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Lady Liberty is a Woman of Color

Making life as hard as possible for free African Americans, impairing their movement and economic prospects—even if that meant the state would forgo the economic benefits of talented people who wanted to work—was designed to prove that Blacks could not operate outside of slavery."

 

― Annette Gordon-Reed, "On Juneteenth"

 

 

Not only a woman of color, but a woman of many colors, mostly—or entirely—verdigris green at the moment, and forevermore, most probably. She arrived in New York Harbor from France  on June 17, 1885, just two decades after the end of the Civil War. Little did she know, from her optimistic vantage in the bay overlooking the first European settlements on the Lenape  Manahatta Island,  that we'd still be fighting that war today. What is she thinking of us as we enter this fraught election season?

 

She was bright brown copper when she was assembled on Liberty Island, intended to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution, "Liberty Enlightening the World."  How low we have fallen from those heady enlightenment days. Just for starters, the barbarity of the war in Ukraine is medieval, a primitive barbarity not that distant from a cave dweller ripping bone from the flesh of a boar.

 

It's difficult to imagine the sensation of relief and promise my family felt when they landed here as refugees and went through the humiliating rigamarole on Ellis Island before being admitted to what they considered a land of promise, peace, opportunity and plenty.  Escape from genocidal barbarity to freedom and light. That is how they must have experienced it, I've always said to myself. But this is not exactly what it was for them, at first. They were ragged, desperate, poor, frightened, distraught about the fate of family left behind. They had to learn English, find a place to live, study.  My stepfather, a  well-known lawyer in Vienna,  had to get a job in a factory to support medical care for his terminally ill wife. He never lawyered again. My mother and father were sent to Wyoming by the refugee agency. She worked as a nurse, and he worked as a "ghost doctor" in a hospital where he shared his ophthalmic surgical knowledge with the local staff. Eventually,  they migrated back to New York.

 

The population of New York City was diverse and it was segregated by race and class, which must have been difficult to decipher. Class they understood well from Vienna, a status conscious culture, a person's German accent inflected with high class or low class origins, as English is in Britain.  How would they rise to the status they expected of themselves in New York?  They'd been persecuted as Jews, but when they arrived in America, they were, suddenly, completely privileged. Yes, there was anti-Semitism, quotas at universities, a myriad of discriminatory policies, but they were, at least, undeniably White. That gave them an advantage they did not expect. They made the most of it. By the time my sister and I arrived we had Black maids in the house. And, of course, they were always "treated well," "respected," "part of the family,"  addressed only by their first names,  and the grateful recipients of hand-me-down clothes. When I was beaten up by a gang of Black girls in the public High School gym locker room, my parents knew the deal; it was time to send me to a nearly all-White private school, where I would be safe and assured of a fungible college degree, and a step-up onto the affluence train.

 

Now I live in a town in upstate New York, where slaves were owned by the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers and the extant stone houses were built by the settlers and the enslaved population in tandem, laboring side by side, owner and slave.  So why does this town have only a miniscule—mostly  transplanted—Black population, and no evident slave-descendant population, though descendants of the settlers are embedded in the culture, geography and real estate of the town?  Obviously, Lady Liberty was taking a nap while post-emancipation, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow and domestic terrorism raged.  She's finally awakened from her slumber and telling us it's time to vote. It's the very least we can do.

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A Writer Long Admired

photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022

 

 

I can do pretty good work in various short forms, but anything over 1400 words, I'd be of no use. I like to say I'm a river navigator. I need to see the shore behind the shore.

 

-Peter Schjeldahl

1942-2022

R.I.P.

 

 

When a writer friend mentioned that he'd met Peter Schjeldahl (pronounced  SHELL-dohl) at a party in Brooklyn, I was deeply envious. I had been writing about my father's Egon Schiele art collection, not just about the art, but so much more—life itself, family, how a writer translates what s/he sees into words. I didn't necessarily want to ask Peter Schjeldahl how to do it, I just wanted to be in the presence of a writer who thought of himself as an art lover more than an art critic. Maybe if we shared a physical space for a few moments, some of his skill would rub into me. I wondered if he used interesting, literary words in his spoken conversation. His columns often sent me to a dictionary, which I enjoyed.  

 

He wrote for Art in America, 7 Days, The Village Voice and, finally, The New Yorker. Scanning the table of contents of The New Yorker when it arrived, I'd be disappointed if his byline wasn't there. When the magazine re-ran his eloquent piece about dying from lung cancer this week, I knew he was near the end:  

 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/23/the-art-of-dying

 

The obituary in The New York Times revealed yet more about him: He wrote poetry before he wrote prose; he went to Carleton College, he considered himself a "miniaturist," writing pieces of a certain length, never anything book-length other than collected essays; he never knew what he was going to say about the art before he began to write. In the writing is the discovery, an artistic act in itself, and Peter Schjeldahl was an artist.

 

 

 

 

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Checking in on Peter Zalmayev in Kyiv

Peter Zalmayev sitting outside on a peaceful street over the summer. He took this screenshot as we were talking, music playing in the background. © photo copyright Peter Zalmayev 2022 with permission.

 

This is how my July 7 interview for HV1 with broadcaster Peter Zalmayev began:

 

9 a.m. EST, Thursday, July 7. Well known Ukrainian broadcaster, Peter Zalmayev, is talking to me on Zoom from a table outside the Sto Rokiv Tomu Vpered Café (translation: 100 Years in the Future) on Volodymyrska Street in Central Kyiv. He's sitting outside, it's summer, jazz is cascading out of the café, and scooters are parked on the curb. "In an ironic way there isn't a better place to be right now than Kyiv," he says.

 

Since then, I've been following Peter on Facebook, or he sends me texts on messenger with links to his latest interviews. Most are in Ukrainian or Russian. (He is tri-lingual.)  This week he did two interviews in English, one for the BBC World Service, and one for French television. So, he's alive, he's still broadcasting. Thank goodness. But the peaceful hiatus is over.

 

Always, an interviewer must ask, "How are you? How is your family?" Peter is living in a war zone and talking to him is not about ratings. Everyone who has interviewed him knows this, and respects it. He evacuated his family when the war started, brought them back over the summer, and has evacuated them again. His children used the playground in central Kyiv that was hit by a rocket and now has a huge crater. No one was hurt or killed in that particular location, at least. 

 

When asked directly about his family, Peter's reply is, "They are elsewhere." He is broadcasting again from a bunker, wearing what looks like a winter jacket and a baseball hat. It's cold down there as it will be throughout Ukraine this upcoming winter, cold in the metaphoric sense, too, without the end of war in sight.

 

It's difficult for those working and/or simply hoping every day for world peace and disarmament to think about more weapons and more lethal weapons for Ukraine, about the training of thousands of civilians to fight and kill, and the ever present threat of a nuclear cataclysm. But it's obvious, from where I sit, as a child of refugees from genocide, that Putin's war against Ukraine is a genocidal war—as it was against Chechnya—and  that he must be stopped, somehow. It took too long to stop Hitler, the genocide in Rwanda, Assad in Syria, to name just two other atrocities. Put your finger on the map of the world blindfolded and you will find continuing global escalations of cruelty and violence and war on every continent, including our own. Then stop and take a walk into a meadow or a forest. Talk to the cows, the porcupines, the chickens, the owls, the bees. All these creatures, and then some, are wiser than us.

 

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What We Save, What We Throw Away

Maybe, one day, when the hotel is sold yet again, a conservationist will restore the lobby to this, its original glory. 

 

What We Save, What We Throw Away

 

 

There's a story, maybe apocryphal, that back in its 1920s heyday the manager of The Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street in New York City offered struggling writers discounts on lunch and was the only hotel in the city to allow women to stay there alone. Even in my more recent personal heyday, the management of the hotel welcomed writers and book lovers into the plush, comfortable lobby to sit and talk without disturbance other than the occasional visitation from one of the friendly wait staff hustling drinks or items from the too-expensive menu, which I always declined with ease, no pressure. Ease, in fact, is the word I most associate with The Algonquin lobby. In its history, embedded in every dark oak wood panel, the extant Round Table at the back, and a Hirschfeld mural of the Round Table revelers on the wall behind it, was the promise of success, if not notoriety.

 

The hotel, opened in 1902, its exterior landmarked in 1987—not its interior, alas—has been sold and resold several times, renovated several times, but always in the spirit of the original lobby with its famous round table, carpeting, oak paneling, and soft lighting. I went there often before I moved upstate in 2018, to meet colleagues and friends, or to sit and read if I was early for a mid-town appointment, or before I taught an NYU class in an art deco building on 42nd Street overlooking the New York Public Library.  

 

Last week, I went back for the first time since the pandemic began. Like so much else since Covid, the once familiar space felt alien, as though it was floating in another dimension. I was with my cousin, Karin, who needed to use the facilities before heading back uptown to Washington Heights, and as soon as we entered, I was greeted by four wait-staff from Bangladesh who have been working for the hotel for at least as long as I have been going there. They laughed and laughed, as happy to see me as I was to see them. We had all survived Covid thus far, and the fact that they were still working under new management was a miracle. I hadn't yet looked around the lobby, so focused was I on the celebratory greetings.

 

Karin sat on a low chair to rest before heading uptown, and a text came in from my friend, MacKay, to say he was a block away. I still hadn't noticed the new décor. At what moment I saw it, actually took it in, I cannot say. Maybe MacKay noticed it first. As soon as Karin left, we perused the changes: the floor stripped down to concrete, the plush couches, chairs and small tables replaced with plastic couches, chairs and tables, and when I asked about the big roundtable itself, I was escorted to the back where there was a small child-sized replica. And that was it. The Algonquin Round-Table was gone. So, too, the warm oak wood paneling which has been painted over in white.

 

Marriott is the newest owner of the hotel, which is now part of their "autograph collection," an ironic title I'd say, as they have expunged the literary history of the hotel, no writers I could see, except for myself, were there ready and willing to sign an autograph in the flyleaf of a recently published book. Contemporary reports of the lobby's gutting and $4.5 million renovation suggest various "artifacts," such as real books by famous Round-Table writers, placed on shelving somewhere, but there was no there there that I could see.

 

It seems that Sara Duffy of the design firm Stonehill Taylor is responsible for this historic lobby's desecration. In an April 5, 2022 article in Interior Design by Stephen Treffinger, she says, "We took all these ideas and looked at them in subtle ways, never kitschy." She mentions the obliteration of the oak paneling with white paint casually, perhaps with pride, I'm not sure. Apparently she's an established designer with a secure reputation and a lot of high-paying corporate clients. Corporate "hostile" takeover? That explains it.

 

Despite this unexpected disappointment, MacKay and I sat down to chat and share a pot of chamomile tea, and that was all we had. Insult to injury, the bill came in at $25.

 

 

 

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