Monday, October 12, 2020

Cultural Exchange: When It's Good, It's Good, and One of the Small Joys of Diversity




            My one significant contribution to the U.S. Bicentennial celebration was a speech I gave on 19 May 1976 on "Revolutionary republicanism (with a small 'r')." Vaguely relevant here — I'm sneaking up on my topic — I started out with a small joke on how I was basically a Chicagoan and how most Chicagoans rejected elitist ideas on expertise and didn't allow our ignorance to getting in the way of shooting off our mouths … and that I was going to shoot my mouth off for them on properly appreciating how revolutionary our Revolution was by looking at some of the more memorable parts of the Declaration of Independence not from our present looking back but from earlier times, so to speak, coming to the Declaration with more Medieval and Renaissance ideas. So I tried to lead them through an exercise in imagination coming to what to us are well-worn clichés, to hear them with ears that had been brought up not on ideas of liberty and equality and human rights but on "An Exhortation concerning good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates" and human society as part of a universal Great Chain of Being, and solidly hierarchical.

            The speech went well, or at least I didn't embarrass myself that I noticed; still I was nervous about speaking in public on an issue about which I knew more than your average Ph.D. and assistant professor but still not a lot. I've been even more hesitant about posting on the web comments on race and/or ethnicity, since at least one of my former colleagues and Facebook friends is a regional if not world-class expert on such matters.

            I'll go this far, though, with somethings (sic) positive and relatively personal stemming from what was called in my lifetime "race mixing" and we can see as part of diversity and not cultural appropriation but more useful cultural exchange. (We also exchange diseases: useful for the pathogens; not so good for us.


            (1) A few days ago I got out of the house and shopped at the Port Hueneme, CA, Ralph's — that's Kroger's in the U.S. West — and treated myself at Manhattan Bagel. I had a classic bagel and lox, with cream cheese, tomato and onion and (increasingly common) some capers, and, my addition, a leaf of lettuce. I chose a dried-tomato bagel and had it toasted. It was a perfectly-made lox and bagel, with my only objections the labelling: the objections of a Chicagoan with relatives and friends in the Bronx and Brooklyn, who doesn't think of bagels as particularly Manhattan. But more-so Manhattan than Port Hueneme; from our on-line demographics: "The largest Port Hueneme racial/ethnic groups are Hispanic (59.4%) followed by White (26.1%) and Asian (5.8%)." We don't do Jews much in Port Hueneme, and I was the only Ashkenazi in sight.

            That most-excellent lox and bagel was made by the local Manhattan Bagel manager, who is Asian, giving instruction to a new employee, who is "Hispanic," i.e., in this part of California, Mexican-American.

            Also: Max Morenberg, the senior linguist at the time at Miami University (Oxford, OH), told me that "lox" just might be the oldest word in English, going back through Germanic to Indo-European — and one Wikipedia entry has it, even Proto-Indo-European. And like chop suey, bagels-and-lox as a combination is American (from New York City).




            (2) Before they got down to more earnest analysis of the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, a couple of women commentators commented on one facial expression Harris directed toward Pence, with the Black woman of the pair saying that anyone who'd dealt with — or, maybe better, been dealt with by — a Black mother knew what that look meant. And they chuckled and ended the segment with the one word, "Momala."

            "Momala": Our Indian/Jamaican-Black/African-American potential future VP and then U.S. President, going by a kinda-Yiddish honorific from her step-kids. My grandparents' generation might've joyously said, "Only in America," and their kids and grandkids would've smiled at them condescendingly. So, okay, not just in America, but it's happening here, and the alte Kakers had a point. 



            (3) During the very later 1960s through 1970, I was a member of the Board of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And one day a grad student dropped by the office to introduce himself as new on campus but, even so, a member of the Board of the U of I Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA).

            This was not this guy's first rodeo as they say, so we got past the niceties quickly and actually got a little work done on the one bit of negotiation required each year between the two groups: how much of the GSA appropriation we'd sub-appropriate to the BGSA. We got in some of the posturing and bullshit required at least among males, and generally enjoyed the sparring until he had to leave for another stop.

            On the way out, he had a definitely non-business question he thought I could answer. "What's this word 'schmuck' I keep hearing around here?" I told him it literally meant "penis," but the usual use was figurative. "Like calling someone a prick?" he asked. And I said, "Maybe; it'd depend upon the context and tone of voice. But 'schmuck' can be used almost affectionately — like calling someone 'poor, dumb schmuck.' If it's out-and-out prick, you'd probably use 'putz.'" He thought that handy, and we agreed that parents would be thrilled about how useful attendance at a major university could be for enlarging and sharpening vocabulary.


            (3a) I've been thinking about that adoption of "schmuck" by colleagues at the U of I who came from subcultures at the cutting edge of competitive invective.

            Specifically I've been wondering whether or not I should feel guilty of cultural appropriation in adding to my vocabulary a word I was looking for: a non-sexist, unisex, term of abuse that hadn’t been over-used and drained of venom the way "asshole" had been. I found it in pendejo: literally "pubic hair" but with a rich history bringing with it implications of immature punk-hood, ignorance, stupidity, and, well, asshole-etry. Plus, apparently with the possibility of being used affectionately or with different meanings in different varieties of Spanish (though none exactly a compliment).

            I've decided not to feel guilty.

            My people gave the world schmuck and putz (and in the New York City incarnation the combination of bagels and lox); I can appropriate pendejo.


* * *

            In a summer job working with Black Chicagoans at Illinois Public Health, I also got introduced to "Willy" stories, and one cartoon, primarily by a colleague who described herself as "a respectable Black widow-woman" — and told people to eat more slowly and sit up straight — and I inadvertently cracked up the lunch group by asking if anyone had ever told her she'd make a fine Jewish Mother. "Yeah — the Jew who had your job last summer!" But that's for another blog post.

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