Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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My Jewish Mother and her Beautiful Black Blood
Last uploaded : Tuesday 15th Apr 2014 at 23:38
Contributed by : Carol Gould



Sixty years ago my mother went into labour. Unluckily for her it was Erev Shabbat and Kol Nidre night, the holiest Jewish observance of the year. As virtually all of the obstetricians in Philadelphia were Jewish -- even the most secular would have been in synagogue -- a retiree was brought in to deliver me. The good doctor had been enjoying a quiet Friday night at home with drink after drink; it was said that the delivery room reeked of liquor from his breath.

I was delivered with great difficulty as Mum was thirty-nine. Nine days later on September 28th my mother suffered an horrific haemorrhage at home. By the time she arrived at A&E she was, for all intents and purposes, clinically dead. Her blood pressure was nearing zero over zero. Nowadays one would imagine her organs, with my father’s consent, would have been removed for transplants. What had happened? Evidently the thoroughly inebriated retiree had forgotten to remove the placenta.

An alert was put out on Philadelphia radio stations that a ‘young mother of a newborn’ needed rare ORH Negative blood transfusions or she would die, and would anyone with this blood type please report to the hospital without delay?

Immediately a number of African Americans came to the hospital and their blood saved my mother’s life. Her recovery from the ordeal was long and arduous but I am forever grateful to those donors that I was able to know her ; until the day she died in 1989 she referred to September 28th 1953 as her ‘second birthday.’ Although she was fair and blue eyed she had always had thick African hair and liked to point out that she now had ‘100% African American blood.’

In the 1930s my mother had been a tireless worker for the Department of Public Assistance in Philadelphia, toiling alongside the African American man she wanted to marry, Harry Jackson. They were case workers who visited families drowning in hideous poverty. She admonished the local butchers who sold the welfare recipients maggoty meat, who in turn told her ‘It don’t matter -- they won’t know the difference, they’re animals.’ She and Harry never married but she never forgot him.

During World War II she served in the United States Women’s Army Corps at Camp Pickett, Virginia where thousands of black GIs and WACs were based in preparation for deployment to England before D-Day. My mother, forever the civil rights activist, was horrified to hear the white soldiers referring to the black WACs as ‘waccoons’ and deplored the segregation of the troops. The scenario of Italian and German POWs having the run of the camp whilst blacks were confined to barracks infuriated Mum so she petitioned the Commanding Officer to do something about this shameful situation. Of course nothing was done and my mother predicted the riots and the ‘fire next time’ of James Baldwin’s narrative decades before Watts and Selma.

My father had marched on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the 1930s to protest the exclusion of a black man from a civil engineering organisation and throughout their lives my parents were passionate supporters of the rights of African Americans to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Likewise the magnificent Margaret Melton and Josephine Rowe, my mother’s companions who had such a profound influence on my sister’s childhood and mine, were black women who helped shape our view of the world in our lifetime pursuit of ‘menschlachkeit’ -- decency.

It is embedded in my memory bank that Josephine, who had her own routine and would be infuriated if any of us interrupted her daily schedule, was upstairs when Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. My mother, toiling over the ironing board in sweltering Philadelphia heat, begged her to come down and she did, the two of us sitting around the dining room table watching as my mother continued to iron and tears fell down our faces. Three months later we sat around that same table at that same black and white television set, crying once more as John-John Kennedy saluted his father. Ours was the antithesis of the loathsome white family in ‘The Help.’

Jump forward to 2013: For the past five years or so I have been at the receiving end of hundreds of emails from many sources denigrating Barack Obama as a ‘Manchurian Candidate,’ a ‘Fifth Columnist’, a ‘Muslim!’ and a ‘Nazi who wishes to destroy Israel.’ I lime to tell these people that I first heard Obama speak in 2004 in my native Philadelphia and was moved when he recounted the sight of a group of grey-haired white men giving out ‘Obama for Illinois Senate’ leaflets in Chicago. He told us that an aide whispered in his ear ‘Those guys were Klansmen once upon a time.’ When Obama was elected president in 2008 I was broadcasting live on Pan African television and when I emerged from the studio into the control room every work station was inhabited by a weeping young African. All I could think of was how thrilled my late parents would have been to witness a man of colour being elected President of the United States. How my mother, who I like to think was one of the soldiers who moved Harry Truman to desegregate the military, would have exploded with joy at the sight of the Obama family dancing the night away at the Inaugural Ball. I thought of Josephine, who used to talk about ‘a Negro who will one day be ‘The One’ but when the president-elect gave his acceptance speech my email correspondents were already saying the array of eagle-topped flags and Michelle’s black and red colour scheme were indicative of a ‘Nuremberg’ rally.

As the New Year arrives I beseech my Obama-hating emailers, some of whom are of my faith, to understand what it meant to me to be raised by principled liberals who wanted equality for all -- a central Jewish tenet -- and what it means to me to be a citizen of the first non-African nation in the world to have a non-white head of state. May Barack Obama live out his term and may my parents, who imbued my sister and me with pride in our heritage and respect for that of all races, be inscribed in the Book of Life.

And may the African American men and women who gave blood to save my mother’s life enjoy eternal grace.

First published in The Jewish Daily Forward .

Carol Gould has written for the Guardian, the Jewish Chronicle and The Daily Telegraph; she is the author of ‘Spitfire Girls’ and ‘Don’t Tread on Me --anti-Americanism Abroad’ and has appeared on BBC ‘Any Questions?’ and many other UK broadcasts.

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