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Culture & Resistance Posts

Deborah Lipstadt’s Talk on Antisemitism

What is antisemitism? How do we define it? What does it look like? These questions were answered on Thursday, October 3 when author and historian Deborah Lipstadt spoke on her most recent book, Antisemitism: Here and Now. For Lipstadt, antisemitism is easy to identify. Countless examples throughout history and even today are testaments to its continuity. Yet, despite being surrounded by it almost every day, I realized during this talk that I have failed to notice its nagging existence. 

There is a long background of antisemitism throughout history, but Lipstadt argues that its template is consistent in the way it characterizes Jewish people. In almost every case, Jewish antisemitism “punches up.” People tend to look at Jews and see white, wealth, and power. Because of this, people argue that antisemitism cannot exist because Jewish people cannot be victims. This is one of many forms of antisemitism that Lipstadt defines, but she also acknowledges that antisemitism does not make someone a bad person. The “clueless antisemite,” for example, simply does not know that his/her beliefs or actions are wrong, yet still participates in the antisemitic rhetoric. Lipstadt expresses that this is one of the most dangerous types because it shows how deeply entrenched antisemitism is in American culture.

Although Lipstadt does not touch on the consequences of antisemitism, I have noticed a few outcomes in my own life that are directly affected by this. Internal oppression is one product of antisemitism that I see clearly occurring in a large portion of the Jewish population at the University of Richmond. I do not see antisemitism as a major problem, but the “clueless antisemite” is so engraved in people’s minds that certain comments, actions, and sentiments are enough to prevent people from acting as they normally would out of fear or embarrassment. If it took someone else to show me the dangers of seemingly harmless actions, I wonder what else I and many other students on campus are missing in the way we treat others. Creating a more open and inclusive culture seems more important now than ever.

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Persepolis: A Surprisingly Accessible Piece in Canon

Persepolis needs to be interpreted in its intentionality in format. We can assume that Satrapi produced a graphic novel in part because of her interest in producing comic-strips, but when considering how the message of her work is translated to the audience, we can speculate what other motivations may have led to this. Satrapi talks about the influence that the graphic novel presentation of theories of dialectic materialism had on her as a child, and there’s no denying the influential power of complex topics being introduced in such an accessible and visually appealing format.

Furthermore, there’s something to be said for the tone of her novel. Already it is addressing heavy topics of assassination and the systematic disenfranchisement of Iranians in the face of revolution and political instability. Her comic strips depict the childish vibe achieved by works like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which strategically engages readers with a much more serious topic. It’s also a very appropriate depiction, given that these events were occurring throughout her childhood, which really puts us in the empathetic space of what it might feel like to be a child in such a tumultuous period of Iran’s history.

My only experience with graphic novels for adults was Fun Home, and the importance of the accessibility of the medium was erased in that work by the complicated references to F Scott Fitzgerald (a niche, high culture reference to an author that not every reader is intimately familiar with). That shaped my expectations of graphic novels, which led to my surprise with this work and its easy comprehensibility. I’m excited to see how her language might transition as she becomes an adult over the course of this memoir.


Satrapi’s Story Through A Child’s Eyes

The first thing that struck me about this first segment of Persepolis is the fact that Satrapi is that the way the story is being told is through the lens of childhood, because that’s when it was occurring. Of course, some of the ideas presented and discussed are not child-like at all, but the truth is that she was exposed to them at that age. The way the story is told through pictures and through the voice of Satrapi gives it a lighter feel than you would expect from a discussion about revolution, imprisonment, torture and death. I found myself laughing at moments that weren’t necessarily funny, simply because the words were coming from a child. But when I stopped to think about it I realized that fact actually made it even less funny. A child making up games about torture might be funny in a fictitious comic strip, but not in a story that’s true. I just think it’s interesting that the story is kind of being filtered twice. Once, through this child-like perspective, but then again because it’s Satrapi writing about her childhood experiences as an adult. I think this contributes to the ease of the consumption of the book as well. I think less people would read her story if it weren’t for the fact that it’s presented in the form of a graphic novel and presented in a way that lightens it, even if just a bit.


Satrapi and her Relationship with God

The first 71 pages of Persepolis illustrate the early life of Marjane Satrapi and her perspective of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran. When this section of the graphic novel ends, the new Islamic Republic is in place and already some forms of oppression are being implemented. Marjane’s parents are worried about the state of the country and are pissed off with the new government. Throughout this section of the novel we see the evolution of Satrapi’s relationship with God. I think this is the most important part of this section by far.

At the beginning, Satrapi is in love with God and wants to be a Prophet herself. She has discussions with God in private and is infatuated with the concept of God. This begins to change as she starts studying about the revolution and various Marxist works. She seems to have a detached relationship with God at this point, still having discussions but choosing to avoid talking about prophets and instead more focused on the revolution. This relationship finally reaches its breaking point when her Uncle Anoosh is murdered by the new Islamic government for being a communist. Her rage and distress at the loss of her Uncle is what sets her over the edge, and she finally curses God and abandons him entirely, because of the new government’s use of religion as a weapon.

This evolution over the 71 pages feels natural, and seems to reflect Satrapi coming of age in the changing world she was raised in. What started as a blind obsession, turned into learned detachment, and finally finished with rage. As the old oppressive government is replaced with the new religiously oppressive government, Satrapi seems to blame God, and religion as a whole, for the new violence and loss that she is experiencing. I am interested to see how her relationship grows (or further decays) as the graphic novel goes on.


How Satrapi Choose to Tell Her Story

While I am familiar with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and I read the first volume when I was in high school, I am only just now realizing the brilliance in Satrapi’s decision to tell her story in the form of a graphic novel as I revisit the first 70 pages. While growing up in during the Islamic revolution is an incredible story, it’s one that very few readers can relate to, especially when Satrapi herself write about the alienation and stereotyping that the people of Iran have had to undergo as a result of the political extremism that takes place in the country. The comic book illustrations bring so much more life and personality to the story, and I don’t know if Satrapi’s words alone would be able to accomplish the same thing in conveying her innocence and of humor when discussing such a difficult time. In my opinion, the illustrations are what really give us a look into Satrapi’s feelings and emotions, as we are witnessing the world through her young eyes.

The points in the reading where I think that this was exemplified the best were the panels where God was illustrated. While Satrapi explicitly tells us at the beginning of the memoir that she was born a very religious person, the ways in which God is illustrated and the way he interacts with Satrapi visually offers much more than Satrapi’s words alone. Specifically, the last panel on page 53 and and the panels on pages 70 and 71 really demonstrate Satrapi’s internal struggles with her faith as she comes to terms with how dangerous the revolution is becoming. On page 53, she is completely enveloped in God, showing how strong her convictions were and that she was finding security in her faith. However, upon learning that her uncle had been executed, Satrapi and God are distant from one another, and the chapter ends with her floating in space, completely lost. Here, we really get the feeling of how alone she feels as the war begins. We feel this emotional weight thanks to the illustrations of the graphic novel.


Education’s role: Link to leadership studies

While reading this last section I couldn’t help but think of the conversation we had last class concerning education’s role in fixing past injustices. Specifically, when thinking about my own studies in the Leadership school, we study subjects such as Ethics and and Theories Models as our core curriculum. Additionally we are required to take two electives of our choice which allows for a bit of diversity in studies among majors. A question which I have been thinking throughout this semester is: How do we balance our core curriculum and elective studies in order to incorporate other perspectives of history?

The final section of Beloved highlights the cycle of racism. When we (as a society) are faced with the repercussions of such horrors of slavery we carry the responsibility to bring justice to those affected. On page 289 (for me) the idea of African American’s association with dirtiness highlights a learned stereotype which requires a level of understanding as a result of education. As members of a society we are challenged to find the ‘right stuff’ in order to solve issues we hold pertinent to us. Further, I think a fair chunk of the learning process is to diversify your interests until you find some study which genuinely motivates you. With this background in knowledge we may discover the causes we find most motivating to attribute our life. 


You are Beloved, and You are Beloved, and You…

As much as I would love to focus on everything that occurs in the remainder of Beloved, I will particularly focus on pages 248 to 257 because of its dense poetic prose, (maybe because I haven’t finished the reading but don’t worry, Dr. Bezio, I will by tomorrow). Morrison’s syntax changes drastically on page 254 when each sentence is shortened and appears to be a poem of sorts. Poetry is a way to convey things that would be difficult to convey otherwise and what Morrison is possibly conveying is quite interesting. To start, we don’t explicitly know who is speaking, but we can infer that the first part on page 254 is mostly Beloved speaking, the second part on page 255 is mostly Denver, and the third part on pages 255 to 256 is mostly Sethe speaking. I use the word mostly because although the context and word choice allows us to assume these parts fit a specific character, there appears to be a mixture of all three mentioned characters within each portion of the “poem.”

Of the many things I could point out within these pages, the preoccupation with faces is something that particularly stands out. If we follow my presumed speakers between pages 245 and 256, then Beloved “loves” Sethe’s face, Denver “needs” Beloved’s face, and Sethe “is” Beloved’s face. So if Beloved loves Sethe and Sethe is Beloved, then Sethe loves herself. There are a variety of other reasons within this portion of the book that leads us to acknowledge the mixture of all three characters, but what does this tell us?

Well, this book, then, seems to be a reclamation of the self. Sethe has felt alienated and at blame based on her skin color and her actions. Furthermore, Sethe has been represented as lacking emotion since most of our earlier accounts of her have been through other people’s perspectives. What Morrison might be trying to say here is that people must reclaim themselves. No one can be owned by anybody and a true account of history must be through the eyes of someone who lived it (which is missing in many forms of education). We also need many perspectives to get a full story. Sethe by herself is only a part of the story, as is Beloved and Denver. But together, we have a much better understanding of the context in which they lived. Finally, we all must accept ourselves for who we are. We are all multifaceted and dearly loved (or at least should be), which is the meaning of “Beloved.” Despite the horrors of the past and our previous actions, all have the opportunity to forgive.



Memories of Beloved

The ending of Beloved addresses the theme of memories that is apparent throughout the rest of the novel. The phrase, “it was not a story to pass on,” is repeated twice and then again with a third slight variation of “this is not a story to pass on,” in the final section of the novel. This phrase is interesting given that the novel itself has done the deed of passing on this story to its readers. Beloved is filled with moments of passing on stories and looking back upon the past. However, the narrator of this section notes that although the characters may do this with all other stories of their pasts, no matter how painful, the story of Beloved is not one that should be repeated and shared to continue her memory. The narrator of this section notes that Sethe, Denver, and all the other people in the community reached a point where Beloved is barely remembered by even those that have interacted with her. They essentially forced out Beloved and her memory out of their minds. Beloved is “disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her.” It is interesting that the painful memories of slavery, assault, etc. were stories that Sethe passed on and recounted, but the story of her first daughter will be forever gone from her mind and the minds of others. 

Additionally, this section talks about Beloved’s lack of name and how, “everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name.” It made it easier to forget her for those who knew less and less about her, so her lack of name made this even easier. This section is interesting for many reasons. It really ties together all the ideas surrounding memory and time throughout the novel, it finally addresses Beloved’s real name not being told, and it gives a feeling of closure for readers at the end of the story. 


Moving Forward

In his final interaction with Sethe, Paul D embodies the novel’s final message: he acknowledges the weight of the past as well as the need for a future separate from this past. He tells Sethe, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (322). Slavery withholds much of the future’s promise from its victims; having been denied the opportunity to shape his own tomorrows, Paul D must also claim his ability to decide what happens next.

Throughout Beloved’s final chapter, Morrison repeats the phrase “It was not a story to pass on” twice and then switches to the present tense to note that “this is not a story to pass on” (323-324). The initial use of the past tense establishes irony as the whole novel recounts a narrative that was “not a story to pass on.” Over the course of the novel, the characters struggle to liberate themselves from memories of their traumatic pasts in order to move forward. This message could serve as a reminder that the only way to advance in life is to forget about the past. In a literal sense, the phrase also demonstrates that the atrocity of slavery is not to be replicated in the future. In order to prevent this duplication, individuals and authors such as Morrison must continue to share the horrific yet important narrative of slavery.


The “Jungle” Effect: Institutionalized Racism

Last class we discussed the issue of labeling African-Americans as animalistic, and further the systemic issues in our society which allow the existence of these stereotypes. In Nicolette’s blog she discussed the cultural effects of slavery on all of society. Whites were instilling animistic conditions for African-Americans creating a perpetual cycle which continues to exist today. Further, as we saw in the scene with the Schoolteacher where Sethe heard the students dividing her characteristics into either the animalistic category or the humane, certain aspects of slavery remain implicitly as a consequence of perpetuating racist education. Nicolette wrote, “Whites who acted as reluctant participants are often just doing what they think their role is in life.” The implicit racism which remains because of slavery couldn’t/can’t be solved by legislative action but needed a re-education of layers of misguided, racist propaganda. 

Although there were many white folks who were helping the movement, there were many (including those you helped) who couldn’t accept their willful ignorance and properly deal with the issue. Continuing to oppress blacks allows for us to disregard such past issues, but in this case we aren’t able to actually investigate the lasting effects of slavery it has only not only blacks but whites as well. Referring to the perpetual oppressing cycle,Morrison wrote, “It was the jungle white folk planted them in.” This “jungle” (system) which white folk instilled has continued to exist. The self-understanding by whites of their awful history and their implicit sentiments seems to be too rich and deep of an issue for many to uncover. Morrison further writes, it is the “screaming baboon living under their white skin.” Oppression is easy to do for society, what becomes a more convoluted and exposing issue is when we try display the truths of our past and the every-lasting effects we continue to face.

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