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 Differences

 

Two of the feature articles in this issue shed light on the problematic business of sharing space—a street corner or a country—with others.
        Toward the end of his essay, “No Other Life,” Gerald Early C’74 quotes the line from the song “Downtown,” which topped the pop music charts in the winter of 1964-65, about finding “someone who is just like you” and continues: “But what the song suggested was that the accident of finding someone like yourself could not be predicated merely by a similarity of appearance. For if it were outer appearance that truly mattered, only the most tribal similarities, why leave the neighborhood?”
        Early is the author or editor of books on sports, music, African-American culture and other topics, and was profiled some years back in the Gazette [“The Early Bird,” November 1995]. This is the first piece written by him in the magazine, however, and we’re delighted to have it. The essay is a rich and nuanced memoir of his boyhood in the 1950s-1960s, growing up black in South Philadelphia’s “Little Italy.” This is a bit of a misnomer—Early notes that blacks had actually been living in the area longer than the Italians—but in his immediate neighborhood there were at first few, and then no, other black families.
        He recalls how he shared the Italians’ grief at the death of neighborhood icon Mario Lanza—and his bafflement at the lack of reaction from other blacks. He also tells the story of another local boy made good, Ernest Evans, who, renamed Chubby Checker, was for awhile “the personification of integration,” beloved by black and white teens alike, who made it seem natural for them to mix—until he forfeited his status as a “raceless black man” by marrying a white woman.
        Early’s rare dual perspective grew out of his mother’s longtime job as a crossing guard for the all-Italian St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi School; the Italians in the neighborhood, though clearly racist, encouraged the bookish young Jerry to “make something” of himself. “I don’t mean to say that I did not have some unpleasant moments with the Italians,” he writes, “but they were very few and did not bother me much, not because I did not take these racist moments seriously but because I had seen them in other guises and understood, or at least could fully sense, the remarkable complexity of their humanity.”
        This passage came back to me forcefully as I was reading our cover story, “Blood Feuds,” on the Merriam Symposium, a conference sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences last fall that examined the roots and some possible solutions to the world’s ethnopolitical conflicts. The kind of understanding Early writes of doesn’t excuse or forgive, but it does make it harder to hate purely. Its opposite—the willful ignoring or outright denial of the humanity of others—seems to lie at the heart of the battles currently raging among groups who have come to define themselves, or to be defined, by only those “most tribal similarities.”
        “The Challenge of Ethnopolitical Conflict: Can the World Cope?” was funded by the late John Merriam W’31 and included panels on the conflicts over Jerusalem, Kosovo, Kashmir and Rwanda. These were preceded by a more general discussion of the causes of such conflicts and followed by a session that focused on peace-making efforts. While there were some glimmers of optimism among the panelists, for the most part the consensus appeared to be that no, the world cannot cope—or at least is not coping—and the likeliest prospect, as one panelist said of the situation in Kosovo, is for “very difficult and troubling” times ahead.
        Perhaps that vision of a union with like-minded others is always equivocal. Continuing his discussion of the song “Downtown,” Early quotes a specialist in African culture who told him that it led many rural people in Tanzania to leave their farms and move to the city, “much to their own economic disadvantage, as it turned out.”

—John Prendergast C’80


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