You Can’t Pick Your Family

But you sure can write about them.

Jennifer Teege has the distinct misfortune of being a half-Black woman who finds out in her adulthood that her grandfather was the psychopathic Nazi concentration camp commander, Amon Goeth. So terrible was Goeth that as played by Ralph Fiennes in the famed Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, he seems about on par with Fiennes’ other famous villian (Voldemort of the Harry Potter universe).

Teege writes My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past from the perspective of a woman shell-shocked by the discovery of all the forces in the universe that mixed and mingle to make her, or rather, by the discovery that some of those forces are not “good.” This is the story of the shattering of her approximation to white innocence, if you will.

As a Black American whose very skin tells the tale of slaves and masters, I was unimpressed. Not completely unsympathetic, but by the end of the book, thoroughly convinced that I could have done better just talking to a few people in my own orbit who have not only descended (partially) from those who actively worked towards the subjugation or obliteration of Black folk, but who literally raped their descendants into existence. Teege spends so much time wrestling with the very fact that her grandmother loved and honored the man who was her grandfather, despite his…”faults.” She grapples with the idea that her grandmother *may* have known about the evils being perpetrated on Jews in the concentration camp next door, asking question upon question: What did her grandmother know? How much? When? What did she do? How could she? Does it make her a bad person?

WHEW. Lemme tell you, this is the SHIT that made me almost put the book down…into the fire…to be burned. Your grandmother knew everything, and what she didn’t know, she should have! SHE WAS COMPLICIT AT EVERY TURN. There is no white innocence. Let’s start there! It was extraordinarily exhausting to read this supposed view of a “Black woman,” who goes through great lengths to avoid struggling with the disruption of her white fragility and her defense of white feminine innocence. I wanted to scream. We already live in a society (a Western European and American society) that would have us view white women as innocent angels and even occassional victims of white male systems, as if no one anywhere is sleeping with the enemy. But Teege’s grandmother is the exact reason that the whole thing is a sham. This women turned her record player up so that she couldn’t hear the screams coming from the concentration camp, then she claimed that she didn’t know what was happening. Those are the perks of white innocence, I get, but honey, what’s worse is to read the mental backflips through which Teege tries to square that a woman she “loved” had aided and abetted one of the greatest monstrosities perpetrated on modern man. Every attempt at accountability is undermined by the, “but she seemed so nice!” that Teege laces into every memory of her grandmother. Not a single Jew in that camp gave a flying fuck if your grandmother seemed nice, or if she loved you.

Mind you, this book is branded as the story of a “Black woman,” but note that Teege never, not once, calls herself Black throughout the entire novel. She is “mixed race,” and that’s fine, but don’t bill yourself as Black on the cover for book sales. She includes a short interlude in the middle of the book about having “dark skin,” which is apparently her chosen euphemism for being Black (because she has an easier time in this novel naming and identifying her Nazi heritage than her Blackness!!!!!!). The interlude includes the buzz words, “[e]arly on, I knew: I was different,” and talks about her Blackness in terms of how people treated her rather than how she saw herself. Which is always the tell-tale of someone who is struggling to shed the identity that they view as being foisted upon them by the unhappy coincidence of an ancestor’s Blackness, in case you didn’t know. I’m certain that some editor, or perhaps the publisher, told her that they needed to bill the book as written by a “Black woman” just to get it off the shelves, and she probably put up a bit of a fight, insisting that she is “mixed,” not Black; but then, the publisher won, because if she has to be Black on the cover in order to secure the bag, then she will check the box, be Black on the cover, and secure the bag. And continue to live in a world of white innocence afterwards.

Would I recommend you read the book? Absolutely not. Read the title and ponder on how that situation would make you feel should you have found yourself in it. Then pick up a slave narrative, or read about someone like Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the Black daughter of Strom Thurmond. Most Black folks in America can find some ancestor who would have (did) enslaved, if not shot, us, but I guess the reality of the way white supremacy has warped our personal, as well as common, narrative is nothing to write home about when you have lived with it from birth. We know the lightness in our skin was imbued by successive acts of evil…we don’t gotta read a book to tell us that.

-Dij

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