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From my Jewcy.com blog, posted May 19, 2008.
Black and Jewish on Broadway
Q&A with Rebecca Jones of the Tony-Nominated Musical “Passing Strange”
This year’s recently announced Tony nominations included seven for Broadway’s “daring musical” Passing Strange, among them best musical, best original score, and best performance by a leading actor. I first started hearing buzz about the show many months ago when it was still playing at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in downtown Manhattan, but it wasn’t until it moved to Broadway in February that I finally saw it. In addition to personally connecting with the way it handled of questions of identity, I found the music to be fantastic, the script witty, and the performances dynamic. Clearly I’m not the only one who feels this way—the New York Times gave it a smash review when it opened, describing it as “bursting at the seams with melodic songs,” and “a sprawling work of performance art.”
Shortly after seeing it, I learned that one of the cast members—Rebecca Naomi Jones—was black and Jewish. We recently sat down to discuss the show and how it relates to her mixed identity. Here’s what Jones had to say.
How would you describe Passing Strange? I would describe it as a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a young black kid, “Youth,” growing up in South Central, Los Angeles in the 70s—a community that was heavily church-based and middle class, where everyone is about doing the right and respectable thing. This kid doesn’t quite buy it. He doesn’t have faith in it and he can’t get answers about what is real, and feels that reality is different from what is being put on him. He meets one particular person who encourages him to go and explore the world, so he goes to Amsterdam and then Berlin, where he meets people who blow and expand his mind.
Youth is on a quest for something that he can believe in and hold on to. There is a conflict between this thing he wants to find—that he can only seem to find in art—and the people in his life who seem to bind him. Unfortunately the people who are trying to give him love are not enough for him. He discovers that the one thing that’s always there for him and that he can have faith in is music.
The reviews of the show have been fantastic. Congratulations. How does that feel? It feels really special. I have a feeling it is not like other Broadway shows, because the process of creating it was so unique—extremely collaborative. All the actors have been a part of the show for the almost two years since it opened at Berkeley Rep, so we’ve all been cooking it together. The wild thing is that now we’re on Broadway. It feels like the rules have changed, even though it’s still us. I am so impressed with the range of people of people who are coming to see it, and so happy that people are getting it.
How did you find the show—or did it find you? I got a call from my agent a couple of summers ago saying that I had an appointment for an audition at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, and that is was going to be a co-production between the Public Theater and Berkeley Rep. I was excited, because I had previously been cast by the casting directors at the Public Theater, who are the nicest people to audition for—very peaceful and non-judgmental. Then I read the script and felt like I was coming home—[it was] such a different version than what we have now, but even then it was so full of things that many of us think but don’t say, characters that are so rich and full and diverse, music and metaphors that are poetic and beautifully written, and humor that is touching and ironic. I loved that black actors were playing black and white people—love that it wasn’t predictable, not angry. I found it to be really approachable, but at the same time something new.
For the audition, I had to read a monologue with a German accent. At that moment I just fell in love with the piece because, growing up half black and half Jewish, I never felt like there was one specific place where I fully belonged. That continued with my work, because the way you look determines what part you play, so I have had to do a lot of work to understand some of my characters. But with this piece I was able to touch on so many parts of myself. I had a blast at the audition and had a callback the day after. The day after that I found out that I got the part. The whole process was very quick.
A friend of mine who was involved in the show suggested I go see it because he thought it would resonate with me, which it very much did—so much so that I have now seen it twice, which is a first for me with a Broadway show. What about it particularly resonates for you? What resonates for me is probably a lot of what resonates for everyone—constantly being in search for one’s true state of being, trying to find the part of me that is most me. I am proud of having grown up in the middle of a few cultures. The play is so special for me because I am able to touch different kinds of people.
I also relate to Youth’s love of music—my father is a musician, and I grew up with music being a big part of my life.
In Passing Strange, Youth is on a search to find “la real.” How would you define ”la real”? I think “la real” is different for everyone, but my ideal is when pretense is gone and the concept of what’s “appropriate” isn’t what rules and guides everything in one’s life. “La real” would be the place where what is natural occurs and where honesty lives. But it’s so conceptual, which is why it’s a rough thing to strive for. I would hope we are all looking for that, but some people don’t want that—they want to be in a place that is more secure than honest.
We all have choices, and the kid in the play makes choices [in an attempt to] blow the truth open, but he is also wounding the people who care about him. In a way I agree with his choices, but everything comes with a price and he pushes away the people who love him unconditionally, because he thinks there can’t be love without understanding. It’s a play about making mistakes and how they define who you are. Youth learns his lesson about balance in the end.
Tell me more about you. Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in New York—Tribeca, before it was called Tribeca. Back then it was just a place for hippies and their kids with lots of old landing docks. Now there are tons of fancy restaurants.
If you had to, how would you define your identity? I would say I am a half-black and half-Jewish New Yorker. So many New Yorkers are so many different things. That’s what was interesting about growing up in Manhattan—being mixed I wasn’t a freak. Not until I got to college in North Carolina did I realize how strange it was for the rest of America.
Where does your mixed identity come from? My dad is black and my mom is white. My dad is West Indian, Jamaican, and my mom’s side is Eastern European. My dad grew up in Los Angeles and my mom grew up in Massachusetts, and they met in New York in the 70s.
Is there a story? My dad is 6’1” and mother is 4’10” and ¾. He is 17 years older than she is. My dad is a musician. He was the musical director of group called the Cadillacs, and to supplement his income he was a singing coach. He was giving singing lessons to a friend of my mother’s who said to her, “I think you would like this guy.” They went on a double date with her husband, fell in love, got married, had me—and are still together three decades later.
What is your father’s relationship with Judaism? It has changed through the years. When he met my mom and they fell in love, he never converted to Judaism but being an Episcopalian wasn’t a major part of his life. When I was little he used to wear a Star of David and come with us to synagogue. When I got to high school my dad seemed to care less and my mom began to care more, and he started letting her become more involved while he detached himself a bit. It evolved into her thing. No animosity, but it is her thing.
What kind of connection do you feel to being Jewish? Being Jewish for me has always been about the community. There’s an aspect of being Jewish that I think I understand only because I am Jewish, and there is something very comforting about that. Once I got a little bit older it became less about what you believed in and more about the stories and how they informed our everyday lives—a lot about history and morals. I grew up more involved in the Jewish-half then the Christian-half. My dad was Episcopalian, but I grew up in a Reform temple where I went to Hebrew school and had a Bat Mitzvah. My mom got more involved in the temple when her parents passed away. I think she got involved as a way to connect to them.
Has your connection to Judaism changed at all over the years? Yes—it is always evolving. When I was really little it was just something that I did because of my mom. Synagogue was a place where I knew everyone, and they knew me. I was a member of the choir and I had Hebrew school every week. I also went through a period more recently when I felt more odd than I had before in the synagogue because of the way I looked—like people were looking at me and thinking, “Is that someone’s friend, or someone converting?” I’m not sure if it was just in my head, but I felt more apprehensive about going because I was afraid I would feel uncomfortable.
Why did you think you would feel uncomfortable? It must have been caused by the fact that I had just started to realize my own blackness. I am really close to my mother, and so I always identified with her culture. Growing up, I had a lot of white friends. At school the majority of kids were white so I always was the minority, but it was never an issue. Race just wasn’t something I really thought about until much later. I think it was towards the end of high school when I started to be more aware of it. At that time, I became close friends with a girl who was also mixed, and there was something really nice about being close to someone else who was mixed. I felt like, “Oh! I get why people want to be with people who are like them.” There is something comforting about it in an indescribable way.
That feeling continued when I went to college at the North Carolina School of Arts where I was around people who in certain ways were like me—theater people—but in other ways were different from me. Every year they would do one black play by August Wilson or some other black playwright, and there were never enough black kids in each class, so all the classes would come together. That was the first time since I was very little that I was part of a close group of all brown people. I didn’t seek it out, but I do remember being in rehearsal for a week with these kids in the play, and getting really close and realizing this different level of comfort that I had— this indescribable thing which was so interesting.
And how to do you feel now? For the past few years I have stopped caring as much about what people think, and started to feel like maybe people don’t care as much as I thought they did. Recently I have started to feel really proud of being a part of two rich cultures with so much history. I do feel rooted in the Jewish culture even though I am not super involved in it.
How do you put your two identities together as one? I think I am still constantly figuring it all out. I think that I really savor the traditional things that I love about being Jewish and the same things I love about being black. I am still searching for my relationship with spirituality, but in the meantime I feel attached to traditions that are Jewish, like Passover, which always makes me feel thankful to be a part of something.
What has been beautiful with Passing Strange is we all call each other “altern-a-negros.” We all feel like so many things. I am finding a new type of community in that—everyone is curious about each other and their cultures. In the end, that is what the play is all about: This kid who is curious about what other cultures are out there. That is what I am focusing on: Staying proud of being many things. Part of what makes me so happy about being both black and Jewish is the opportunity to really understand the experience of being both. I have learned a lot from both cultures. It is an interesting thing to balance both—about treasuring the things that you love about each.
What, if any, connection or community do you feel to other people who are both black and Jewish? I don’t have a community of black Jewish people in my life, but whenever I meet or hear about other black Jews I always get really excited about it. I think of people in the entertainment industry, like Lenny Kravitz, who are black and Jewish, and it makes me proud just to know that they are out there. I feel like they are my people.
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From my Jewcy.com blog, posted March 21, 2008.
On Being Black, White, and Jewish
The lines that divide us aren’t always so clear.
The news this week has been saturated with issues of race, otherness, and problems of identity in a society that’s most comfortable drawing boundaries and lines. On Sunday, the New York Times ran a story on Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr., the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. On Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama gave a landmark speech on race relations that took the country by storm. We asked documentary filmmaker Lacey Schwartz to weigh in on these two stories by sharing her own parallel experiences as a Black, Jewish woman who is working to incorporate and make sense of her dual identities. Here’s what she had to say:
Like any typical upper-middle class Jewish girl growing up in the Eighties, my life revolved around the Bar Mitzvah party circuit, Gap clothing stores, second base, and Madonna. Something was off, though: From a young age, I encountered people who pointed out that I looked different from my white parents because of my darker skin, tightly curled hair and thicker features. From a little boy in nursery school who made me show him my gums because he claimed they determined my race, to my classmates in high school who would verbally accost me in the halls with “What are you?”—an inquiry that they demanded more than asked—questions about my identity were abundant. “Jewish?” I would tentatively respond, afraid of how they might react to my denial of what they saw as my obvious blackness.
My family never seemed to notice or acknowledge the fact that I looked different from them. One overt example of this came at the age of sixteen, when my grandfather strongly encouraged me to break up with my bi-racial boyfriend. Without irony or malice, Grandpa expressed his fear of how people might treat me for being in an interracial relationship. Because of experiences like these, I deeply related when Barack Obama described in a speech earlier this week how he would cringe when his white grandmother uttered racial stereotypes, and yet he could not disown her.
When I applied to college I left the race/ethnicity box blank and attached a photograph instead. Based on that, I was admitted as a student who was of “Black/Not of Hispanic Origin.” It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year that I learned the truth: My biological father was an African-American man who my mother had had an affair with while married to my father. It was quite a shock, but I cherish my university experience as the time and place where my identification with being African-American and my connection to the Black community first began.
Years later, in an attempt to merge my Black identity with my Jewish upbringing, I attended Yom Kippur services at a Black synagogue in Brooklyn. I was skeptical at first: “A group of Black Jews worshipping together?” I thought. On entering the small brownstone converted into a synagogue, I was amazed to find that the entire congregation was Black! I was even more surprised to find the songs, prayers, and Shofar blasts were identical to what I learned growing up. I couldn’t help but wonder how someone with two Black parents could possibly be Jewish, but after years of being questioned by strangers about my own identity, I hid my ignorance and didn’t ask the questions I so desperately wanted answered.
As featured in last weekend’s NY Times, Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr. embodies both the heart and soul of this community of people. He was one of the first Black rabbis who I came upon in researching other Black Jews, and he has been one of the most inspiring people I have met along the journey. His work, along with others like him, is making the Jewish community more accepting of all Jews and changing the way we all expect Jewish people to look.
For much of my adult life, I have maintained separate cultural identities. Only in the last couple of years, as part of a personal documentary, have I set out to learn what it means to be both Black and Jewish. In recognizing the uniqueness of my situation, I have come to discover that Black Jews are members of a small, but significant minority within a minority: A group of people whose roots are as diverse and dynamic as any other ethnic group or subculture, and who represent the immense complexity of America itself.
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Posted July 2, 2008
Communication professor Josh Kun is the recent recipient of a $10,000 Casden Institute Faculty Research Grant for his proposal to document African American and Jewish relations in 20th century American life. The project will take the form of a musical anthology, tentatively titled “Go Down Moses: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” and Kun will produce the study.
“This particular CD project will explore the myriad ways Jews and African-Americans have coalesced, clashed, mobilized, and struggled with each other but through a century’s worth of extraordinary and fascinating musical performance that finds Jews performing black music and African-Americans performing Jewish music and appealing to Jewish audiences,” Kun said. “I believe that the project speaks directly to innovations in the study of Jewish life in the context of multi-racial and multi-ethnic America.”
The CD itself will be released by Reboot Stereophonic, a nationally acclaimed non-profit record label Kun co-founded in 2004 that is dedicated to excavating lost treasures of Jewish-American musical history and re-examining dominant narratives of Jewish-American identity. The label’s motto, “History sounds different if you know where to start listening,” relates to its mandate of creating musical conversations “otherwise impossible in daily life,” according to the label’s website.
Kun said he hopes Reboot Stereophonic will do this by “unearthing lost classics from the archive, sounds that are languishing in thrift-store crates across the nation,” thereby enabling new stories that accompany them to be told: “hybrid identities, eclectic communities, racial dialogue, and pioneering musical style.” He said he plans to use the study to help relate to a greater social agenda.
“Indeed, this CD project understands the question of being ‘Jewish in America’ as inseparable from the pluralistic and hybrid mix of American culture and society,” Kun said.
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By Alex Kasriel
Rebecca Walker, a leading feminist, tells Alex Kasriel how writing a book helped her heal her ‘fragmented’ identity as black-Jewish. Overleaf, another woman explains her own solution
The last time author Rebecca Walker met up with her friend Lenny Kravitz, the rock star, he jokingly suggested co-authoring a book entitled Barbecues and Barmitzvahs.
These normally unconnected events are related for the small tribe of America’s black Jews to which both Walker and Kravitz belong.
Other famous types who straddle the worlds of kneidlach and fried chicken, klezmer and hip hop, basketball and er, kalooki, include Saturday Night Live comedienne Maya Rudolph (daughter of singer Minnie Riperton and producer Richard Rudolph), the late Sammy Davis Jr, and novelist Walter Mosley. Meanwhile in the UK, celebrated black Jews include actress Sophie Okonedo, politician Oona King and singer Craig David.
It cannot be easy identifying as Jewish when to many co-religionists you look anything but. Yet without full black parentage, you might feel an imposter in the Afro-Caribbean/African American communities.
Yet Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Colour Purple, feels that there are advantages to inhabiting this bi-racial world. “It’s a combination of dynamism, spontaneity, improvisation and adaptability of the black culture with the intellectual, ordered, intensity of the Jewish culture,” she says. “I definitely feel the benefit of that. What comes out of that struggle is very interesting. You get ordered spontaneity.”
On the whole, however, the 38-year-old, who is considered one of the leading lights of “Third Wave” feminism, admits having a troubled relationship with her mixed status, something she blames on her parents. This uncomfortable truth came out in her 2000 book Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of Shifting Self, in which the privileged, middle-class Walker documents the anger she felt after the marriage between her mother and her Jewish father, civil-rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, disintegrated, leaving her confused as to where she belonged.
“A lot of it is about being a child of divorce. I think if my parents stayed together, I would have felt differently,” Walker complains. “My parents, who were involved in the civil-rights movement, had me as the embodiment of what they thought the movement should represent. When the civil-rights movement fell apart, so did their marriage, and they moved to different parts of the country. Mum joined the Afro-American community in San Francisco. Dad married his Jewish girlfriend. They both went back to their worlds, and I was the memory of a different time and a different set of beliefs. I felt attached to all of them and none of them at the same time. I could never bring the worlds together. I was the only one who could go back and forth, so that made me feel that I had to compartmentalise a lot, and it made me feel very fragmented. Writing that first book helped me to heal a lot of that.”
This therapy-style lit may have helped Walker deal with these issues, but it resulted in her becoming estranged from her mother.
“Both of my parents hated that book,” Walker admits, adding that she believes that one day they will come round to it. “They felt very exposed. They really didn’t understand that I was going through so much as a mixed-race person. Once they started to hear about the hundreds of people like me, I think they came round to it. My mother not so much, but my father got a dozen copies in his office. I think ultimately it will help one way or another because it’s very honest.
“I couldn’t really say those things and get a response from my mother, so in some ways, writing about it is the only way to have any kind of communication with her. That was part of our estrangement. It’s a high price to pay for writing a book. When you live your life in public in a certain way, you do start communicating with each other publicly. I think it has allowed the potential for more intimacy because I have been allowed to speak.”
Walker, who once had a relationship with a female African singer, and had an abortion aged 14, adds that having a family has helped her “heal”. She is referring to her partner Glen and son Tenzin, with whom she lives in Hawaii. Tenzin, now three, is the subject of her latest book, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence. The book details Walker’s uncertainty about having children as a feminist writer who does not want to get caught in the trappings of motherhood at the expense of her creativity.
Tenzin, named after the 13th Dalai Lama, is being brought up Buddhist. “I’m not going to put him in Hebrew school or Jewish school,” Walker insists. “My partner’s Buddhist — it just wasn’t on the cards. Seder, Yom Kippur… my partner’s not so into that stuff. I’m kind of mixed on that. Growing up as a half-black person was not always comfortable, and I don’t want my son to feel those things. We want him not to have to struggle to fit in.”
Walker, who changed her name from Leventhal while at high school in order to connect herself to her mother and associate with blackness, says she no longer has “an affinity with whiteness, with what Jewishness has become”. She refers to American Jewish assimilation “with those in power” and their support of Israel’s occupation of disputed territories.
But she does admit to having a cultural connection with Judaism, despite being black and living in Hawaii with her Buddhist partner and son. “I was raised with no real established religion. My father has raised his kids with his new wife as Jewish. They went to Hebrew school and did the formal Jewish training. But I was raised more culturally Jewish. In this country at least, a lot of what we consider being Jewish is really shaped by being Eastern European, and I am culturally linked to the ‘old country’.
“I feel very close to my Jewish family culturally. It’s a strange feeling to do with the way we talk or the way we look at things or that we’re constantly analysing things. I definitely have a lot of that in me — like my OCD side! Being a civil-rights attorney, my father has really been influenced by the idea of the law that comes from the Old Testament. So I think he feels more open to my work because he feels like it’s the just thing to do as a parent. He’s very judicial in his approach to things. My mother is more of a Pagan. She has a different approach to morality and family. She comes from a more emotional non-structured place, which means she has to be kind of free in her thinking. That place is a burden on her children.”
Baby Love is published by Souvenir Press
The black-Jewish hall of fame
Southampton-born R’n’B singer Craig David.Credentials: David was born to a Grenadian father and a British-Jewish mother whose own mother had converted to Judaism after marrying David’s grandfather, Reggie Loftus. He ran a chemist’s in Golders Green.
David, who wears a Magen David on his right wrist, says: “I often go to [my manager] Colin’s on Friday nights. We say the prayers and we’re good to go… I feel very privileged to have both [heritages]. It makes me proud.”
British film actress Sophie Okonedo, 39. Credentials: Her mother is Jewish, her father Nigerian.
She says that while growing up, she experienced racism from the Jewish community for being black and from the black community for being Jewish.
Rock ’n’roll star Lenny Kravitz, 43. Full name, Leonard Albert Kravitz.Credentials: His mother is black actress Roxie Roker and his father, TV producer Sy Kravitz, is of Ukrainian Jewish descent. But he identifies mostly with being black.
He says: “I’m half-Jewish, I’m half-black, I look in-between.”
US actress and Saturday Night Live comedienne Maya Rudolph, 35. Credentials: She is the daughter of the late African American soul singer Minnie Riperton and Jewish-American composer, songwriter and producer Richard Rudolph.
She says: “My mom was black and my dad is Jewish, and I lost my mom when I was seven. That made me feel really different from other kids.”
US actress and comedienne Rain Pryor, 38. Credentials: Pryor is the daughter of Jewish go-go dancer Shelley R Bonis and African American comedian Richard Pryor. Her show Fried Chicken and Latkes explores the challenges of being a bi-racial child.
She says: “I’ve learnt how to light the Friday-night candles and say the blessings, and I usually go on a Friday night to temple. I go to quite a few. Sometimes I make Shabbat dinner for my husband. I’m a helluva cook. That I get from both my grandmas. I do a great pot-roast brisket.”
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you can listen to the speech here.
NPR.org, March 18, 2008 · The following is a transcript of the remarks of Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, delivered March 18, 2008, in Philadelphia at the Constitution Center. In it, Obama addresses the role race has played in the presidential campaign. He also responds to criticism of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an unpaid campaign adviser and pastor at Obama’s Chicago church. Wright has made inflammatory remarks about the United States and has accused the country of bringing on the Sept. 11 attacks by spreading terrorism.
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union …” — 221 years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this presidential campaign — to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together, unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction — toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren.
This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own story.
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional of candidates. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.
Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African-Americans and white Americans.
This is not to say that race has not been an issue in this campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every single exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.
And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.
On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation, and that rightly offend white and black alike.
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy and, in some cases, pain. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems — two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change — problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television sets and YouTube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a United States Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over 30 years has led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth — by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I describe the experience of my first service at Trinity:
“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters. And in that single note — hope! — I heard something else: At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories — of survival and freedom and hope — became our stories, my story. The blood that spilled was our blood, the tears our tears, until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black. In chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a meaning to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about — memories that all people might study and cherish, and with which we could start to rebuild.”
That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety — the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing and clapping and screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love.
Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing to do would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated bias.
But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America — to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were and are inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education. And the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions or the police force or the fire department — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between blacks and whites, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persist in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pickup, building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continues to haunt us.
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late ’50s and early ’60s, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way, for those like me who would come after them.
For all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it — those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations — those young men and, increasingly, young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race and racism continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or the beauty shop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful. And to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze — a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better health care and better schools and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans: the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
Ironically, this quintessentially American — and yes, conservative — notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed, not just with words, but with deeds, by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more and nothing less than what all the world’s great religions demand — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the O.J. trial — or in the wake of tragedy — as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time, we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time, we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
This time we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care, who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
This time, we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time, we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time, we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together and fight together and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. And we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them and their families, and giving them the benefits that they have earned.
I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation — the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.
There is one story in particularly that I’d like to leave you with today — a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King’s birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.
There is a young, 23-year-old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, S.C. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was 9 years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches — because that was the cheapest way to eat. That’s the mind of a 9-year-old.
She did this for a year until her mom got better. So she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents, too.
Now, Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and different reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”
“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.
But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the 221 years since a band of patriots signed that document right here in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.
Filed under: community
Socrates, Mozart, Queen Elizabeth, and these guys
By Angela Valdez
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Posted: March 19, 2008
At 7 p.m. on a cold Thursday night, two SUVs with Maryland plates pull into a CVS parking lot at Florida Avenue and 7th Street NW. Half a dozen men in brightly colored robes emerge and begin to assemble a makeshift pulpit around a black wooden platform. Across the street, the go-go music blasting from a cell-phone store suddenly goes silent.
Someone flips the switch on a little generator and two industrial lights flash on, casting a blinding halo around the men gathered by the stage. A tall man in red and gold steps to the mic. His voice booms above the roar of traffic.
“Hello, Washington, D.C.,” he yells. “We are the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ. We are the true biblical and ethnic Jews.”
According to the ICGJC, everything you’ve been taught is a lie. The real Jews are black.
The true Hebrews of the Bible—from the 12 tribes of Jacob’s sons, on through the generations to Jesus and those who came after—all had skin as dark as the earth. Some of the tribes traveled to the New World, by boat, where they are now represented by the native peoples of the Caribbean and North and South America. Others fled from the Roman army and settled in Africa, where they would one day be sold as slaves by the nations whose lands they had occupied.
Black Jews ruled the world from ancient times until the Enlightenment. King Tut and Socrates were Black Hebrews. And centuries later, many of their kin survived Rome’s terror and rose to prominence in Europe—Shakespeare, King Arthur, Mozart—all were black and Jewish.
White people have rewritten history, obscuring the true identity of God’s chosen people and erasing the evidence of their accomplishments in the world.
White people have rewritten history, obscuring the true identity of God’s chosen people and erasing the evidence of their accomplishments in the world.
These are the lies the ICGJC is trying to set straight, one street corner at a time.
It may seem like a Sisyphean task, but the ICGJC are not as few or as marginal as they may appear. They belong to the Black Israelite tradition, a broad (and not very chummy) category of semi-Christian, semi-Jewish congregations that believe that the real chosen people are black. Through various permutations, the ideology has lasted for more than a century in the United States, weathering failed attempts to gain Israeli citizenship, a prophesied apocalypse that never went boom, and constant internal disputes that produce an ever-growing number of rebel groups and offshoots. Scholars estimate there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Black Hebrews in the United States, while the various groups put their numbers in the millions.
In Washington, Black Israelites have already drawn attention for their activities on H Street NE, where a group calling itself the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge inspired one resident to start a blog devoted to noise complaints.
I first notice the ICGJC one night in January at the Georgia Ave-Petworth Metro stop. The church members have set up their stage and placards just down from the drug dealers who hang out by the escalators. I decide to go up and satisfy my curiosity.
I introduce myself as a journalist to one of the combat-booted men standing sentry. His reluctance to talk is palpable. He looks at me through lowered lashes and keeps turning around as if he hopes someone else will come take over. He says they might be interested in “doing an article” and hands me a flyer before bowing out. The sheet is choked with text and decorated with lions and a Star of David. Bold-faced questions are answered with Bible verses.
ARE THE SO-CALLED NEGROES IN AMERICA AFRICANS? NO! THEY ARE THE REAL HEBREW ISRAELITES (JEWS).
Read: Exo: 11:7 “… That ye may know that the Lord doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.” THE REAL JEWS ARE BLACK (referring to people of brown color) ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE. Read: Jer. 14:2- “Judah mourneth (in sorrow) an the leaders) thereof languish (grow weaker), they are Black unto the ground (meaning different shades of brown)…”
I send e-mails to the address on the flyer. I call the listed number and leave messages. No one responds. I visit the Web site, a spiffy page that advertises meetings at D.C. public libraries nearly every night of the week. After a few weeks of radio silence, I show up unannounced in a small room on the second floor of the MLK library. A man with a suitcase on wheels listens stone-faced as I introduce myself. His name, I learn later, is Rachaab, or Raymond Washington. He pulls out his cell, dials a number, and hands me the phone. A man on the other end introduces himself as Bishop Maahwar Ahmathyah. I tell him I’m a journalist and want to sit in on the meeting. That’s fine, he says, and I hand the phone back to Washington. He listens, nods a few times, and hangs up. Then he looks me over and asks where I’m from.
“Oregon,” I say.
“No,” he says, “I mean, where are your people from.”
I think I see where he’s going and explain that I’m a quarter Mexican. “On which side?” he asks. I have the right answer: my father, and my father’s father. With that, my invitation is confirmed. The Mexican people are Jews, you see, the 12th of the 12 lost tribes of Israel. It makes no matter that I’m three-quarters heathen. Contrary to the traditional Jewish law of matrilineal descent, the Israelites believe the seed comes from the man.
In the session, I learn some basic tenets of the ICGJC. Most of it is following rules. Because sex equals marriage, polygamy is permitted, even encouraged. (For men only.) Contraception is banned. Members follow some kosher restrictions: no pork, no shellfish. Smoking is prohibited; moderate drinking is allowed. They celebrate High Holy Days and believe Jesus was the son of God from a virgin birth.
ICGJC members say they speak an ancient dialect of Hebrew called Lashawan Qadash, which resembles modern Israeli Hebrew with all the vowels sounds except “a” and “i” removed. Mostly, they use the language for greetings, prayers, and giving themselves “Hebrew” names.
If you ask about the history of their religion, the Israelites invariably respond to a different question. “We go back to the time of Moses in the wilderness,” they’ll say. Or they’ll say that their organization isn’t a religion at all but a race living in a diaspora.
Black Hebrew ideology has its roots, most likely, with slaves’ first encounters with Christianity. Early sermons led by slaves and freemen often focused on the books of the Old Testament, particularly accounts of Jewish oppression in Egypt. Stories of surviving Pharaoh’s cruelty probably resonated more than the miracles of the New Testament, especially for a people suffering under modern-day slavery with no Moses in sight. Imagery borrowed from the Jewish experience pervades black culture in the New World, from Martin Luther King’s “I’ve seen the promised land” to Desmond Dekker’s 1968 ska hit “The Israelites.”
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the identification with Jews transformed into claims of actual kinship.
The first groups to claim heredity between blacks in America and the biblical Jews emerged more than 100 years ago, starting in the South and moving to Northern cities along the routes of black migration. They advocated an ideology that reclaimed biblical salvation for themselves and denied the Christian religion of their oppressors. Adam and Eve were black, as were God and Jesus. The white Jews were imposters, and the white race was cursed. The groups grew steadily in the early 20th century, establishing churches in Virginia, New York, and Philadelphia with thousands of members.
The movement surged again in the 1960s and ’70s, with several new groups that espoused a more stridently separatist doctrine. One Chicago sect relocated a chunk of its congregation to Israel, where members have been allowed to join the national Defense Forces. Another group, the Nation of Yahweh in Miami, has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Today, the various sects of Hebrew Israelites have vastly different theologies, from strict emulations of Orthodox Jewish traditions and beliefs to a sort of hybrid Christianity in which Jesus is the savior but the laws of the Old Testament still stand. The ICGJC occupies the latter end of the spectrum.
The church has its roots in the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, which was founded in New York City in the 1960s. In the late 1980s, the group replaced “School” with “Church,” in a bid, according to some accounts, to get tax-exempt status (ICGJC members say there was just a split in the organization). A decade later, elders began preaching that the world would end on Jan. 1, 2000. When nothing happened, one group of former members reorganized as the ICGJC. Soon a new leader emerged, a man known as Apostle and Chief High Priest Tazadaqyah, who believes he’s inhabited by the Holy Spirit and calls himself the Comforter.
The ICGJC claims to have hundreds of thousands of members, which may seem far-fetched for a group whose expansion into D.C. relies on a dozen or so men preaching at street corners. But there are signs the church is more than a ramshackle operation: a MySpace-style social networking site with hundreds of profiles; enough money to pay for the Comforter’s recent “World Tour,” to Dallas, Philadelphia, and other cities east of the Continental Divide, plus audio-visual equipment, travel expenses, the production of a weekly cable-access television show, and upkeep and rent for two “campuses” in New York and Baltimore.
The “street unit” is the keystone of the ICGJC’s plans to find a permanent home here. About a dozen men visit D.C. each week to “speak the word” at the Petworth Metro, in Anacostia, or on Florida Avenue.
Clifford Jean, whose Hebrew name is Maahwar Ahmathyah, is the bishop of D.C. and the person I spoke to on the phone back at the library. Unlike the group’s foot soldiers, none of whom will talk to me, Jean is jovial and polite, eager to answer questions about the ICGJC.
But Jean, 35, is a little shy when we’re not talking about religion. I can pry out only a few details: He lives in Silver Spring, he says, with his wife and their 10 children. He says he was raised by his father, a Haitian immigrant, who worked as a mechanic in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and supported the family with little to no help from Jean’s mother. Jean went to Catholic church occasionally and loved to draw. “I just had a regular childhood life, I guess,” he says. “I went to school and did what I had to do. I didn’t get in too much trouble. Just an ordinary kid.”
After graduating from the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, a vocational school in Manhattan, he enrolled in a graphic arts program at John Jay College in Brooklyn. He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, he says, because he didn’t like the grease. But after a year of school, he dropped out and took a job in building security, which is still his trade.
Jean discovered the Israelites the way most people do, by accident. On his way home from work, he saw a group of men preaching near the corner of 44th Street and Broadway. He was transfixed by their poise.
“I guess it was the way they dressed,” he says. “The way they stood so stiff before the Lord. I was like, Wow! These guys look amazing.”
Jean stopped and listened to what the men had to say. They showed him how things he’d learned in school were lies. The light of the truth drew him in.
“It was factual,” he says. “That’s what got me interested. The truth.”
I find truth for myself one Saturday at the Petworth library, where the ICGJC is holding a four-hour seminar called “From Kings to Slaves.”
Before the session starts, a dozen men rush around making coffee and piling food—fried chicken from Popeye’s, bagels and cream cheese, snack-size bags of potato chips—on a long table in the chilly basement. There is a jovial air to the preparations. The men ask after one another’s families, “How your people doing? The twins, they all right?” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Otis Redding, plays over and over on a laptop connected to a Peavy amp.
Raymond Washington, the man I’d met at the MLK library, tests the mic in a low voice. “The real Jews were black,” he says. Tap tap. “The real Jews were black.”
As curtain time approaches, the men bring out robes on hangers covered in plastic. They slip into the hand-sewn sheaves of off-white tapestry, their street shoes and pants legs peaking out below a fringe of knotted string. Over the top, they wear red smocks of shiny red brocade with dragon designs—the kind of material you might imagine on a geisha. Bishop Jean wears a gold lamé turban and a gold lamé cummerbund around his ample middle.
When I ask who makes the robes, Jean says “the sewing department.”
The guests begin to arrive in little clusters. Most are black women. Two teenage girls, some middle-aged friends. Women with crying infants. Mothers with lanky teenage sons. One black woman is watching over the baby girl of Carlos Santiago, the only Latino I’ve met so far. Otis Redding is still on repeat.
A man strides to the front of the room and introduces himself as 13 Shield General Hamaqal. He announces that the seminar will begin with a history lesson. But not just any history. “This is basic history all the way back to the actual beginning,” he says. “History not being taught in these so-called high schools.”
“We ruled the whole planet Earth,” he says.
Hamaqal tells the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob who was betrayed by his brothers and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph wins a place in the Pharaoh’s court and sets a trap to bring his brothers back to Egypt, where they fall under his reign.
God decrees that Joseph and the other children of Jacob, who is renamed Israel, will become kings. Of course, for the next 200 years they remain oppressed in Egypt. Then Moses picks up his staff, leads them out and they—the Jews—settle in Canaan, forming the 12 tribes of Israel.
This is all straight from the Bible. What makes the difference is the context, sprinkled here and there throughout every ICGJC presentation: Jacob’s descendants, the Jews, were black.
The Israelites rely on just a few passages from the King James version to prove this central point. A favored quotation comes from the Song of Solomon. The book is as close as the Bible gets to erotica and consists of letters between a man, perhaps Solomon, and his lover, perhaps the daughter of the Pharaoh.
The teacher calls upon his reader to recite from the Song of Solomon, Chapter 1, Verse 5.
“I am black.”
“Read it again,” the teacher says.
“I am black.”
“Read it backwards,” the teacher says.
“Black am I.”
“Read it again,” the teacher says.
“I am black.”
Here is the entire verse from the King James edition: “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.”
In some 20th-century translations, the first line became the familiar “I am black and beautiful.” The problem with the Israelites’ interpretation is this: Most scholars believe the author of the passage is not Solomon but his lover, a woman who may very well have been black. The only references to Solomon’s appearance come later, also in her voice, when she describes him thus: “My beloved is white and ruddy…His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven…his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires…His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold.”
Sounds like an olive-skinned man from the Middle East.
Hamaqal moves from the two centuries of Jewish repression in Egypt, a central event of the Old Testament with no real foundation in the historical record, straight into facts about ancient Egypt. His only departure from the Encyclopaedia Britannica is that the pharaohs were Jewish.
A slide pops up listing the Black Israelites’ six contributions to world culture during their time in Egypt. One, the pyramids, which they built to honor Black Hebrews like King Tut. Two, monotheism, introduced by another black Jew, Akhenaton. Three, riches, as seen in the relics found in ancient tombs. (“Right now we’re rich in spirit, but when our forefathers ruled the earth, they had a lot of riches. This ain’t no rinky-dink gold.”) Four, horse-drawn carriages. Five, the composite bow, and six, the scarab.
Fast-forward a millennium or so.
“Because we didn’t do what God wanted us to do,” he says, “we were scattered amongst other nations.”
In the year 70 A.D., he says, black Jews fleeing an advancing Roman Empire swarmed into Africa, making homes among the people already settled there. The story isn’t totally bizarre. The Jewish diaspora is often dated to 63 A.D., when Rome overtook Judea and eventually banned Jews from setting foot in Jerusalem. The dispersal of Judaism was far and wide, spreading as far as Persia and into Europe. There are groups of Jewish Ethiopians who claim to be descendants of King Solomon, but scholars have dated their existence only back to the late Middle Ages.
Hamaqal hands over the reins to Bishop Jean, who storms into the full-fledged sci-fi scenarios. Even Mormons, who believe a group of Israelites came to the New World in 600 B.C., concede the major events of European history. But the Israelites throw out the whole shebang.
It turns out that many of the Hebrews targeted by the Roman army found ways to stick it out, even claiming seats of power in the empire of their oppressors. If you want proof, just look at one of the old coins. Septimius Severus clearly wore his hair in cornrows.
“Althusian loved to keep it jiggy,” says Jean.
The apex of black power in Europe, it seems, came during the Middle Ages. Jean explains that modern historians call those years the Dark Ages because black people were in charge. During this time, Black Israelites made many accomplishments. Among them, creating the English language.
Jean’s speech becomes something of a disorganized litany, with slide after slide of proof that the great men and women of Europe were black and Jewish. Jean points to the evidence: woolly hair, cornrows, dark skin.
“King James,” he says. “Black man. Looks like Mayor Dinkins.”
Queen Elizabeth was a light-skinned sister. “Henry VIII, black man! St. Nicholas, black man! Ivan the Terrible, black man!”
A slide pops up with an indistinct etching of a man in a wig. “Uh-oh,” Jean says, “who do we have here?” It’s Mozart. “Black man!” Next, Beethoven.
“It’s not so hard to believe that black people write music,” he says. “A modern-day Beethoven would be Prince.”
One woman near me turns to her friend periodically to nod and say, “It’s true. It’s true.”
Jean says that blacks remained in power in Europe until 1711, “when Charlemagne came.” Then, during the Renaissance, white families spent “thousands of dollars” to erase the “names of our forefathers.”
So how did it all end? Jean says that blacks remained in power in Europe until 1711, “when Charlemagne came.” Then, during the Renaissance, white families spent “thousands of dollars” to erase the “names of our forefathers.” They used acid to bleach the paintings of black kings and queens, hammers to chip the broad noses from marble statues.
Jean finishes and returns the podium to Hamaqal, who explains how Black Hebrews ended up as slaves in America.
“We’ll go into a position we’re more familiar with today,” he says. Starting in 1619, he explains, Africans began selling their immigrant population, the Hebrew Israelites, into slavery. Their fate was a punishment for disobeying God.
“We have sinned, and that is the reason the crown has fallen,” Hamaqal says.
For the next hour, we watch clips from a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that shows slaves drooling over the babble of Christian preachers and welcoming the abuses of their patriarchs. The film reinforces a central theme of the ICGJC, that mainstream Christianity was right next to the whip as a tool of oppression.
The session winds up with 45 minutes of questions and answers. One woman tells the men she’s struggling with some of the revelations.
“Being from England myself,” she says, “for some reason, I’m having a difficult time grasping Shakespeare and Beethoven and Mozart being black.”
Jean responds by talking about the story of Romeo and Juliet, which he says, was about two black lovers from opposite sides of town. “Even though you haven’t been taught it,” he says, “why don’t you take it from the prophets. They’ve done the work for you.”
The woman nods. “I do receive,” she says. “But sometimes when you’ve been indoctrinated, you resist.”
I approach the woman after the session ends. She looks to be in her 40s, at least, and is surrounded by three girls and two boys, all hers, she says. It turns out she’s not really skeptical. She tells me she’s working through unlearning the lies she accepted in a lifetime attending Christian churches. She says she’s a minister but won’t say where. Christian preachers never gave her a satisfactory explanation for the suffering of daily life. For her, the worst comes from “the bondage of debt, of course.” But the Israelites, she says, had an answer. “By them speaking, my spirit was illuminated,” she says.
The next day, I call Bishop Jean to go over a few areas of confusion. First of all, I want to know how the Mexicans got here from the Old World.
Like the Mormons, the ICGJC believes the native people of the New World came here by boat. In 474 B.C., he says, Black Hebrews from the southern kingdom of Israel, oppressed by Syrian overlords, fled to the New World in sailboats.
In his lecture, Bishop Jean said that Black Hebrews had led England until Charlemagne came in 1711. The much-mythologized French king is typically said to have ruled during the French expansion of the Middle Ages, in the late 700s, and is not generally credited with invading Britain, an honor usually attributed to William the Conqueror, who defeated Harold II at Hastings in 1066. I ask Bishop Jean what happened in 1711.
He responds by clarifying a different point. He says his ancestors actually ruled Europe until 1810, when the last strongholds of Black Hebrews fell in Russia. OK, I say, but what happened with Charlemagne, you know, in 1711?
“What do you mean? In 1810?” he says.
Jean demurs. “I’m not too sure,” he says. “I’m not a Charlemagne historic person.”
As for the decline of black power in Europe, he says there were no cataclysmic events. It was a slow defeat.
“It was gradual,” he says. “They lost power over Russia…white people took over.” How? Different ways, he says. “A lot of them through war, through marriage.”
And whither the descendants of our great Hebrew forefathers, like Shakespeare and Mozart?
“A lot of them stayed in Europe,” he says. They moved into the poor neighborhoods where they still reside today. You can find the kin of Shakespeare and Mozart in the black slums of Europe.
Jean doesn’t have a problem with answering whether white people are evil. They are, he says, “the children of Satan.” It’s folly to believe what they say or to participate in their system.
“The Lord said never trust thine enemy,” he says. “How can you trust the devil? It doesn’t make no sense.”
I try to think of a good devil. “What about Gandhi?” I ask. “He did some good things. Was he following Satan too?”
“Yeah, of course,” the bishop says.
“The truth of God is not secret,” he says. “There’s white people that come up to the campus and say, ‘Am I the devil?’ and we say, ‘Yeah, let me prove it to you.’”
Back on Florida Avenue, the ICGJC’s evangelists are trying to do just that. They condemn political participation, saying Barack Obama is in league with the devil. They call out the heathen races: Chinese, Japanese, whites, and Africans. Holding up a poster of a white Jesus, they call it “the image of the beast.”
Meanwhile, the unit’s foot soldiers work the sidewalk, trying their pitch on almost anyone: kids with backpacks on their way home from school, old women, even drunks. Just so long as they’re black or Latino.
An Israelite with dreadlocks and an earbud approaches a young man walking by in a red City Year jacket. He hands over a flyer and starts talking. Within minutes, the two men have shifted into debaters’ stances, leaning forward, hands spread open, eyes locked.
The City Year recruit explains that his mother is Jewish and his father is black. “That must make me the ultimate Jew,” he says, grinning. His wooer reacts with a no-nonsense grimace. “It makes you a real, ethnic Jew,” he says.
To prove his point, the proselytizer tells a parable about an apple seed. If you plant the seed over here, he says, pointing toward Florida Avenue, what will grow? “An apple tree,” the young man says. And if you plant it over here, he gestures in the other direction, what grows then? “An apple tree,” the young man repeats, chuckling. “I’m gonna peace out on that,” he says and hurries to cross with the light.
Carlos Santiago spends about 20 minutes talking to a man in a leather coat who’s been taking notes since the street sermon began. After Santiago leaves, I ask the man what he thinks of the Israelites. His name is David, and he says he lives nearby and comes out to listen whenever the unit sets up. He thinks they get things a little wrong but says he always learns something from the passages they mention. He also attends Sunday services at the United House of Prayer. He’s not the first person I’ve met who takes what they want from the Israelites and leaves the rest.
David wanders off, leaving two stalwart fans in front of the stage. The men, who look either drunk or high, waver unsteadily in front of the amp. It’s not clear if they are feeling the Holy Spirit or simply unable to walk.
After several weeks trolling for lapsed members of the ICGJC, I finally track down Margaret Cook Turner, who now lives in Atlanta.
Fifteen years ago, Turner’s boyfriend tried to get her to join what was then the ICUPK. She resisted, but he kept pointing out the inconsistencies between scripture and Christian beliefs. “By the time they’ve finished, they’ve painted a big puzzle, and they have all the pieces,” she says. It took a few years, but she finally joined in 1996. Her brother joined, too.
The church taught its members to expect suffering in this world and a reward in the hereafter. In heaven, they would be the masters, she says, and their slaves would be white.
She left the church in late 2000 but stayed a believer for at least three more years. The thing that finally pissed her off enough to leave was how the church treated women. It wasn’t just the polygamy. Turner recalls one Hanukkah celebration when the men prepared dinner for the entire congregation. The guys took forever in the kitchen, and when they finally finished, fed themselves first, then the male children. By the time the women sat down to eat, it was after midnight, and the food was almost gone.
Turner says most of the women stay home with their children and collect public assistance. “If you’re not happy with it,” she says, “they give you Bible scriptures.”
Plus, she adds, someone is clearly making money off the enterprise. In addition to a 10 percent monthly tithe, members must contribute hundreds of dollars a year to Passover funds, priestly fees, and family fees. The ICGJC plans to open a Princess School for girls in New York City, which will also cost a chunk of change.
She’s still struggling to “recover from the brainwashing.”
“It’s hard to let go of it completely once you’re involved,” she says. She and her brother still call each other during Hanukkah and laugh at how their relatives celebrate Easter.
Growing up black in America, she says, you desperately want an explanation for why it’s hard to get ahead. When you start to notice contradictions in conventional histories, it’s easy to start seeing the whole thing as a fabrication. “You’d want to believe it,” she says. “It makes you feel special. It makes you feel like the chosen one.”
Mar. 21 – 27, 2008 (Vol. 28, #12)
Filed under: community
From the Atlanta-Journal Constitution…
Judaism Drawing More Black Americans
By RACHEL POMERANCE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/18/08
Pamela and Jim Harris have gotten used to the stares.
It’s not that people have never seen traditional Jewish garb before. They’ve just rarely seen it on a black couple.
“For a black male to put on a kipah and go wandering around in a predominantly black community, you get the strangest looks,” said Pamela Harris, referring to the traditional Jewish head covering.
Soon the Harrises, former Christian evangelicals, will complete their conversion to Judaism. If their choice seems unusual, it’s apparently becoming less so.
At Congregation Shearith Israel, a conservative synagogue in Virginia-Highland, where Pamela Harris works as the senior nonclerical staff member, at least eight of the roughly 20 people learning about Judaism with Rabbi Hillel Norry are black.
At the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody, roughly 20 percent of the nearly two dozen people enrolled in Steven Chervin’s introduction to Judaism classes are black.
Although there are no sound statistics on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that, in the past 15 years, increasing numbers of black Americans are exploring Judaism, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.
“Ten years ago, it was almost unheard of that a black person would come in and want to convert,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman, who is working with the Harrises and two other black people pursuing conversion.
Until their conversion courses intensified last year, the Harrises led a weekly learning/support group in Decatur for about a dozen African-Americans interested in Judaism.
So what’s going on?
Tobin cites three major trends. One, people are increasingly switching religions, he said. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey in February that found 28 percent of American adults have left the faith they were raised in for another one or none at all.
The Internet, too, has played a role, allowing people to readily access information on different faiths, he said.
And racial barriers have been breaking down over the past 40 years, with intermarriage leading to multiracial families and communities, he said.
American Jews now marry non-Jews at a rate of nearly 50 percent. Plus, there are more instances of interracial adoption and conversion, said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. That’s contributed to more ethnic diversity, especially within the Reform movement, Judaism’s largest and most liberal branch.
“It’s a safe assumption that the number of black Jews in America is growing because of integration by both Jews and blacks,” said Chaim Waxman, senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank in Israel.
Next year in Cincinnati, the first black female rabbinical student will be ordained through the Reform movement.
‘I felt this is my place’
Latesha Jones’ introduction to the faith came through Jewish friends she met after moving to Atlanta from Richmond.
Though she was born into a Baptist family, the 29-year-old said she felt more at home in a synagogue.
Before long, she was studying Judaism and decided to convert, changing her name to Elisheva Naomi Chaim.
“I felt welcome,” she said. “I felt like this is my place.”
But not everyone felt comfortable with her decision. Chaim cites more than one awkward conversation with family members.
They asked which God she was serving, and whether Jesus Christ was involved. When she explained that she was not worshipping Jesus, her aunt told her she’d go to hell.
“They’re coming around one at a time,” Chaim said of her relatives. Her mother now says that as long as Chaim is “doing something spiritually,” she doesn’t have a problem.
It’s not always easy at synagogue either, said Chaim, who attends Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in Sandy Springs.
“There are some that will look at me strangely because I’m black, but I try not to let that get under my skin.”
Once she talks to them and shows a knowledge of Judaism, she said, “their attitude changes.”
They’ll say, “Welcome to the tribe” or “I have a lot of respect for you,” given the historic persecution of Jews, she said.
Under the radar
Since the turn of the century, there have been black congregations around the country that identify as “Hebrew Israelite,” that is to say, as descendants of the biblical patriarchs, said Lewis Gordon, founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University. But often these groups don’t consider themselves Jewish, despite some of them having similar traditions.
The 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by the United Jewish Communities, North America’s central Jewish fund-raising organization, found that 1 percent of Jewish adults, or 37,000 people, identified as black or African-American. An additional 1 percent of Jewish adults called themselves biracial or multiracial.
However, that was based on a total estimate of 5.2 million Jews in America, a number that Tobin and other key Jewish demographers have called too low. Tobin believes the number of black Jews in America exceeds 150,000.
The notion of black Jews is hardly new. The Jewish history of worldwide migration has led to Jews of every ethnicity. But much of the black Jewish experience in this country has flown under the radar of other Americans, Gordon said. That’s because many black Jews historically practiced privately or in segregated communities, he said.
The population was “swept up in the tides of racism in scholarship and institutions” that saw Jews as exclusively white, even though American Jews of European descent did not consider themselves white until recent decades, Gordon said.
“There have always been communities of either black people who are already Jewish or black people considering coming to Judaism. What is different is that institutional structures are changing,” he said.
“There is an increased effort to creating a welcoming environment for them.”
Gordon speculates that as many as 1 million black people in the United States have Jewish roots, among them African-Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants and Afro-Latinos.
Which is why Gordon thinks that, among the rising numbers of black Americans coming to Judaism, some of them are simply returning to it.
That’s how Sivan Ariel sees her experience.
Born to a Catholic family in the Virgin Islands, Ariel now believes her biracial grandmother practiced Jewish customs she learned from her mother.
“She would always talk about the laws of God” and the Exodus story, Ariel said. Her grandmother would light white candles, which now remind Ariel of those lit on the Sabbath.
“She was the only person I knew that actually did that, so I wondered if it was actually witchcraft,” Ariel said with a chuckle.
Ariel left Catholicism when she moved to Atlanta for college and joined a Pentecostal church for a while. But she never felt comfortable there, and she began a spiritual search that led her to convert to Judaism.
“A long time ago, religion was not something that you thought about,” Pamela Harris said.
“You went to whatever church that Mama and Daddy went to.”
Ariel, referring to her experience and those of other black Jews, said, “Some of us know beyond a shadow of a doubt we’re here because we’re home.”
Rabbi Norry called this an “unprecedented time” of interest in Judaism.
“Business is booming,” he said. “On any given Shabbos, there’s 10 non-Jews at our service, visiting or studying to be Jewish.”
Still, he asks every convert: “Why would you ever want to be Jewish? Don’t you know how many people hate us?”
The black converts respond differently, he said. They look at him as if to say: “Welcome to my world.”
And yet, for Pamela Harris, race was always beside the point. In fact, her Jewish identity trumps her racial one.
“My community is the community of B’nai Israel,” she said, using the Hebrew expression for the children of Israel.
“I was on a quest for a relationship with God,” she said. “That search has nothing to do with race or creed or color or even your religious preference. It has to do with fulfilling a deep need.”
Filed under: community
Moments before Yosef Abrahamson, 16, accepted an award for the essay he’d written in a competition sponsored by the Police Athletic League, an officer approached him to complain about his fedora. The hat, an essential wardrobe item for Hasidic men, was gaudy, the policeman told him, and what’s with all these kids today and their nose rings and their attitudes. A second police officer, overhearing the conversation, came over to steer away the first one, who reappeared a few minutes later to apologize. He’d never seen a Hasidic Jew, he told Yosef.
A policeman working in New York who’d never seen a Hasidic Jew? What he probably meant, Yosef theorized, was “that he’d never seen a Hasidic Jew of color. I think he was probably making some assumptions there.”
Thanks to his Egyptian father, who left the family when Yosef was young, and his maternal grandfather, who was of African descent by way of Panama, Yosef looks African-American (though his family prefers to describe themselves as Jews of color, believing their culture to be exclusively Jewish). Yosef moved to Crown Heights only a year ago, until then having lived in Omaha, where his mother’s maternal family, German Jewish merchants, had settled several generations earlier.
If Yosef, who attends the yeshiva Darchai Menachem in Crown Heights, ever finds himself writing a college application essay, his advisers would have a hard time choosing which of his compelling story lines would most dazzle those college admissions officers: The story of growing up in the only Hasidic family in Omaha? Or the story of being the only student of color in his yeshiva? Or maybe the story of being the only Hasidic person of color in Omaha’s competitive ice skating circuit?
Despite the friendships he made while ice skating, a hobby his mother encouraged to round him out, life in Omaha was “a bit lonely,” Yosef admitted last week while eating a Kosher hamburger on Albany Avenue with his mother and his older sister, Sarah, 22. His mother, Dinah, who joined the Chabad-Lubavitch movement after seeing videos of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson several years ago, home-schooled both of her children.
Yosef was obviously sheltered from too much scrutiny from the outside world, but the surprising combination of his race and his particular form of religious observance fazed no one in Omaha — for all the average person knew in Omaha, all Hasidic Jews were of African descent, his mother said. When friends from Nebraska first visited New York, they were fascinated to meet some white Hasids for the first time.
It was easier for Ms. Abrahamson to raise her children in Omaha than it would have been in Crown Heights, she said.
“People are laid-back in Omaha,” she said. “It’s different there.”
Omaha is not, for example, a place where race relations between Jews and blacks have exploded into days of riots, as they did in Crown Heights in 1991; nor have the police in Omaha ever deemed it necessary to set up mobile command centers to monitor simmering tensions between Jews and blacks, as the New York police did last month in the Brooklyn neighborhood in response to two unrelated physical altercations.
A young man like Yosef could easily start to feel like a powerful symbol, rather than just a kid, the human embodiment of that famously controversial Art Spiegelman New Yorker cover depicting a Hasidic man embracing an African-American woman.
But life in Crown Heights is somehow less complicated than that for Yosef, a tall, athletic young man who seems to have internalized Omaha’s easygoing ways (and its broad Midwestern accent). Beyond the misunderstanding at the awards ceremony — of which Yosef said, “It was a bit strange, but really, I understand” — he says he has felt comfortable in Crown Heights from the moment he came there to advance his education.
Through summer camps and occasional trips to New York, the Abrahamsons were already familiar to the Jewish community in Crown Heights when he arrived last fall (the community has only a handful of other black families). The response from the African-American community has been, if anything, amazement. “Now I’ve seen everything,” an African-American man said three or four times as he passed Yosef and his mother and his sister walking home from synagogue.
Some black neighbors recently asked Ms. Abrahamson questions about the meaning of some Lubavitch fliers they had received in the mail. The family sensed that the neighbors had long been harboring those questions but had felt a certain comfort level with the Abrahamsons because of their shared skin color.
If there have been resentful or disapproving responses from either side, they have apparently gone as far over Yosef’s head as the references his ice skating friends used to make to movies or television shows he’d never seen.
The ease with which both communities have received Yosef seems a little unlikely, but appropriate in the year of what some call the country’s first post-racial presidential campaign. Except that the Abrahamsons consider themselves “post-racial, for real,” said Ms. Abrahamson, a Republican delegate in Nebraska who is not a fan of Mr. Obama. To the contrary, the whole family strongly supports John McCain, and Yosef will be a page at the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities in September.
One more item to add to that list of possible essay topics.
Filed under: community
Attitudes Toward Multiracial Americans Evolving
By Todd Lewan, Associated Press
Alex Diaz-Asper, left, and his wife Rachel Lerman, far right, play with their twin boys, Alejandro, center left, and Miguel, 3, at their Washington D.C. home.
Rachel Lerman is the embodiment of melting-pot citizenry: Born in 1967 in Boston to a blonde, blue-eyed, Roman Catholic white woman and a black man from Nigeria, she was placed in foster care and shortly thereafter adopted by a white couple and raised Jewish.
After college, she met Alex Diaz-Asper, a Catholic born in Miami of immigrant parents from Spain and Cuba. At 33, she married him, then settled down in Washington, D.C., in Adams Morgan, a “multi-culti” neighborhood where folks can find Ghana on a map or, at the very least, a Ghanaian eatery around the corner.
Three years ago, the couple had twins: Alejandro, a brown-eyed, curly haired boy, caramel-colored from head to toe — “People say he looks like a kid in a Gap ad: very ‘ambi-ethnic.”‘ — and Miguel, a tot with straight, blonde hair, ice-blue eyes, and the ruddy cheeks of a windburned Irishman.
Their momma, who is brown-skinned and curly haired herself, couldn’t be prouder. And yet, when she and the boys are at the playground or the grocery store, she still draws puzzled looks, curious stares and the questions …
“Are you the nanny?”
“Is Miguel adopted?”
“What are you?”
Even today, at a time when immigration and changing social attitudes are helping to swell the numbers of multiracial Americans at 10 times the rate of white population growth, multiethnic people are still struggling to avoid being labeled and marginalized by a society they say is far from entering a “post-race” era.
Clearly, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, son of a black man and a white woman, has revived a national conversation on racial attitudes. Likewise, it has drawn new attention to the unique perspectives and experiences of the roughly 5 million multiethnic people living in America.
Ask multiracial Americans whether things are changing, and you’re likely to hear there’s more outward acceptance now than in decades past for biracial couples, adopted children who don’t share the ethnicity of either parent, and so-called “non-mixed” members of multiracial families.
Still, activists who campaign to raise understanding of multiracial people say that acceptance is uneven, varying widely across regions, social classes and generations.
“Appearance is still how people judge you, categorize you,” says Heather Tarleton, 28, a biology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and president of the Interracial Family Circle, a support group founded by her mother, who is black, and her father, who is white.
“You spend most of your life trying to explain to people ‘what you are.’ And then, once they know what you are, you still are identified with the race you look most like … So, it’s never so much that you’re one complete individual with multiple sides, but a fraction of a person that society selects.”
Which leads multiracial people to ask some questions of their own.
Is it possible, they wonder, that this nation — its history steeped in slavery, terrorism by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and illicit eroticism between black and white — is ready to embrace not just white or black, but shades of brown?
Why is it, they ask, that multiracial people, from the time they leave the stroller to time they go to their graves, are verbally poked and prodded to choose their “primary” ethnicity — lest it be chosen for them by their peers, based on a glance?
How is it that even today, when a highway patrol trooper spots a motorist with European and African heritage he sees a black man, not a white one?
At a more basic level, why are terms such as “race” and “mixed” — leftovers, sociologists say, from the misguided “racial science” of the 19th century — still widely used to describe genetic, cultural and social variations within our one human race?
Why are concepts such as the “one-drop rule” — the arbitrary, Jim Crow classification of anyone with any African heritage as black — still accepted by many blacks and whites, even as they serve to deepen racial divisions?
Rachel Lerman contemplates such questions, of course. Life as a biracial mother with a Spanish-speaking spouse in 2008 America doesn’t come with a laugh track as did the ’70s sitcom, “The Jeffersons.” But she has two boys to raise, groceries to buy, trips to the playground to make.
So, to avoid confusion when she’s out with her light-skinned son, she recently bought Miguel a T-shirt online.
“She’s my mommy, not my nanny.”
By the numbers
The year 1967 was particularly memorable for multiracial America: Hollywood came out with the Sidney Poitier film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a comedy built around white parents’ acceptance of an interracial couple; and, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a Virginia statute that barred whites from marrying nonwhites, a decision that overturned bans in 15 other states.
Since then, the number of interracial marriages has steadily risen, from 67,685 in 1970 to 440,150 in 2005, comprising more than 7% of America’s 59 million married couples, according to the most recent census figures.
Likewise, attitudes toward interraciality appear to be growing more tolerant.
In 1972, 39% of Americans said marrying someone of a different race should be illegal; by 2002, only 9.9% felt the same way. In 2003, more than three-quarters of adults said it was “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” up from 48% who felt that way in 1987, according to the Pew Research Center.
Not everyone signs off on interracial unions. Bob Jones University in South Carolina only dropped its prohibition on interracial dating in 2000. The following year, 40% of voters in Alabama objected when officials removed a non-enforceable ban on interracial marriages in the state’s constitution. And there are occasional incidents involving taunts and threats.
Nonetheless, says Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, as interracial unions increase, “there is a growing acceptance of this in American society.”
One sign of this came in 2000, the first year the Census Bureau allowed Americans to identify themselves as multiracial by checking as many boxes about race as there were distinct branches of their family tree.
Some traditional civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund opposed the change, fearing that fewer self-identified black or Asian people would diminish their constituencies — and thereby make it more difficult to raise funds and monitor discrimination.
Those fears haven’t panned out, as it happens: As of July 1, 2007, the number of Americans who identified themselves as being of “two or more races” in the government’s annual Population Estimate shot up 3% from the previous year. That exceeded the growth rate of the white population by 10 times.
And although multiracial Americans still only represent 1.6% of the nation’s 302 million residents, the intense spotlight focused on celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter and Jessica Alba is a clue that corporate sponsors and marketers sense a shift in attitudes toward multiethnicity.
Jerome D. Williams, a professor of advertising and African American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says advertisers remain skittish about backlash from consumers over black-and-white couples in romantic ads. Still, he’s noticed more “ethnically ambiguous” models in TV commercials.
“You’re trying to straddle the fence, to get someone to appeal to an ethnic audience while at the same time making sure you don’t turn off a mainstream, white audience.”
One thing is apparent to Williams: The younger you are, the more likely you are to know someone who is multiracial — and the more likely you are to accept people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Opposition to multiraciality, he says, is aging out.
It’s not gone unnoticed among America’s multiethnic population that the mainstream media — indeed, a broad swath of Americans — tend to refer to candidate Obama as the first serious “black” contender for the White House.
Jennifer Noble, 31, a psychology professor at Pasadena College (and the daughter of a Sri Lankan woman and an African-American father), says some may use this to pigeonhole him as JUST black: “Whatever you look like to us, that’s how we’re going to treat you.”
Obama himself has said: “I self-identify as African-American — that’s how I’m treated and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it.”
Multiethnic Americans wrestle with terms that others casually use to categorize them. They wonder whether “mixed” may have a negative, rather than neutral meaning to some people (as in, “mixed up”). Is the term “African-American” appropriate for black immigrants from, say, Haiti?
Megan Hughes, 32, a white woman who is raising a biracial daughter with her black husband in Washington, confesses that, “We are still searching for a term that identifies our relationship and our family. ‘Blended’ works for me but my husband thinks that sounds like a smoothie.”
Michael Cooley, 17, a high-school senior in Raleigh, N.C., has a white mother and a black father. At Wakefield High School, he has a group of black buddies, and a group of white buddies.
They don’t mingle much, he says.
“I’m the only intermixer. I’d say it’s like balancing time between them. Because if I hang out with one of them, well, my black friends will say, ‘I guess you got to hang out with your white friends tonight, don’t you?”‘
The road to understanding may be full of bumps, but at least multiethnic people are seen less and less as anomalies, says Susan Eckert, 39, a Long Island, N.Y., writer.
Her ancestors included a Spanish conquistador, an African slave, a Cherokee woman, and an Irish woman who was disowned by her family for marrying a half-black, half-Blackfoot man.
As a result, she says, “I am often taken to be black or Indian — depending on the individual’s particular lens — and have been mistaken for Ethiopian, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Sicilian, and others.”
Doesn’t that get tiresome?
Not at all, she says.
“I’m open to learning about other cultures, and I’m respected for that … When you are racially ambiguous, a wider pool of people want to associate with you, which is actually quite a pleasant feeling.”
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Filed under: community
NY Daily News article on a young black hasidic jew here in new york…
Yosef Abrahamson, 16, with plaque designating him as essay winner and commanding officer for a day of 71st Precinct.
He’s someone everyone should be able to agree on.
Yosef Abrahamson, an African-American Hasidic Jew, took his place as commanding officer of a Crown Heights precinct for a day Tuesday.
It’s a symbolic gesture that the 16-year-old Brooklyn boy hopes could heal rifts in the neighborhood racked by fresh violence between the cultures he claims.
“There’s a lot of trouble in my community,” said the teen, who wears the distinctive black suit and fedora of the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox Jews.
“But I’m willing to do anything to help,” he said.
Yosef won an essay competition for the honor of being named the top cop of the 71st Precinct.
He joined 120 other city teens who won similar recognition for a ceremony yesterday at Police Headquarters.
The Yeshiva student never intended on becoming outspoken on the issue of bias violence in Crown Heights – nor was his unique background known to the judges who selected his essay as a winner.
“Some people become leaders, some people are drafted,” said Rabbi Chaim Perl, the administrator of Yeshiva Darchai Menachem, where Yosef studies. “We’re drafting him.”
Yosef arrived last year from Nebraska, where he was home-schooled by his mother, Dinah Abrahamson – the daughter of a Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany and an African-American father.
When he landed in Brooklyn, Yosef was the subject of innocent curiosity from both the Hasidic and black residents of Crown Heights.
But as instances of ethnic violence erupted, he became keenly aware of the simmering tensions.
In April, a 20-year-old son of a black cop was assaulted by several men believed to be members of an Orthodox neighborhood watch.
Last month, a 16-year-old Jewish boy was robbed and beaten by two black teens.
The violence has led to protests from both communities and accusations that the NYPD has favored one group over the other.
Yosef was subjected to sharp comments about his mixed heritage. Some Jews have told him he doesn’t fit in and some African-Americans have warned him that his schooling is turning “him into a Jew.”
But for the most part, “People have been very welcoming of us,” said the boy’s mother.
“I hope I can make some difference,” he said. “Things have to change.”