stein. There were two very important things that needed to be done immediately. The first was to deliver a subpoena to a certain Penn Hills official, whom he named, which would order him to appear in court the following morning and to bring with him certain administrative documents.  When I heard Stanley tell us this, it never even occurred to me to ask why in God’s name this was not done days ago. I could only think about how angry the person was going to be when he was given the subpoena. Being a true male chauvinist, I automatically assumed that because it was such an incredibly ugly assignment, I would have to be the one to do it. I was about to open my mouth, when Judy spoke up and said she would deliver the subpoena. Needless to say, I felt very kindly toward her at that moment.

In a totally different way, the second assignment was even more disconcerting than the first. Curtis Brown, our star witness, had suddenly backed out. He had called and said he would not be coming to court tomorrow to testify. Stanley had tried to change his mind and had failed. Now he wanted me to go to Brown’s apartment and to make one last try. I knew that by now Brown must have considered and rejected every possible argument that I could dream up. But, I also believed that without him, our case was hopeless. So, even though I had no illusions of any success, I agreed to make the effort.

I was surprised that the apartment was only a few minutes drive from our house in a section of Penn Hills I thought was all white. I was wondering how he had got in there, until I remembered he was a state trooper. By the time I parked the car, I was having serious second thoughts. The whole concept was outlandish – a white guy trying to convince a black guy about the evils of discrimination and about everyone’s obligation to fight it whenever one had the opportunity. With a great lack of enthusiasm, I finally rang the doorbell.

A handsome light-skinned Black who looked to be in his late twenties came to the door. I asked him if he were Curtis Brown and he said he was. I explained who I was and asked if I could talk to him about his decision not to testify at the hearing next day. He nodded and motioned me to come in. He introduced me to his wife who was sitting there in the living room. We exchanged hellos, after which she left the room. He invited me to sit down, which I did. Before I could say a word, he began talking and continued to talk for what must have been at least twenty minutes. During the entire time I did not say or do anything other than grunt or nod my head occasionally. He told me his whole life story.

He was born and grew up in Penn Hills. All his life, as far back as he could remember, he wanted to be a policeman. However, for a black kid in Penn Hills, that was an impossible dream. After high school he worked at various jobs, but never totally gave up on his dream. When the big civil rights movement hit the country in the middle sixties, he thought there now might actually be a chance, so he applied for a position on the Penn Hills force. He didn’t get hired. What he got instead was a lot of harassment for himself and his family by the police. Apparently, the people on the force correctly perceived him as serious threat to their all-white club so they tried to get him to go away by making his life miserable. At about that time, he learned the Pennsylvania State Police were, for the first time, actually hiring Blacks. He applied there and was successful.

He had been a state trooper for a year now. His life had finally settled down and he was the happiest he had ever been in his life. Then this came along. He was told how critical his testimony would be, so he reluctantly agreed to do it. But after thinking long and hard, he had changed his mind. If he testified, the harassment of him and his family would undoubtedly start again. But that was not his major concern. Although the State Police were now integrated, it was only because of outside pressure. There were many racists on the force who had been adamantly against it. If he became a part of this controversy, he could easily visualize these people joining with the bigots in Penn Hills and finding a way to get him kicked out of his job.

By the time he stopped talking I had lost all interest in trying to persuade him to testify. Coming to his decision had obviously caused him much pain and I certainly did not want to add more. I did my best to reassure him I empathized with his decision. I agreed his primary responsibility was, indeed, to his family and to himself. I then thanked him for allowing me to talk with him, shook his hand, and left. When I got home I called Stanley and told him the subpoena had been delivered, but that Curtis Brown would not be in court the next day.

The hearing started promptly at 9 AM in a courtroom in downtown Pittsburgh. To say our side got off on the wrong foot would be an understatement. The Penn Hills official, who had just been subpoenaed the night before, was called as the first witness. As soon as he sat down, he began to complain bitterly about how he had been given a subpoena less than twelve hours ealier and about all the inconvenience it had caused him. On hearing this, the judge proceeded to chew Stanley out like I have never heard anyone get chewed out before. If it had been me up there, I would have dissolved into a quivering mass of jelly. Stanley just stood there, motionless, looking directly at the judge the entire time. When the judge was finished with his tirade, Stanley continued standing there – not offering a single word of excuse, explanation, or apology. He was finally told to proceed with his witness, which he did without even a hint of a quiver in his voice. Stanley Stein was one tough sonuvabitch.

The actual testimony of this first witness was uneventful and non-controversial. It dealt entirely with administrative matters that needed to be placed in the record, to provide background for the rest of the case. The next witness was the professor from the University of Pittsburgh, who was an expert on testing. He was on for over an hour and was outstanding. He explained the purpose of testing, what tests actually measure, how predictive they are of future performance, and how, as in the Penn Hills test, they can be culturally biased. The lawyer for Penn Hills jousted with him concerning his conclusions on cultural bias, but was clearly over matched. My morale improved slightly. We might not win the case, but might be able to force Penn Hills to employ fairer tests. It wasn’t much, but at least it was better than nothing.

I assumed the next witness would now be one of our three remaining black guys. Instead, to my amazement, Stanley called Curtis Brown to the stand. I don’t know how I had missed it, but he apparently had come into the courtroom sometime during the Pitt professor’s testimony. Our other three black witnesses had shown up that morning looking a bit scruffy, dressed in slacks and open shirts. Brown was impeccably groomed, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and a tie. Under questioning from Stanley he repeated much of the story I had heard the night before, minus most of the personal details. He spoke in a calm voice and showed none of the emotion he had displayed in our conversation.

My emotions were riding a roller coaster. It was sort of like watching a football game in which your star player isn’t playing, the team is losing, and all hope seems gone. Then suddenly and unexpectedly the star comes in and scores a go-ahead touchdown. The joy and excitement, however, lasts only briefly and tension sets in. Now the opposition will get the ball and they might do something equally dramatic and still win the game. I realize this all sounds awfully hokey and melodramatic, but that is not my fault. I didn’t write the script.

When the Township lawyer began his cross-examination, I was afraid of the worst. For all I knew he would confront Brown with evidence showing he was an escapee from a lunatic asylum. He began a long series of questions that focussed on unimportant details of the testimony. The questions appeared to be totally random and leading nowhere. But I wasn’t fooled. I was sure they were part of a trap. Then the lawyer said he had no further questions and sat down.

Stanley made the obviously correct decision to end his case at this point and called no further witnesses. Apparently, the Township had no evidence that would contradict Curtis Brown’s testimony. They did not call a single witness. Suddenly it was over. The judge said he would announce his decision in a few days and we all went home.

I was fairly confidant the judge would find that Penn Hills had illegally discriminated against Curtis Brown. The important question was what would he order as the remedy. If he ordered Penn Hills to hire Curtis Brown and then gave only a warning against any such future behavior, it would be a hollow victory.  Brown was no longer interested, and the warning would only cause Penn Hills to be a little more careful, the next time it was discriminating against Blacks.

About a week later the verdict came in. The judge declared that Penn Hills was guilty of having practiced illegal discrimination against Blacks. His remedy was breathtaking. He ordered that until the ratio of Blacks to Whites on the police force was roughly equal to that of the general population, two Blacks must be included among every five new policemen hired. Wow!!! The People’s Coalition Against Discrimination had taken Penn Hills Township to court and not only had it won, but it had won big time.

The story made every television station, radio station, and newspaper in the whole Pittsburgh area. The “Progress” had a big headline, “Penn Hills Must Hire Black Policemen”. I liked the one in the “Green Tab” better though, because it so perfectly exemplified the type of people we were dealing with. Its headline was, “Township Ordered to Downgrade Police Department”.

My Gawd, but did that victory give the PCAD credibility. Several weeks later Phyllis Kernick wrote one of her idiotic editorials in which she made some outrageous allegations. I wrote a piece in response that contained an idle remark about taking her to court. When I saw the “Progress” a couple of days later, I was actually startled. On top of the front page across its entire width was the headline, “PCAD Threatens Kernick with Legal Action”.  I got a little worried. Surely she would call my ill-considered bluff. I needn’t have worried. I checked the “Green Tab” for weeks. There was never any further mention of the original allegations or any response to the “Progress” story.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that bit of business with Kernick turned out to be the PCAD’s last hurrah. Without ever actually discussing it, I think we all knew that the People’s Coalition Against Discrimination had fulfilled its reason for being and it could now quietly fade into history. If I were to write its epitaph, I could fairly say it had a short but eventful life in which it accomplished much good. I could also add that, other than conceiving two extraordinarily wonderful children, it represented the best work that Judy and I ever did together.





Hi Chris:

I thought you would be interested in this. I gave Mort a copy of the piece I wrote about our days in the PCAD. I asked him to tell me if his recollections didn’t jibe with mine. I was pleasantly surprised when he offered only two corrections. He said that my estimate of the Black population in Penn Hills was a bit off. I guessed it was about 20%. He said it was closer to 10%. The other more significant correction was that he ran for the School Board not for Township Commissioner at the time we tried to get involved in Penn Hills politics. Overall he seemed to like the piece a lot, which was very gratifying.



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My sister and I spent every weekend of 1975 at my mother’s one-bedroom apartment, with afternoons at the zoo, swimming pool, or matinee of that week’s PG, Escape to Witch Mountain, Funny Lady, The Return of the Pink Panther. Money—I realized later—was tight. My mother skipped lunches to balance the once-a-weekday dinner out with us too. Her father had been a Westinghouse vice president, so even after his death her family could afford to stay in their large house on a treed cul-de-sac. But instead of collecting alimony after divorcing my father, my mother started a research career as an entry level lab tech feeding rats on weekends—always our Sunday morning adventure.


I’ve not seen The Return of the Pink Panther since, but the scenes are still vivid—that black-suited burglar creeping past museum security to pinch the precious diamond from its alarm-triggering pedestal. The Panther was the diamond, not the thief, which confused me. It should have been The Return of the Phantom. Though technically the Phantom didn’t return either. That was his wife, Lady Claudine, in the bodysuit, goading her husband, Sir Charles, out of a posh but boring retirement.

A life of luxury is a dangerous thing. Victorians feared it would destroy Mankind, starting at the top of the ladder with the Aryan aristocracy. “The white races of Europe,” warned E. Ray Lankester in his Degeneration: A Chapter of Darwinism, “are subject to the general laws of evolution, and are as likely to degenerate” and become “intellectual barnacles.” In fact, any “set of conditions occurring to an animal which render its food and safety very easily attained seem to lead as a rule to Degeneration.” Lancaster likens the process to how “an active healthy man sometimes degenerates when he becomes suddenly possessed of a fortune.” The problem is the “habit of parasitism” wealth produces: “Let the parasitic life once be secured, and away go legs, jaws, and eyes; the active highly-gifted crab, insect, or annelid may become a mere sac, absorbing nourishment and laying eggs.”

Half of the rats we fed Sunday mornings were getting heavy doses of grain alcohol in their feeding tubes. They’d just doze in the backs of their cages, quietly twitching with DTs. A philanthropic billionaire in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 The Doings of Raffles Haw gets similar research results when he tries to help the world by sharing too much of his fortune. A vicar observes how an “ambitious, pushing, self-reliant” young artist, whose first words if you met him “were usually some reference to his plans, or the progress he was making in his latest picture,” now “does nothing. I know for a fact that it is two months since he put brush to canvas.” By the final chapter, Raffles Haw recognizes the error of his ways, writing in his suicide note: “alas! the only effect of my attempts has been to turn workers into idlers, contented men into greedy parasites, and, worst of all, true, pure women into deceivers and hypocrites. . . .  The schemes of my life have all turned to nothing.”

So what is a well-born to do? E. W. Hornung offered a very different remedy. He strips his cricket-playing protagonist of his riches, all that easily attained food and safety, and evolves him into a gentleman thief who has to risk imprisonment to maintain his lifestyle. “Why settle down to some humdrum uncongenial billet,” asks A. J. Raffles, “when excitement, romance, danger and a decent living were all going begging together?” Sure, a life of burglary is immoral, but wouldn’t the aristocracy rather be robbed by a Keats-quoting “Amateur Cracksman” than a professional ruffian from the lower classes?


It’s a pleasantly perverse solution, one Hornung crafted in defiance of his brother-in-law, Sir Arthur. The author of Sherlock Holmes had yet to be knighted when Hornung published his first Raffles tale in 1898, but the gentleman thief turns Doyle’s knightly detective on his head. Hornung steals not only the name Raffles from Doyle’s billionaire but the character of Watson too. After Raffles rescues another destitute socialite from suicide, the narrator sidekick rises to their new life: “The truth is that I was entering into our nefarious undertaking with an involuntary zeal of which I was myself quite unconscious at the time. The romance and the peril of the whole proceeding held me spellbound and entranced.”

The Raffles mutation proved advantageous in the literary market place too—though always with a strain of Robin Hood do-goodery. Soon gentlemen thieves were relieving their boredom across magazine racks and bookshelves: R. Austin Freeman and Dr. John Jones Pitcairn’s Romney Pringle (1902), O. Henry’s Jimmy Valentine (1902), Arnold Bennett’s Cecil Thorold (1904), Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin (1905). Orczy’s altruistic Scarlet Pimpernel steals fellow aristocrats instead of diamonds, but his League of sidekicks are just more thrill-seekers: “for this is the finest sport I have yet encountered.—Hair-breadth escapes, the devil’s own risks!—Tally ho!—and away we go!”

After the Pimpernel, flowery aliases followed gentlemen thieves up the ladder too: Louis Joseph Vance’s Lone Wolf (1914), Frank L. Packard’s Gray Seal (1914), Roderic Graeme’s Blackshirt (1925), Leslie Charteris’ Saint (1928). Masks and signature emblems evolved into the formula too, beginning with the Gray Seal’s adhesive trademark found on the safes he cracks to the “P” blazoned glove Lady Claudine left on that museum pedestal. George E. Brenner preferred a literal calling card with his hero’s catch phrase: “The Clock Struck.”

The 1937 Clock beat Superman to comic books by a year, but it took Bob Kane and Bill Finger to raise a parasitic well-born into full superhero status. The “young socialite” Bruce Wayne signs his notes with a bat stamp, while affecting Lankester’s habit of parasitism: “Well, Commissioner, anything happening these days?” That’s Batman’s first 1939 panel. The avenge-the-dead-parents motive was an afterthought spliced in months later. The original Bruce was just bored.

Doyle’s Raffles faces the same problem. As a billionaire, “perhaps the only one in the world,” he feels a great responsibility: “I have not been singled out to wield this immense power simply in order that I might lead a happy life.” That was 1891, so the world population of altruistic billionaires has risen since. Bill Gates is worth about $78 billion, and, like Raffles Haw, he wants to give lots of it away. “My full-time work will be the foundation for the rest of my life,” he said last year. If that doesn’t keep him happily busy, Lady Melinda may have to slip into that Phantom outfit again.

David Niven played the Phantom in the original 1963 The Pink Panther—sort of a comic sequel to his 1939 Raffles. For his 2009 remake, Steve Martin swapped the Phantom for the Tornado, another female thief, the first played by Grace Cunard in the 1914 My Lady Raffles. My mother, the daughter of a corporate VP, did not become an aristocratic burglar. She had the push, ambition and self-reliance to evolve her rat-feeding job into a Ph.D. and more epidemiological publications than I can count.

But when she lost her last multi-million dollar research grant, her life devolved into early Alzheimer’s. She’s now living in an assisted living facility near my sister, where food and safety needs are easily attained. She says she’s gotten quite good at bingo, a game of chance not unlike a raffle or the stock market. Her retirement portfolio is making a killing right now. I visit on weekends, usually once a month.  I can’t remember the last time we saw a movie together, but I may suggest a matinee on my next visit. Everyone needs an afternoon adventure.


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After reading that MFA students writing fantasy and science fiction still feel ostracized in their graduate programs, Stuart Jaffe declared in a blog headline last year: “Thought We’d Escaped the Genre Ghetto.” I agree with the sentiment (and also teach an undergraduate creative writing class that includes fantasy and SF), but the metaphor troubles me.

When I see the word “ghetto,” I picture the 1978 NBC mini-series Holocaust. I haven’t watched it since I was twelve, but I remember the Warsaw Ghetto sets, that neighborhood of some 400,000 Jews rounded-up and walled-in by Nazi Germany. I don’t know if Auschwitz technically counts as a ghetto, but that’s where most of the population ends up.

warsaw ghetto

Not all ghettos are quite so dire. Manhattan’s Lower East Side or Chicago’s South Side are racially and economically segregated, but there are no ten-foot, barb-wire walls circling them. Still, “ghetto” is an odd term to apply to fiction writers. I don’t know when the trend started, but Thomas Pynchon, a front-runner in literary genre fiction, hinted at but didn’t quite commit to the term in his 1984 New York Times essay, “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” 19th-century Gothic fiction, Pynchon lamented, “was judged not Serious enough and confined to its own part of town,” adding that the Gothic “is not the only neighborhood in the great City of Literature” to “get redlined under the label ‘escapist fare.'” Other hoods on Pynchon’s City map included Western, mystery, romance, and science fiction.

“Le Guin Blasts the ‘Genre’ Ghetto,” reported The Oregonian when fantasy and SF author Ursula Le Guin opened Portland’s Arts & Lectures series in 2000, focusing on the exclusion of genre writers by critics and academics: “She is not happy that the publishing world, centered in New York, often regards Western writers as only of regional interest. And she is especially unhappy that science fiction, fantasy, mystery and every other type of fiction except realistic literary fiction are consigned to ‘genre’ status.”

The journals Conjunctions and McSweeney’s challenged that literary districting in 2002 and 2003 when each devoted a genre-crossing issue to guest editors Peter Straub and Michael Chabon. Gary K. Wolfe, in his essay “Malebolge, Or the Ordinance of Genre” included in Conjunctions 39, repeated Pynchon’s and Le Guin’s complaint that “these fields had become ‘ghettoized,’ isolated from the literary mainstream,” noting that “Genre writers still complain of the ‘ghetto’ in which they see themselves forced to toil.” James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, editors of the 2006 Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology continued the metaphor: “Nobody calls mainstream writers ‘mainstream’ except for those of us in the ghetto of the fantastic.”  Chabon longed to see all fiction shelved together: “For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto.”

I’m not nearly as cool as Michael Chabon, so I had to google the lyrics to “The World is a Ghetto”:

Walkin’ down the street, smoggy-eyed

Looking at the sky, starry-eyed

Searchin’ for the place, weary-eyed

Crying in the night, teary-eyed

Don’t you know that it’s true

That for me and for you

The world is a ghetto

Wonder when I’ll find paradise

Somewhere there’s a home sweet and nice

Wonder if I’ll find happiness

Never give it up now I guess

Don’t you know that it’s true

That for me and for you

The world is a ghetto


That’s from 1972—though even I know the band’s later hits “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and the ubiquitous “Low Rider.” War was a genre-crosser too, drawing from the neighborhoods of funk, R&B, rock, reggae, Latin, jazz, and reggae with a line-up of musicians hailing from a range of more literal hoods.

None of the band members, however, were from 17th-century Italy—where the word “ghetto” was born. It may be a reference to a foundry near Venice’s first Jewish ghetto, though “borghetto” (small borough) seems more likely to me. By the turn of the 20th century, the term could be applied to any minority population crowded into an urban quarter.  By the turn of the 21st century, it could mean any subgroup of authors crowded onto a bookstore shelf.

Mary Elizabeth Williams’s “In and Out of the Genre Ghetto,” a review of seven lesbian novelists, addresses the benefits and dangers of categorization:

“The term “lesbian literature” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it flags a genre, enabling a sometimes maddeningly invisible segment of the population to exchange stories about its own community – and when it seems that half the paperbacks in the world have Fabio on their covers, that can be a good thing. On the other hand, the phrase smacks of ghettoization, implying: “subculture!” “alternative!” “fringe!” and, worst of fail, “amateur!” You don’t read a book merely for a glimpse of satisfying self-recognition. Good writing speaks to something in everyone.”

Williams criticizes those authors of lesbian literature who “fail to communicate with the outside world and universalize their message.” The phrase “outside world” further echoes World War II (“The Nazis closed off the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world in 1940”), but “universal” may be the bigger problem. I find it often on the backs of books written by African Americans. According to review blurbs excerpted for the paperback edition of James McBride’s The Color of Water, the memoir “resonates with universal themes of family, faith, and forgiveness.” In fact, it “goes beyond race” and even “transcends race and touches the spirit”—as apparently does Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia, which “transcends race even while examining it.”“Everyone will be enriched by reading” Gregory Howard Williams’s Life on the Color Line because it gives “readers a greater understanding of humankind.”

I assume these promises of colorblind spirit and race-transcending universality are targeted at white readers, reassuring them it’s okay to read outside their neighborhoods, that they haven’t wandered into a bad part of town. After being inspected and approved by customs and Homeland Security officers, these book are safe for consumption in any zip code—even gated suburban communities. If the book is universal then it isn’t about a minority group, it’s about everyone, and so it’s about white people.  It’s escaped the ghetto completely.

21-century genre writers have the same ambition. Lydia Millet of the Los Angeles Times recently praised Jeff Vandermeer “who after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended the genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal.” But Andi Schechter wrote in the 2004 Library Journal essay “Out of the Genre Ghetto”: “Mystery’s adherents have always believed [mysteries novels] to be true novels in every sense of the word and bristle at the snobbery in the expression ‘transcends the genre.’ Still, the literary elite has long condemned crime fiction to obscurity in the genre ghetto.” The Magicians author Lev Grossman, writing for Time in 2012, bristles most loudly: “to say such books ‘transcend’ the genres they’re in is bollocks, of the most bollocky kind.”

Sometimes it’s the desire not to “transcend” that readers value. Gwendolyn Osborne in “The Legacy of Ghetto Pulp Fiction” documents the appeal of 1970s crime writers Donald Goines and Robert Beck —they’re “ghetto” in both senses—to middle class teens. By likening genres to “slums,” Chabon turns all mainstream readers into slumming tourists.

But even Chabon has trouble escaping the mixed metaphors of ghettoization. In “Ghetto Fabulist,” Financial Times reviewer Daniel Swift faults Chabon’s 2007 The Yiddish Policeman’s Union for not leaving its fantasy neighborhood. The hard-boiled detective novel is set in an alternate history in which the state of Israel is replaced by Sitka, a temporary Jewish ghetto in a district of Alaska, and so a world, writes Swift, that “can never be our world.  Sitka can only ever be a fantasy place, a Narnia, which means also that [the novel’s hero] can never participate in the distinctive tragedy that marks” the heroes of Chabon’s works of narrative realism.

The New York Post oddly accused the novelist of anti-Semitism, though in a lecture I attended at Washington and Lee University in 2008, Chabon linked his exploration of genre fiction with his Jewish identity. Perhaps it’s that dual transcendence that appealed to The Nation’s William Deresiewicz: “The book is so good not despite taking place in an imaginary world but because of it.” So like Senna, McBride, and Williams, Chabon enriches mainstream readers by exploring life on the genre line.

Unpacking the ghetto metaphor also releases the whiff of miscegenation behind the rhetoric. In his review for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cliff Froehlich calls Chabon’s novel “a beautiful marriage of high and low: a novel with a literary mind and a populist heart.” Substitute “high” with “WASP” and “low” with the ethnicity of your choice, and you’ll see why maybe ghetto isn’t such a great term to describe books.

The New Yorker‘s Joshua Rothman recently coined the term “genrefication” to describe the migration of “important novels” into genre. He’s punning on “gentrification,” which typically involves rich white people displacing poor black people. Erica Jong would like female residents to expand beyond their old neighborhood, but in order to enrich the rest of the city and without losing their identity. In her 2007 Publishers Weekly essay, “Ghetto (Not) Fabulous,” she laments “the chicklit ghetto” and longs “to see the talented new breed of American women writers . . . protest their ghettoization” and “celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it.” Such a celebration would not mean an escape from a gender ghetto to the universality of male readership but a remapping of the entire city.

I’m all for it. No more ghettos. This town needs a new metaphor.


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