Review of a Review: An Opportunistic, Back-Door Entrance to a Subject I’ve Been Avoiding (That Is, Black-Jewish Relations)

freedom seder


Cord Jefferson begins his Bookforum review of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr.’s new book on the Black Panthers, Black Against Empire, with a seemingly off-topic invocation of American Jewry. “For years it’s been said in circles both polite and impolite,” Jefferson begins the piece, “and in ways both delicate and indelicate, that America’s blacks should learn to live more like America’s Jews.” Three paragraphs later, this observation’s relation to the Black Panthers, and to Bloom and Martin’s new book, finally becomes clear. “The book reminds us of how close we came to a world in which America’s blacks were, in fact, acting like the Jews. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Panthers tried very hard to build a nation in which black people were sectarian, autonomous, and prosperous in much the same way Jewish communities throughout the United States had been for decades. And for their efforts, the Panthers were sabotaged, prosecuted, and murdered.”

Now, I just sat down to eat a bagel and read my new Bookforum, and then I read this piece, and then I ran up here to write to you. For some time now I’ve been avoiding opening this very door, this door onto the world of comparative history and literature and cultural studies between Black and Jewish culture. I went to see Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In, and was surprised and excited to see it begin with Jarecki’s personal reflection’s on his family’s escape from the Holocaust. But then the movie was disappointing, so I didn’t write about it, and I didn’t do then what I’m going to do now, which is slide my own self into the frame and explain that my identity as a Jewish woman has so much to do with what I’m doing here, in this world of African-American Studies.

And then last week I bought Emily Raboteau’s book Searching for Zion, which I believe compares the African and Jewish diaspora experiences, through travels to Israel, Africa, the Carribbean, the Deep South. But I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it yet, though I wondered if, when I read it, I would feel compelled to tell you some true things about my identity.

You see, approaching this subject is hard for me because I’m in it. On this blog I have been honest and transparent insofar as I am a woman or a rap fan or a teacher or a writer but I have never really come out as a Jew. If you know me you already know, and if you don’t it hasn’t mattered. I could write with some privacy about Cornel West and James Baldwin and Philip Roth and Exodus and slavery and diaspora and freedom and stay as impartial as a squirrel in a distant tree but I’m not, I’m right here, and I’m Jewish.

Yesterday I read this piece on Tablet about the inscription on Ed Koch’s gravestone of slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s last words: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” A perfectly fine declaration of Jewish identity which I also could make. And then Koch’s headstone attributes these words thus: “(Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.)”

How disgusting.

For all those concerned with the whitewashing of Ed Koch’s obituaries regarding his soiled reputations on AIDS and race relations in New York, don’t worry: of his own volition he has immortalized his intolerance on his own tombstone. “Muslim terrorist.” As though one thing had anything to do with another. As though Judaism is still defined by its existential threat, by the history of axes hanging over our scrawny, pious necks. As though being a Jew is permission to do that thing which has been done to us for millenia, that thing which had the Roman geto created for us, that is: to profile.

time blacks v jews

1969 cover via

Unlike the late Mr. Koch, I prefer to define my culture in positive terms, as a collection of books, stories, people, places, beautiful objects, historical documents, songs, melodies, language. I am not afraid to quarrel with another Jew’s picture of Judaism because argument and interpretation are part and parcel of my proud tradition. You see, I am one of those Jews: the social-justice oriented, ecumenical, liberal, egalitarian, concerned with the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom and dignity of all Americans of all colors and creeds, the progressive, the pro-birth control and anti-war, the pro-honest criticism of Israel, the anti-AIPAC, the anti-checkpoints, the anti-hate Jews. There is too much irony to cover. There is Lupe Fiasco and Jesse Jackson and Coleman Silk. There’s Israel’s Black Panther Party and the schisming of Black-Jewish solidarity and stories of slavery and freedom and community and song. To do so I will need to be present and honest and proud.

Cord Jefferson writes about the Black Panthers by pointing out to us that they tried to act like Jews. They tried to keep the money in the tribe. They started charities and schools and institutions dedicated to uplifting the members of their community.  The problem was, the Black Panthers didn’t look like Jews, because Jews look like white people. Despite  not celebrating Christmas or believing in Jesus or having any heritage from Germany or England or Sweden or France, despite my connection to a broad diaspora of Jews who speak all the world’s languages and are themselves the world’s colors and shapes, despite feeling in my heart that I am not white the way white people are white, when I walk out of my house in America every morning, I am white. (Maybe not fifty or a hundred years ago, but today, yes.) And so the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world do not see me as a threat.

There is so much to say. I won’t rush. Think of this as me opening a door, to let the breeze in. Passover is coming next month, the most important holiday for a social-justice Judaism, the holiday in which we tell the story of our exodus from Egypt, that story which is not ours alone. In the ritual of the Seder, the Passover meal, we build Jewish theology and practice out of a simple fact: we were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us. Is that cause to rest on our laurels or extend the same hand to others?

I won’t answer. I’ll just make my new category and post this thing. Thanks for listening – and don’t worry, my next post is on Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. -T

Am I Making My Students More Racist?

Sometimes I worry that my course reinscribes racism. My students come in with frequently racist assumptions about how closely the content of rap songs mirror the totality of Black life in America, which come out in our class discussions, and then, these Stereotypes, Misconceptions and Caricatures, just hang there, floating around. Somewhere between Elijah Anderson’s ethnography of North Philly in Code of the Street and James Cone’s exploration of slave theology in The Spirituals and the Blues, the notion that violence is part of the African-American cultural inheritance entered some of my students’ minds.

“Don’t be racist, guys.”

I never say that. Usually the only indication I’ll give if I think a student is wrong is that I’ll ask if anyone else has another opinion on the subject. Ask for additional thoughts enough times and a more subtle, complex notion will emerge from the swirling misconception that constitutes the early moments of many in-class conversations.

Why the patience, TB? How can there be an excuse for letting such comments go unchecked? As I mentioned to my students yesterday (on an unrelated note), there is a method to my madness.

1. The funny thing is, my students LOVE Kanye West. More than one of them has called him “in my opinion, the best rapper and definitely producer of all time.” This is funny because they have never heard Illmatic, Ready to Die, or Paid In Full. They are not joking when they refer to Kanye as gangster or street or to his hard-core urban upbringing. They were toddlers in the ’90s. Meaning, we have a lot of work to do, context-wise.

2. I am anti-censorship. I believe there is value in all of us airing our opinions in the interest of a civil discourse that actually gets us somewhere, moves forward, instead of conversation crippled by political correctness. My presence in the classroom is like the market: guiding discussion forward with the invisible hand of my (not-so) innocent inquisitiveness.

2a. When I’m quoting lyrics that use it, I say the word “nigger.” I hate, I really hate, that horrible hyphenate,  “n-word.” Did anyone see  Zooey Deschanel (in character) use the word “M-Word” on SNL last Saturday to describe the middle finger? That’s how “N-word” makes me feel: like I am participating in ridiculous censorship that is anti-antiracism in its preclusion of a productive conversation about racism. I mean, this is a college classroom. And while not all my students use this word–and I never make anyone, or chastize n-worders–I want my classroom to be a mature, safe enough space that we can quote the lines we’re analyzing. I have a sneaking suspicion that the white folks for whom this word makes them the MOST uncomfortable–all the censors out there who don’t listen to rap but jump down rappers’ throats, Al Sharpton included–are the ones who have this word inside of them, who might use it, maybe who have used it in private, and so they don’t want to hear “nigger” because it freaks them out–not for Black folks’ sake but their own.

2b. On a related note, on a concluding note: I think a teaching platform of anti-racism, anti-censorship and anti-secrets coincide in a classroom space where students feel safe to work out their cognitive kinks out loud. Race is so taboo in this country, for white kids especially, that many of my students seem to be fessing up their sense of America’s racial landscape for the first time. And whatever little closet those opinions and memories lived in before, if it doesn’t get aired out, that’s where racism grows. I’m convinced of it. We’re sweepin’ out the dust mites–and as all you housekeepers know, dusting can get dusty. But then, you know, it gets clean.

…or at least that’s what I tell myself.

POSTSCRIPT. When I was in college, the two standout cross-appointed professors between my home department, Religion, and the African American Studies Program were Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. (Not a bad lot.) I never studied with Professor West, but I took a seminar with Dr. Glaude my senior spring that laid the foundation of so much of my reading of African-American culture today and was a total inspiration viz. the possibilities of course planning. The course moved from Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism at the beginning to Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual at the end. But then, through the interim, Dr. Glaude deftly wove in texts about the African-American tradition of civil discourse, how it darted in and out of mainstream cultural mores, criticizing dominant trends with two eyes open. As African-Americans said of the so-called New Israel that was the USA, “Pharaoh’s on both sides of these blood-red waters.”

And so, tucked in the middle of the semester, between the poles-not-poles of Walzer and Said, was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Many times since then have I heard Glaude and West refer to that book and this author. And though upon first read I was too stricken with truth to think much else, I have been struck since then with the great love and strategy of Drs. Glaude and Wests’ appeals to this text from the halls of Princeton, that whitest of institutions, wherein I surely was not the only white student Glaude, West and Baldwin welcomed into his reconciliatory, honest arms. Baldwin writes of the end of his meeting with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad:

It was time to leave, and we stood in the large living room, saying good night, with everything curiously and heavily unresolved….Elijah and I shook hands, and he asked me where I was going. Wherever it was, I would be driven there–“because, when we invite someone here,” he said, “we take the responsibility of protecting him from the white devils until he gets wherever it is he’s going.” I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town. I confess that for a fraction of a second I hesitated to give the address–the kind of address that in Chicago, as in all American cities, identified itself as a white address by virtue of its location. But I did give it, and Elijah and I walked out onto the steps, and one of the young men vanished to get the car. It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets….The car arrived–a gleaming, metallic, grossly American blue–and Elijah and I shook hands and said good night once more. He walked into his mansion and shut the door. (78-79)