What are some important lines from Fires in the Mirror?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An accident in which a Hasidic Jewish man killed a young black boy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the incident that inspired Anna Deavere Smith to interview residents of the neighborhood. The interviews were later transformed into the monologues that make up Fires in the Mirror. Important quotes from the play deal with the event itself, the perceptions of the residents, the impact on the community, and the nature of racism and hated in general.

One quote is from the monologue of Letty Cotton Pogrebin. She says, "I think it's about rank frustration and the old story/that you pick a scapegoat/that's much more, I mean Jews and Blacks/that's manageable/because we're near/we're still near enough to each other to reach!"

This quote illustrates the ties the two communities have. Both have been plagued by mistreatment and racism from the ruling powers. She goes on to say that "Only Jews listen/only Jews take Blacks seriously/only Jews view Blacks as full human beings that you should address in their rage." But she also thinks that the lack of power the Jewish people have makes them an easy scapegoat for the rage of the other community. 

Another important quote is from the monologue of Aaron M. Bernstein. He says, "Okay, so a mirror is something that reflects light/It's the simplest instrument to understand." He then goes on to explain the difference between a mirror that reflects reality and a mirror that reflects perception. For example, in a fairy tale, an evil but beautiful woman looks into a mirror and sees a witch." He says, "That's not a real mirror/as everyone knows/where/you see the inner thing." 

This is early in the play, and it's important because everyone's view of the situation in Crown Heights is different. Even though they're all looking at the same thing, they're seeing it through their own experiences and perceptions. 

A quote from the monologue of Robert Sherman reflects the nature of the tensions in the community, all of which are built on prejudice. He says, "I think you know/the Eskimos have seventy words for snow/We probably have seventy different kinds of bias/prejudice, racism, and/discrimination." He goes on to say that we don't have the right language to address the problem, which is probably a reflection "of our unwillingness to deal with it honestly and to sort it out." 

Two final quotes mirror each other and describe the death of the young child and the death of a visiting Jewish student from Australia who was stabbed by black men later the same day.

Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of the slain student, says, "My brother was killed in the streets of Crown Heights/for no other reason/than that he was a Jew." It shows the frustration and rage he feels at the death of his brother, who was targeted for what rather than who he was.

Carmel Cato, the father of the child killed, says, "Sometime it make me feel like it's no justice/like, uh/the Jewish people/they are very high up/it's a very big thing/they runnin' the whole show/from the judge right down." He feels that they get no justice in their community, which helps show why the community struck out so violently after the boy died. According to the New York Times, there were also rumors that a private Hasidic ambulance picked up three Jewish people and left the dead boy and another injured black child behind. 

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Fires in the Mirror is a play that Smith developed from interviews with residents of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, after a flood of tragic events occurred in 1991 that started with an Hasidic Jewish man, Yosef Lifsh, hitting another car, careening out of control, and killing one of two crushed black children, 7-year-old cousins Gavin and Angela Cato, who were standing on the sidewalk. Angela survived.

Riots occurred thereafter as blacks attacked Jews while leaders like Rabbi Shea Hecht asserted that the two communities of black and Jew need not mutually understand each other, rather they needed mutual disassociation. Another death--a rage, grief and riot driven, not accidental death--grew out of this with the stabbing of Yankele Rosenbaum, a visiting Australian scholar:

When my brother was stabbed four times, each and every American was stabbed four times and ... my brother [was left to die] in this city ... [where] he bled to death,... (Norman Rosenbaum, "My Brother's Blood")

Smith's interviews captures the surprising attitude alive in Crown Heights that the black and the Jewish communities ought to be separate, ought not to strive for understanding, ought not to united in mind or will as expressed by Rabbi Hecht and Minister Conrad Mohammed.

Quotations that are important would then be ones that speak about the loss that occurred and the fury the losses engendered:

"There's been a riot in new York,
been a riot in Crown Heights,
Yankel's been stabbed and he's dead."
And
my brother was the last in the world,
I hadn't even given him a thought.
I mean the fact that my brother
could be attacked
or die,
it just hadn't even entered my mind. (Norman Rosenbaum, p 106)

Another type of important quote is ones that address the question of identity and the possibility of unity between identities. The negative perception of unity between community identities is one of the candid and surprising revelations that arose and that is revealed in Smith's play. In addition to this, the correlated idea that identiy is deeply rooted to place and circumstance also emerged in a surprising way (thus giving strength to the nuture side of the nature versus nurture question).

I am not necessarily
what's around me.
I am part of my surroundings
and I become separate from them
and it's being able to make these differentiations clearly
that lets us have an identity
and what's inside our identity
is everything that's ever happened to us.
Everything that's ever happened
to us as well as our responses to it... (Ntozake Shange, "The Desert")

Read the study guide:
Fires in the Mirror

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