Barbara Beckwith Writer and Activist Sat, 09 Sep 2017 18:25:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 My review of The Beiging of America Wed, 30 Aug 2017 16:48:36 +0000 In my local cafe the other day, I watched a customer order a coffee and then boldly put in a second order. ”What are you?” he quizzed the server. “Black and Cambodian” she replied, handing over his latte without visible flinching. But who knows how she felt about “The Question” that the contributors to The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century constantly face?

The 40 narrators recall schoolyard taunts (“you look like burnt toast!”), jokes (“If you mama was white and your daddy a Negro, you’d look like a zebra!”), challenges (“If there were a race war, what side would you be on?”), and compliments like “exotic” that don’t feel complimentary (“the word stuck like a burr in my mind”).

Early on, they learned who would or would not protect them. Nadine Knight was forced to stand up in 8th grade biology class so that the entire class could observe her “negroid nose.” Timeka Drew was asked, when she was just a first grader, why her white mother was “a nigger lover.” She ran to a white mother, who comforted her with a hug but didn’t report the insult to a teacher or the principal. So she learned at age five, “I was not safe. I knew I would never be safe in a space run by a white person. Race seemed to be a game I could not win. I was constantly on guard, wondering how others saw me.”

Most painful for a person who can “pass as white” is that, as contributor Carly Bates writes, “You are the product of interracial love, and every day you are witness to interracial hate.” Charles Snyder writes that “Because I look ambiguous, I got a keen insight on how white people view black people in our country, and also experienced black neighborhoods that viewed anything white as enemy, evil or a system of oppression.”

Words can hurt and words can help. As Jackson Bliss writes: “Until there’s a word for you, coined by people like you, it’s like you don’t exist in the world. In a very literal sense, you need language to sanctify your struggle. It wasn’t until I discovered words like happa [Hawaiian pidgin for mixed race], multiracial, and Nikkejin [people of the Japanese diaspora] much later on in my life that I felt real in an existential sense.” Carlos Adams takes on an identity similar to “gender fluidity”: “I am not biracial because I’m trying to balance two competing selves. Nor am I mixed race because I’m trying to heal the split between two opposing sides. I am interracial, trying to understand the fluidity of my identities.” Anthology co-editor Sean Frederick Forbes has at different times in his life identified as Latino, Colombian, Black/Afro-Caribbean, and now Afro-Latino, even though he says “Afro-Latinx-Anglo-Scot” would more accurately describe his multi-diaspora heritage.

And Jewel Love now embraces both lifestyles that come with her mixed race heritage: “Forever I will have a sense of the calmness presented at our white grandparents’ house and the fun of my Black grandma’s home. “Both pieces add to my personality: boisterous and stoic, formal and loving, boundaried and eclectic.”

As the number of biracial/multi-racial individuals continues to grow, Abra Mims is hopeful: “We will become a more visible part of the population, and that it will become easier for us to be our whole selves, completely seen, in whatever ways we identify.”

The server in the coffee shop may have been okay with her curious customer’s double order of latte and racial identification, but I wish that white customer had read this anthology, and heeded Diane Tsuchida’s advice: “No one will write a handbook telling you the correct questions to ask when you’re curious about someone’s racial background.  So perhaps the key to your curiosity is to silence it.”

Honoring Black women activists Mon, 16 Jan 2017 20:46:07 +0000 On Martin Luther King Jr Day, I want to honor these young Black women:

  • 3 young women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors (two are queer), who started #Black Lives Matter, launching the BLM movement
  • 2 young women leading Black Lives Matter in Boston and in Cambridge – Stephanie Guirand and DiDi Delgado
  • 2 students, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau whose video is changing Boston Latin School
  • 2 Black high schoolers (and 2 white men) who chained themselves to the Cambridge City Hall front door to insist on expanded affordable housing
  • Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, a bi-racial man, who knelt during the National Anthem to support Black Lives Matter’s protests, and those that followed, including high school athletes
  • Shay Stewart-Bouley, who leads Community Change Inc
  • Bree Newsome, who responded to white supremacist David Root’s slaughter of 9 Black worshippers at a prayer service, by scaling the 30-foot flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse to take down the Confederate  flag – the flag was permanently removed the next month
Democracy is taking a pause Mon, 09 Jan 2017 00:41:40 +0000 “Democracy is taking a pause but is not dead yet. We need to reflect on where it should go so it can continue to grow.”  – John L. Hodge, author of How We Are Our Enemy – and How to Stop, and Overcoming the Lie of “Race”

Recent essays and blog posts Mon, 08 Aug 2016 16:05:53 +0000 Read some of my 2016 essays at
Blog post:

Faux Pas Sat, 23 Jan 2016 15:47:24 +0000 My husband and I visit France often. We stay with French friend, read French newspapers, and in between visits, stay au courant via French TVs. We adopt, while in France, that smooth gait that the French develop from years of constant perusal by cafe-goers.

Still, we stumble, linguistically, each time we visit.

On a recent trip on bicycles in the Midi-Pyrennees, we pedaled up to a crossroads in the town of Lauzerte, just as a young boy on a bike approached the same intersection. Jon gave him a magnanimous wave to go first. Jon’s words, however, inadvertently conveyed the opposite message. Instead saying of “Vas y” (go ahead), Jon called out “Va t’en” – telling the boy to scram. The boy rushed off in tears.

Our pronunciation is part of the problem: Jon’s, at least, is so good that people assume he’s a native and that his word choice is deliberate. Each faux pas, each “tu” instead of “vous” to address a stranger, is taken as rudeness. On another bike trip, Jon stopped to buy salve to treat painful chafing, the result of too many hours on a too-narrow bike seat. Since his problem was of the diaper rash sort, he asked, with an impressively nasal final syllable, for “Desitin.” The pharmacist gave him a blank look. So Jon tried to explain that it was used for babies: “pour un bebe avec une probleme de la cul” which literally translated means, “for a baby’s problem with his ass.” The shocked pharmacist responded sharply: “Non, monsieur! On dit les fesses!” – the proper word for bottom. Jon had used language more appropriate to pornography. We hoped they assumed we’d just been reading Balzac.

If his authentic accent gets Jon into trouble, my use of esoteric words backfires, as well. At an elegant restaurant in a castle that was once the residence of the Marquis du Rochegude, I told the waiter that I’d like to check the bouquet of my husband’s wine before ordering my own. To do so, I used a verb – flairer – that I’d recently found in an advanced French vocabulary list. Unfortunately, that verb applies not to a connoisseur’s delicate sniff, but to the snort of a horse. The waiter reared back, then corrected me — sentir is the word I should have used. We left a large tip.

Most often I trip up over words that sound the same but aren’t: cognates. Recently, while being driven around by new acquaintances to see the churches of Mende, I tried to start a conversation about religion by asking the fashionably dressed woman next to me: “Etes vous religieuse?” Her eyebrows shot up, her mouth blew out a “bouf.” “Ah, but I am Jewish – how could I be?”

To my embarrassment (“croyante” was the word I should have used), I’d just asked her if she were a nun.

]]> Sun, 11 Oct 2015 17:25:23 +0000 Everyday Racism: Questions & Quandaries – 3rd in What Was I Thinking? essay series (2015)

Table of Contents

Who’s Beautiful? Who’s Not? Who is attractive? And who decides? A news article about “jolie laide” still grates on me.

What’s Behind the Power of a Stare? When is a “long look” okay, simply rude, or even racist?

Why Read Slave Narratives? My students borrow my racism-related books, but never select a slave narrative. Why?

In the Face of Resistance: A Lay Facilitator’s Experience: What to do when students in my anti-racism class resist its basic premise?

It’s My Job, Not His, to Counter Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: My husband, who is Jewish, doesn’t fret over lingering prejudices, while I need to unravel each one.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves About the People Who Came Before Us: I heard one family story growing up, then discovered a truer story.

Is Racism Too Entrenched to Be Defeated? Can we end racism? If not, should we keep trying?

Racial Justice Books Worth Reading: Here’s Why: These eighteen books are about looking at our lives through the lens of race, examining deeper dimensions of racial justice pioneers, getting our facts straight, learning from collective experiences, and imagining lives through fiction.

My Review of Books I read on our Aug 2015 Reading Weekend, Great Barrington, MA Tue, 08 Sep 2015 23:57:13 +0000


The Meursault Investigation, by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud (The Other Press, 2015; first published in 2014 in France). Stunningly told in the 2nd person, from the perspective of Musa, the brother of “the Arab” killed by Meursault in Camus’ novel L’Etranger. Musa  talks to whoever will listen in a bar, Ancient Mariner-like. He is haunted by what he sees as the acclaimed French Algerian author’s  ignoring the humanity, even the name, of the man he killed for no reason.  The reviews I read after our reading weekend talk of Daoud’s “revenge” plot but ignore (except for Irish Times) what I saw: the confusing conflation of Camus as author and Camus ‘s character Meursault.

I saw it as a brilliant recreation in Musa of the same anomie as Meursault; the same existentialist view, the same godlessness, inability to act, and unjustified killing. The “voice” is compelling: it makes me want to read more novels written in the 2nd person. I am reading Daoud again, and L’Etranger, as well, and have ordered Camus’ autobiography Le Premier Homme (but in English).

Narrative Non-fiction:

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe (Scribner, 2009). I finished this book I’d been reading at home. The author follows four talented and smart girls through high school, focusing on their struggle to go to college and get professional jobs. The book makes clear that the two “without papers” are hampered and hemmed in at every turn, while the two who “have papers” face challenges as well, including to their friendships.  The girls’ struggles to fulfil their potential seem heroic to me.


Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, & Other Fieldwork, by Gail Pool (University of Missouri Press, 2015). Loved this book, which appears to be but is more than an account of an anthropological expedition, more than a travel book, more than a memoir. I can relate to Gail, a woman who “follows her husband” Jeremy as I did when Jon  worked in labs abroad (London and Cambridge, Paris and Naples). Jeremy wants to study gender roles among New Guinea’s Baining, a little studied group, but his expectations of the studiable aspects of their lives prove elusive: they don’t seem to have gender roles, myths, rituals, religions. Gail slogs with him through the jungle, then struggles with what to do when they get there. They argue. They cope. After 16 months, they return to the U.S. Disillusioned, Jeremy abandons anthropology, goes in to computer work. Gail has children and struggles as a writer, haunted by her experience in her 20s but unable to put it into a novel. In 2008,  Jeremy is invited to New Guinea for a conference. They take an even more onerous (they are now in their 60s) boat/jeep/walk back to the Baining, which gives Gail enough perspective to write this book. Pool writes in the first person, which adds immediacy to her story. She ends with this reflection:

“What a mark these quiet people made on our lives. How they awed and angered and frightened us with how little they seemed to need, threatening everything we thought, even thinking itself. There was a before and after the Baining, and after, nothing felt the same. There we are at the end of our field trip, running in fear and anger from what the Baining seemed to have revealed about life and ourselves….We can’t change the past, but we have given it a different ending, which has changed the story itself. We are no longer afraid, we are no longer angry, and we are no longer running. We see no need for judgments – one culture against another – and no choice between them that we ever could have made. From here, we no longer blame the Baining for not being who anthropologists thought they should be. And from here, we no longer blame this journey for leaving us in exile, which now feels like a place of our own. We aren’t Baining. We have never quite come home. But our battles – with the Baining and one another – have ended. And somehow everyone has won.”

The Theft of Memory: On Losing My Father, One Day at a Time, by Jonathan Kozol (Crown, 2105). Kozol describes his parents’ later years (they live to be 102), as his mother becomes frail and his father, a former neurologist,  struggles to communicate despite Alzheimers, often writing in the form of doctor’s memos.

“Repair repetitions. Hope: Advise and continue treatment plan. Hope: in catastrophe. Legs: Recovery. Continued recent status of. Note: Loss of Certain Figures. List: History of HLK poses a number of several histories and multiple fine retardants.”

Kozol’s father reveals, at age 88, his cognitive problems to his son but doesn’t let his wife know until long after. A broken hip sends him to a nursing home, where he stays for 6 years, after which Kozol,  who’d for years been largely absent, writing and traveling extensively, moves his father back into his parents’ Cambridge home, to be cared for 24/7 by a series of wonderful caretakers (well, one not wonderful). When $ for caregivers ran out, Kozol makes up the difference. Kozol discovers as he looks through his father’s papers, that his patients included Eugene ONeil and that he’d evaluated Albert DeSalvo (The Boston Strangler) and Patty Hearst. He ponders his relationship with his parents over the decades, and, ever the institutional critic, describes the bad care his father got from his geriatrician (and at MGH).

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 2105). Coates writes this book to his teenaged son; it’s as fiery and eloquent as James Baldwin.

[On school] “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.”

It began to strike me that the point of my education, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.

For “people who think they are white” [Coates uses this identifier throughout his memoir], forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them the suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down hear with us, down here in the world.

My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

Perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.

Forgiving the killer of Prince Jones [young black man killed by Virginia police officer who claimed Prince had tried to run him over with his jeep] would have seemed irrelevant to me. The killer was the direct expression of all his countries beliefs.

I knew that Prince George County police had killed Elmer Clay Newman, then claimed he’d rammed his own head into the wall of a jail cell. And I knew that they’d shot Gary Hopkins and said he’d gone for an officer’s gun. And I knew they had beaten Freddie McCollum half-blind and blamed it all on a collapsing floor. And I had read reports of these officers choking mechanics, shooting construction workers, slamming suspects through the glass doors of shopping malls. And I knew that they did this with great regularity. These shooters were investigated, exonerated, and promptly returned to the streets, where, so emboldened, they shot again.

Our current politics tell you that should you fall victim to such an assault and lose our body, it must somehow be your fault. Trayvon Martin’s hoodie got him killed. Jordan Davis’s loud music did the same. John Crawford should never have touched the rifle on display. Kajieme Powell should have known not to be crazy. All of them should have had fathers—even the ones who had fathers, even you.

Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra – “either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all – the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that American made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.

I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers  the way the light falls in one particular spot in the wood, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite seasons who excels at dressmaking and knows, insider herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear – even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God, and Real Estate in a Small Town, by Sarah Payne Stuart (Riverhead, 2015).  I had started this book and read the last half this weekend. Stuart’s sardonic and overgeneralized view of WASPy Concord, MA, verges toward the snarky, although she mocks herself as much as she mocks what she sees as the town’s pervasive WASP/Pilgrim mores, and her parents’ enthusiastic collusion with them. Her memoir starts:

If you come from New England, the creeping certainty that you are a bad person is always with you.

I had been taught as a child not to want things – as my mother and the Concord matriarchs would call anything new and unnecessary.

We were not a present-y family – our discomfort tracing back to the Puritans who made a point – though what point I do not know – of treating Christmas like an ordinary day.

I might have welcomed the Indians attacking, so guilty was I about my bragging. l “Materialistic, mercenary, “house-proud” – the damning adjectives of my parents’ generation ran accusingly through my brain.

And yet she kept buying houses (a photo of each starts each chapter), repeating the failings she sees in her town and family:

My identity has been a poor one – based on a silly family pride that has not deserved itself for many generations, on raising my children in houses we can’t afford, on having my parents at hand to monitor my successes and failures.

He too [her husband] had been weaned from milk bottle to gin bottle on the icy Calvinistic belief that you were either good or bad, with no recourse to the comfort of priest or confessional.

One frosty morning, a brigade of ferociously frill-less women in L. L. Bean coats descended upon us. These were the women of the Concord Historic Districts Commission and just about every other commission in town (on the census they list their occupations, terrifyingly, as: volunteer). … Suddenly we doubted ourselves: why were we spending money on our house instead of saving it? Why, for that matter, had we never saved anything? These women had saved throughout their entire lives – they were saving now. They carpooled to get here; they don’t touch the guest towels in my powder room, but emerge shaking their hands dry. They’ve saved on clothes, on face creams, on Scotch tape, on Christmas presents, on wrapping paper, on demonstrations of affection.

I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor, frugal, extravagant, or generous. I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.

Stuart weaves in Concord’s famous authors Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and especially Louisa May Alcott and the reality of the beleaguered author of Little Women: “As much as I delight in hating Bronson Alcott, the sad truth is, when it comes to houses and the deeply shallow joy we take from them – we are one.”

She mocks her own family:

Somehow it was my mother who was always the center of our disdain. My mother whom I aped doing the jerk or the twist at a jazz party, churning up and down like a corkscrew with gritted teeth; my mother, whom we laughed at, manufacturing chores for us that would have been easier for her to do herself; my mother who, we laughed, stupidly trusted me with my pot-smoking brothers at the house when she and my father were away for a weekend.

A professional photographer had been engaged at hideous expense to take a hideous photograph to be hideously framed or each member of the family – only three years hence to be tossed in attics due to sundry uncoupling.

She recounts, in her persistent sardonic tone, the mental problems of her mother, her brother, and her son. And yet I do admire snarky sentences of the kind I would never think to write, like this, describing what’s in her deceased mother-in-laws’ dresser drawer —  “a writhing snake pit of old panty hose.”

And her description of her own self-pride and downfall upon publication of her first book :

I sauntered around town, modestly smiling at everyone….. when[the esteemed Concord matriarch] addressed me [in the supermarket], not by my childhood nickname, but at last, at last (!) by my writing name – “Sarah Payne Stuart!” – I had whirled around aglow, only to hear her exclaim, “You have my cart.”

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin, 2105). NYT columnist describes being raised in Louisiana in poverty by a mother (his father was mostly absent) who raised five boys, eventually earning degrees that allowed her to support them. Blow fantasized about boys; but could never say so; the worst thing a black kid could be called was a “punk” (gay). He was traumatized and further silenced when his mother berated him for his walk, when his older cousin abused him and then threatened to say he was a punk, when an uncle groped him. All this made him feel that HE was wrong, not those who had wronged him. He became known for his athletic and intellectual brilliance, and at his historically black college, joined a fraternity after torturous hazing that the then allowed to continue when he became the frat’s president. By the end of his memoir, he is married with kids, and comfortable as a bisexual.

Thanks for visiting my blog Sun, 26 Jul 2015 21:14:28 +0000 Welcome to my blog, which I use as a website, not for daily blog entries, which are not my style. I prefer conversation in person or via the printed word. Everyday Racism: Questions & Quandaries, my third collection of personal essays pondering everyday racism (including my own) is now in print. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books will distribute it starting this fall. Check out for their full list of books including my two earlier booklets in what has turned into a What Was I Thinking? series. Or contact me at (

URLs for my Writing Process Blog Tour Mon, 26 May 2014 15:49:07 +0000,,,,,

Lillian’s Last Affair – book review Sun, 25 May 2014 14:15:35 +0000 The characters in Sue Katz’ Lillian’s Last Affair and Other Stories, may be 65+ in age, but after reading these six stories (, you’ll never again assume that you know what a “little old lady” is thinking or doing. These fictional characters face challenges anyone may encounter, from gold-digging lotharios to neighbors who block shared hallways, plus challenges that mostly come with age: ingrown toenails, chemo, widowhood, arthritis, Meals on Wheels, and grandchildren you’re expected to devote yourself to, but which one character sees “small people trying to climb up and colonize her.” Katz’s characters are also always aware of class: from how easy it can be for a rich woman to divorce a boring husband, to sympathy for the tough job of a driver given a lousy van to transport seniors. These women aren’t simple-minded: as one says, “Life never gives you a chance to feel one pure emotion at a time.” One character’s annoyance at her partner’s habits vies with distaste or her own petty irritation. They may say “please” but think fuck you” when those in power patronize or ignore them. They value honesty (“there was plenty of chatter, mind you, just no candor”) and are not above engaging in power games. They also often encounter unexpected lust: one gets “shivery and hot” at a mere pat on the hand. Being from a generation that rarely talk about experiences involving their “privates,” they can be surprised by who and what turns them on. The six stories manage to cover a variety of sexual proclivities, and the sexual scenes are wonderfully elliptical (“he zeroed straight to the most sensitive crevices”) Sue Katz, as a seniors dance and exercise teacher, knows what seniors are capable of, and lets it all hang out in these six delicious stories.