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Tonto, Aunt Jemima, and the Challenge of Oblivious Bias

Surrounded by dozens of hostile Indians on horseback waving rifles and tomahawks, the Lone Ranger turns to his faithful companion. “What are we going to do, Tonto?”

“What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

Earlier this year I gave a Strafford webinar presentation entitled “Rebranding Trademarks: Challenges of Walking Away and Choosing a New Mark.” The focus was how the Black Lives Matter movement had forced many companies to finally realize that one their most profitable trademarks was offensive to a certain portion of their customers. The result? Lucrative trademarks–such as the iconic Aunt Jemima and Eskimo Pie–became toxic. Indeed, the Washington Redskins, which had spent millions of dollars in legal fees defending its brand, played the 2020 season as simply the Washington Football Team.

But as I dug into the issues for that presentation, I realized that recognition of the harm caused by culturally offensive trademarks had preceded the Black Lives Matter movement—in some cases by decades. My personal experience was perhaps the best proof. I played on my high school football team. Back then, we were the U City Indians—and none of us back then perceived anything offensive about that name. And keep in mind that more than once, when we got off the bus for our games at rival high schools, we were met with derisive chants of “Jew City, Jew City.” In other words, if anyone should have been aware of an offensive term, it should have been my teammates. More precisely, it should have been me. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century the Indians had become the Lions.

When I attended Amherst College, our sports teams were the Lord Jeffs, named for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who gained distinction during the French-Indian Wars of the 1700s by selling smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians. The chinaware in the school dining hall best captures the oblivious bias of that era, with dishes depicting our esteemed Lord Jeff on horseback chasing Indians around the outside of the plate. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Were any of us outraged? Nope. We were suffering from oblivious bias.

Early in the 21st Century the Amherst sports teams became the Mammoths—perhaps an overly aspirational mascot for a Division 3 school of 2,000 students, but certainly an improvement over the Indian infector of yore.

But two recent incidents remind me—and perhaps you—that we shouldn’t be too quick to congratulate ourselves for the cancellation of that handful of culturally offensive trademarks.

The first example was triggered when I overheard a screed about how “offensive” and “unAmerican” it was that the introductory recording for all of those call centers—government entities and otherwise—begins by giving you the option of proceeding in English (by pressing 1) or Spanish (by pressing 2).

“This is America,” he shouted. “The Pilgrims spoke English, not Spanish!”

I shook my head in sad amazement at his ignorance. The rich history of our Spanish heritage is on full display throughout our western states, including, of course, the names of four of them–Colorado, Arizona, California, and New Mexico–and all of the major cities in California, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara. And then there is Florida, named by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 in tribute to Spain’s Easter celebration known as “Pascua Florida,” or Feast of Flowers. Don’t forget Texas, where one can take a boat ride on the Rio Grande (in English, Big River) right through the town of El Paso (in English, The Passage). Yes, our founding fathers (and mothers) included plenty of Spaniards. And plenty of French, the obvious evidence of which remains in the names of all of those cities within the territory acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase, including St. Louis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans–all three of which still celebrate the holiday of Mardi Gras (translation: Fat Tuesday).

Jeep Cherokee

And as for the Indians, my elementary school lessons pretty much ended with that largely fictitious first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Still, I had thought that after 2020—and the final demise of the Redskins brand—we had ended the culturally offensive use of Native American names. But just this past month I learned that the Chief of the Cherokee Nation has asked Jeep to stop using the name of his Native American tribe as the brand of one of its vehicles. As reported in the New York Times, the Chief explained that the name belonged to the Cherokee people, and that Jeep’s appropriation of it without permission was troubling: “The use of Cherokee names and imagery for peddling products doesn’t deepen the country’s understanding of what it means to be Cherokee,” he explained, “and I think it diminishes it somewhat.”

The point here is NOT to criticize Jeep, and certainly not to criticize you. No, the point here is to ask you (as I have asked myself) the following question: before you read this (or saw that news report) had you ever connected the Jeep brand with that Native American tribe? When you saw a TV commercial for the Jeep Cherokee or found yourself idling next to one at a red light, did you make that connection? I confess that I never did. Ever.

And regardless of whether you find that Jeep brand offensive, what does that failure to make that connection say about us? Why are we still so oblivious?

If you’d like to discuss this further, perhaps you could join me during my ski vacation at the Squaw Valley Resort. I’ll be driving out there in my Pontiac, and on the way we can turn the radio to the Blackhawks hockey game.

From Covfefe to Aunt Jemima R.I.P.–Trademarks in the Era of Black Lives Matter

In my day job as an intellectual property lawyer I’ve been blogging occasionally about the strange new world of trademarks that began three years ago with the explosion of trademark registration applications for the 7-letter typo in one of Donald Trump’s late-night Tweet complaints about what he claimed was “fake news.”

Following that trademark silliness was this year’s explosion of registration applications for variations on the term COVID-19. Those applications now number more than 350 and even include one referring back to the Trump typo: COVID-19 TAKES DOWN COVFEFE (Serial No. 88849328).

But in recent days that trademark narrative has undergone a profound change. Specifically, many profitable but controversial brands–from the Washington Redskins (dating back eight decades) to Aunt Jemima (introduced in the 19th Century)–have been undergoing an overdue but inspiring evolution, largely in response to the social protests and cultural reckoning inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. This has been the commercial trademark equivalent of the removal of statues of Confederate generals and other formerly iconic historic figures.

You can find my blog post, along with links to the earlier ones, here.

An Author Event in the Era of COVID-19

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I now have my own sequel to one of my favorite novels by the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

While I concede my sequel may not have the same poetic charm as the title of the Marquez novel, I can now say that have presided over a Book Signing in the Time of COVID-19.

The events in Love in the Time of Cholera take place over decades in an unnamed South American country about 100 years ago. By contrast, my event took place in under an hour last weekend in the alley behind the wonderful Left Bank Books in the Central West End of St. Louis, Missouri. And as you can see from the photo above, I arrived with all the proper gear for a COVID-19 book launch: pen, mask, and gloves.

Strange times.

Stay safe and healthy!

Cover Reveals: The Good, the Bad, and, well . . .

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Most authors have little say in the design of our book covers, and thus arrives that anxious moment when the publisher reveals its proposed cover for your novel. You hope for the best.

This time I got lucky. For my next Rachel Gold novel, Bad Trust, due in April of this year, I can state that the publisher’s cover reveal was not only a relief but a delight. I hope you agree.

But feelings of relief, much less delight, are not always an author’s reaction to the cover reveal. The best example I can think of was my very first cover, way back at the beginning of my writing career. Here’s that story:

My first novel, published in hardcover under the title The Canaan Legacy, involved a mysterious grave in a pet cemetery. A powerful senior partner in a large Chicago law firm had established a secret trust fund for the care and maintenance of that grave. After the partner dies, his law firm discovers the trust fund. Both the firm and the dead partner’s family are baffled since neither the partner nor his family had ever owned a pet, much less one named CANAAN. That is the word engraved on the tombstone. The only word. The firm retains Rachel Gold to determine what exactly is in that grave, which is robbed within days after she starts to investigate.

Working with my editor and then my copy editor at the publishing house, we got the manuscript in final form. My editor called to tell me that the book cover would arrive within the next few days. Imagine my excitement and anticipation. My very first novel! My name in print!

And then I received the cover.

Early in the novel, our hero Rachel Gold visits the pet cemetery. As drafted in my manuscript, Chapter 2 opens:

The entrance to Wagging Tail Estates is guarded by two cement bulldogs.  They stand at attention at eye level on a pair of squat doric columns that flank the pathway into the cemetary.  The dogs stare defiantly at the plumbing supply store across the street from the cemetary.

Re-read that quoted paragraph above. Now look over at the cover. As you can tell, the dogs are not bulldogs, they do not “stand at attention at eye level,” and they certainly do not “stare defiantly” at anything.

In a panic, I contacted the publisher and explained the disparity between the manuscript and the cover. “Ah, yes,” he responded, “Andre in our art department designed the cover. He said the bulldogs looked deplorable. He asured me that these dogs are much better.”

“Oh,” I responded, confused. After a long pause, “And what breed of dog are they?”

“Good question. I asked Andre the same. His said hunting dogs.”

Another pause as I tried to make sense out of this conversation. “The breed?”

“He doesn’t know. Have another call coming in, Mike. Talk later. Bye.”

I called my agent, outraged. She listened, offered some words of sympathy, and then said, “Mike, how important are those two cement dogs to the story? Do they have any impact on the plot?”

I sighed. “I suppose not.”

“Keep that in mind, Mike.”

And I did. If you turn to Chapter 2 of the published novel–reissued in paperback under the title Grave Designs–the opening paragraph now reads:

The entrance to Wagging Tail Estates is guarded by two cement hunting dogs.  They sit at attention at eye level on a pair of squat doric columns that flank the pathway into the cemetery.  The dogs gaze aloofly at the plumbing supply store across the street from the cemetery

Thus my welcome to the world of publishing.

The paperback edition came out with not only a new cover but a new title: Grave Designs. A long story that I will save for another day.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker

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When in need of a snappy one-liner for the beginning of your book–or your essay or your talk or just about anything–a good place to start is the works of Dorothy Parker, a legendary literary figure of the 1920s and ’30s known for her biting wit. As she once wrote, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

I happened to be need of a worthy quote for the beginning of my latest novel, Bad Trust, to be published this April, so I turned to Ms. Parker’s treasure trove. My novel features two mysteries–both involving arrogant, nasty wealthy men. I quickly found the perfect quote: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

As her online biography explains, in addition to her writings for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker helped form a group called the Algonquin Round Table with writer Robert Benchley and playwright Robert Sherwood. That group also included The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, comedian Harpo Marx, and playwright Edna Ferber among others. It took its name from its meetings at the Algonquin Hotel and became famous for the group’s sharp-tongued banter. The photograph below features Dorothy Parker with some other members of that group, including Harpo Marx (standing in the middle) and Alexander Woollcott (seated on the far right). The photograph at the top of this post was taken in 1924 in the backyard of her New York residence.

Members of the Algonquin Round Table: (standing, left to right) Art Samuels and Harpo Marx;; (sitting) Charles MacArthur, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcut

My favorite quote of hers was a brilliant pun she came up with on the fly at a meeting of the Algonquin Round Table during their weekly challenge game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence? They gave Dorothy the word “horticulture.” With barely a pause, she responded: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” (For those not familiar with the original centuries-old adage, it goes “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”)

A few other Dorothy Parker classics:

Brevity is the soul of lingerie.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy

A hangover is the wrath of grapes.

The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘check enclosed.’

But as too often is the case, the life of a brilliant, witty individual comes to a sad end. Think of Oscar Wilde, perhaps the greatest Irish wit of the 19th Century, author of, among others, the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest, but later prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality and, after his release, dying alone in Paris at the age of 46. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald, the proverbial Toast of the Town in the Roaring Twenties, but then descending into alcoholism and depression, and dead at the age of 40.

Such was the fate of Dorothy Parker, who faded into alcoholism and obscurity in her later years. Childless and living alone in a residential hotel in New York City, she died of a heart attack in 1967. According to her biographer Marian Meade, her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including in her attorney’s filing cabinet, for nearly two decades. Nevertheless, she wrote her proposed epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”

So if there is an afterlife for authors, I hope she enjoys seeing her quote on the first page of my new novel. Thank you, Dorothy.

Upcoming Appearance at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival

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I am pleased to announce that I will be one of the featured speakers at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, November 12th at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, held each year at the Jewish Community Center on 2 Millstone Campus Drive in St. Louis, MO 63146. I will part of the annual “Missouri’s Own!” panel of four speakers.

I will be discussing The Art of Conflict: Tales of the Courtroom, which, as the Festival program describes:

“pairs each of five previously published articles on practical lawyering advice by an esteemed trial lawyer with a fictional short story by an award-winning author-attorney on the same theme as that article. * * * For fans of legal thrillers, this book offers a unique and compelling mixture of fiction and reality, written by a trial lawyer by day and award-winning author by night.”

Alan C. Kohn

What will add a deep element of  poignancy to this event is that my co-author Alan C. Kohn passed away just two months ago at the age of 87. Alan was a legendary member of the local and national trial bar, admired by attorneys and judges and, of course, his clients. The Art of Conflict was his dream project.

Alan was struggling with congestive heart failure when we started working on the book. I was so honored to be able to get the book in print while he was still alive and able to take pride in it. He was absolutely thrilled by the rave review of the book by the Honorable Michael A. Wolf, the retired Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and Dean and Professor Emeritus at St. Louis University Law School. So much so, in fact, that Judge Wolf’s full review is printed on the book jacket.

I hope to be able to share some of my memories of Alan at the event.

You can find out more about that event and the rest of this year’s Book Festival here.