Commentary on In Retreat by Mindy Fullilove

The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place is a testament to the power of geographic location. Although purportedly an autobiographic work, it is equally a sociological treatise on the themes of ‘rootedness’ and ‘displacement’. Author Mindy Fullilove links these concepts to the process of identity formation. She contends that, on par with culture and language, the place in which an individual grows up, leaves a mark on their identity. The readings perused for this essay also cover the topic of ethnic roots and geographic displacement. The examples we glean in the readings underscore Mindy Fullilove’s thesis of the centrality of place to human identity.

In In Retreat, Fullilove talks about how her parents resorted to living in exclusive ghettos in New Jersey. It was a time when minority communities were suffering under social censures issued by General McCarthy. The inter-communal atmosphere during the 1950s America was far from harmonious. In the ghetto of Orange, New Jersey, Fullilove’s parents had to overcome the twin evils of racism and classism. The entrenched communal prejudice was such that posh quarters within the city were referred to by the administration as ‘good places’, just as poor neighborhoods were treated as ‘bad places’. Richard Jenkins makes a perceptive remark in this light, when he says

“ethnic and national identity are among the most crucial bases of claim and counterclaim about who gets what, and how much. Ethnicity, origin, and cultural difference seem, at least for the time being, to have replaced class conflict as the motor of history.” (Jenkins, p. 115)

This observation is consistent with Fullilove’s observation on how ‘place’ plays a central role in identity formation. Indeed, Fullilove reckons that integrating with the mores of her city was her earliest educational experience. The semi-rural setting of 1950s Orange gave her a first-hand experience of farming. Her father, who worked as a farm-hand regularly took the young girl along to his work. Likewise, her father’s involvement with NNLC (National Negro Labor Council) exposed her to black politics. Through her father’s participation in agitations and civil disobedience campaigns young Fullilove acquired a unique political education. Needless to say, her politics underwent a radicalization process in the social tumult of 1950s America. According to Fullilove this kind of education is one of a kind, not replicable in the academic setting. Furthermore, she acquired her primary and secondary education while put up in Orange. Though the school followed the standard curricula, Fullilove’s learning went much beyond. In fact, the school was her first and foremost setting for sociological study.

In the article titled The War Against Bosnia-Herzegovina, we see a situation akin to that experienced by Fullilove. The Balkans has had a complex history, involving multiple ethnicities. While racism was the main theme in Fullilove’s experience, language and ethnicity laid the fault lines for conflict in the Balkans. Black Americans fight for dignity and equality was met by stiff opposition from the political establishment’. Likewise, we see how the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s fight for sovereignty met with hostility among European intelligentsia and academia. This is illustrated by numerous instances of misrepresentation. For example, though the outward expression of the struggle is framed as ‘the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina’, in reality, what was happening was a ‘war against Bosnia-Herzegovina’. (Mahmutcehajic, p.219) There is a great degree of distortion involved in media representation of the conflict. This is borne by how the origins of the conflict, though emanated as rational projects, were subsequently

“masked by irrational rhetoric, religion, and emotive interpretations of history, as is indisputably proven by their focus on quantifiable goals. It is possible to establish a reliable and rational model of their relationship while worth highlighting and clarifying at the outset its fateful two-way split – that Bosnia and Herzegovina is: firstly, an organic unity or, second, a construct of separable parts.” (Mahmutcehajic, p.219)

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