Well, the black man’s college is prison. It’s a sad fact in America, but it is true. So many young and not-so-young black men have to spend time in prison for a variety of reasons, not all of which I understand. Socrates is educating his community, but at the same time he’s educating himself. I call him Socrates for a good reason: He is in for the dialogue. There are a lot of things he doesn’t understand, and he wants to bring people together around these ideas. So he has a social conscience, but it’s a conscience around ideas, like a real philosopher. That was my intention, to create a black philosopher. To show how difficult it is to make decisions in everyday life in impoverished America. No one’s going to help you, because you don’t have any money, you don’t have any power, you don’t have any standing. And this is Socrates’ job. He says, “I want to find out what’s the right thing for us to do and live our lives.”
Older men have a wonderful voice in your books. How is it that your elders know what they know?
What I’m trying to talk about, and to give validity to, is the deep thinking inside the poor communities in America. People who have to figure out life, you know? They have to figure out what’s happened, what’s going to happen. How can we make it from this step to this step to this step? And of course, there’s so much youth culture in America, and there are so many movies and videos about it, and even a lot of novels about the problems of young people and how they figure out things. But there’s not that much difference between the young people and the old people; it’s just that the old people have a lot of experience and know what they’ve done, what they’ve gone through. I remember these [older] voices, these incredibly wonderful, powerful people who helped me to understand the life around me. And I know that these people have been kind of relegated to — well, you know, he’s a poor black man, he doesn’t really understand, he doesn’t this, he doesn’t that. Even Fanny in Fearless Jones, the older Jewish woman who takes in Fearless and Paris. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that an old white Jewish woman can have convictions, can have will, and can live by those convictions and will.
Who doesn’t understand that?
Some reviewers say, “An old white woman would never take in these two black people!” But if she came from poverty, from Europe, from ghettos and from being oppressed by being a different race, and these two men saved her husband’s life, what else could she do?
Now, Fanny is half of the couple, the Tannenbaums, who’ve come from Germany. And what informs at least Fanny’s willingness to deal is the fact that all of her possessions, everything, her memories, have been taken by the Nazis. It seems to me that all immigrant populations, as soon as they are taken from one place to another, the question of what a person’s right is to his own past becomes real. And so blacks and Jews becomes a subject inFearless Jones. When I was growing up, people used to say you’re lucky to be Jewish and come from that tradition of books. I didn’t come from wealth, but I came from learning. InFearless Jones, the first thing Paris wants to do with the little bit of money he has is open a used bookstore in Watts. So they are all people of the book in a sense.
Sure. My mother is Jewish, and there’s that notion about, well, that’s why you read books. And I try to explain: My father read all the time, and whenever we’d have a problem, my father would say, “Well, let’s go look that up and see what we can find.” Of course, that’s why I read. I mean, I read partially because of my mother, but you know, really, I was a young man, a boy, so I was looking at my father to know what I should be in the world, and that was his reading. Now, somebody would probably be right [to say] that you have a stronger and older tradition of education in the Jewish community, you’ve got 3,000 years of that. But to say that it absolutely doesn’t exist in the black community is kind of crazy.
I didn’t know your mother was Jewish. What was it like for you to be growing up with those two cultures?
For me it didn’t feel like two cultures. It was my mother and my father, and it was kind of a wonderful thing, because I had two families that reflected each other almost perfectly. They both came from poor communities, they all had an oral tradition, so you’d get around on Friday or Saturday nights and tell what it was like. And you’re telling terrible stories about terrible things happening to people, but you’re laughing. It was very funny — “Oh, and √§ then he got away, they were shooting at him, and he only lost a toe!” That kind of thing. So it was kind of wonderful.