Pressure Points

by Joan Harvey

In my first column for 3 Quarks Daily I wrote that we are still fighting both the Civil War and WWII. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it: “two hideous demons slumber under the floorboards of Western culture: anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.” We have learned that any steps forward will be met with enormous resistance and backwards pressure. Gates quotes Ernst Cassirer: “every developmental step [of modern societies] can be reversed.” We saw this clearly post-Reconstruction, when everything possible was done to limit the lives of Black[i] people, and again following the two terms of the first Black president, when Americans chose an openly racist birther backed by the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. A leap backwards was true as well for European Jews, who before the Second World War believed they had successfully assimilated into secular society.

Any reader of history cannot escape the echoes, back and forth, of racism, white nationalism, German and American ideas of purity. For example, jazz was reviled by the Nazis, and listening to it was a crime. Americans loved jazz, but as late as the 1950s Lena Horne couldn’t go into the dining room in the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Black musicians had to reach and leave the stage through a separate enclosed corridor. Artie Shaw, who by all accounts was not at all racist and performed early on with Billie Holiday when most musical groups were segregated, at the same time hid the fact that he was Jewish. Ava Gardner reports that he sat silent at a table of bigwigs making antisemitic[ii] comments and even joined in rather than speak up and give himself away[iii].

Pressure Point, a film made in 1962 and directed by Hubert Cornfield, is a mostly unknown but quite brilliant dissection of both race and Nazism in America. Sidney Poitier portrays a psychiatrist who (in a flashback) has been given a job in 1942 in a federal penitentiary. He has purposely been assigned a patient who is openly a white supremacist, played vividly by Bobby Darin. (Neither character is named in the film so I will refer to the roles by the names of the actors.) Read more »