Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”–John Lewis, 1940-2016
Civil Rights icon John Lewis is being laid to rest this week. Lewis lived the life of a fighter: from his beginnings in the struggle against Jim Crow in Alabama, his speech at the March on Washington, and his time as a Democratic Congressman. Even in his twilight years, he rose to the occasion to denounce injustice, inequity and the creeping fascism of our times. He was often ahead of his time: tackling issues like police brutality (stripped from his March on Washington speech by organizers fearing its radicalism) and championing LGBTQ rights before it was politically “safe.” He recognized the humanity even in those who did not always recognize his own, in ways that many of us still find challenging to emulate.
Lewis managed to ascend to a near-legendary status in many of our memories, so that sometimes we forget that the struggles he embarked upon in the 1950s and 1960s were not inevitable in their outcome. We celebrate them now, because they were victorious (yes victorious, even if incomplete). But at time he fought them, he was risking life and limb and livelihood in a crusade that most white Americans, politicians, and the larger media, did not endorse. Civil Rights movements have never been popular in the moment in which they occur (don’t let anyone get away with that lie). Rather, it is in hindsight, that we rush to proclaim them virtuous, and turn their participants into bastions of righteousness–often to fit our patriotic” narratives of American progress and redemption.
Lewis’s life probably resonates even more at this moment in our history, as protests roil our streets and we have a national reckoning with race, even as an authoritarian regime stokes tensions while threatening state repression. It’s a heady time. So it’s probably not surprising that in the middle of this, we find ourselves reckoning with a familiar and persistent enemy.
It reared its head sometime back in June, when rapper Ice Cube posted a set of bizarre images on twitter filled with anti-Semitic content (and weird allusions to Saturn?), all of it supposedly in support of the protests and current movements. Then a few weeks ago it was the Eagle’s receiver DeSean Jackson, backed up by an insistent Stephen Jackson. The climax (thus far) was actor and television star Nick Cannon, who on his podcast, with the backdrop of upraised Black Power fists, rattled off anti-Jewish conspiracies alongside Public Enemy’s Professor Griff. All of these incidents share some similarities: the perpetrators are all Black men; all see themselves as supporters of the current fight against anti-Black racism; all were perplexed, even hostile, when confronted, adamant that they were speaking a necessary truth.
Stephen Jackson remains oddly deflective and unrepentant, denying his comments had anything to do with anti-Semitism. So it seems, does Ice Cube. As of writing this, Jay-Electronica is out here saying many unfortunate things which it seems laced his album. Nothing like waiting for a decade and a half to launch your much anticipated rap career only to implode it. Goofy anti-Jewish conspiracies seem even odder, given Jay’s… history. But I digress. At any rate, others have expressed remorse. DeSean has apologized, and taken up New England Patriots’s Julian Edelman’s offer to visit the Holocaust Museum, in exchange for also going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Nick Cannon, after an initial period of obstinance, has similarly apologized and agreed to meet with Rabbis and others. Coming back from the brink it seems isn’t impossible. You just have to want to.
So what do we make of this inspiring but contradictory, beautiful and yet ugly state of affairs? That even the oppressed can take part in oppression. That we are no more immune to it than its core perpetrators. That systems of hate are just that: systems. They permeate our social ecosystems until we breathe them in and regurgitate them, at times not realizing we’re poisoning our own air. And that we can all stand to do some learning.
Nick Cannon is perhaps the most interesting of these cases because out of all the others he’s the youngest. Yes, at 39 he’s no spring chicken. But it was only four years ago that he wen off to Howard University. And there’s something about that moment, no matter the age, that opens you up to an awakening. We all saw it happening with Nick, as he became more vocal, seeming to say the first thing that he heard or learned. “No More Slave Movies!” he was telling us in 2016. Three years before that, he was pledging to bring us move movies about African Kings and Queens.” By 2019 he was hosting podcasts deriding the “slave mentality” and other mantras.
Now, me personally, I want more movies about slavery. And I don’t believe in a “slave mentality.” More movies about African kings and queens would be cool, but not my main concern. However, all of that is like a greatest hits of my younger life: when the entire Black world of history and politics and social movements got laid out before me. Back then, we called it being “conscious.” Like Hoteps, but less combative. We might say stuff like, “Did you know there were five Black presidents?” Because we’d just read some writings by the Jamaican amateur radical historian J.A. Rogers, whose 1965 work tells us more about attempts to subvert white supremacy than anything about the actual racial backgrounds of presidents. We were on a search for self-identity. What did it mean to be Black in a white world? How did we fit into history? How were we to meet the political moments of the day? It was like being a sponge: soaking up everything. And thinking we had all the answers. Young, Black Sophistry at its finest. We didn’t have the internet though. So we had to rely on what books we could get, speeches by prominent figures (played them on cassette–ancient!), Hip Hop artists, and just lots of “Barber shop” talk in our dorm rooms and collective ciphers. It was an amazing moment.
But it could also turn dark.
That soaking up things like a sponge? Yeah, there’s lots of stupidity and garbage out there to soak up. Homophobia. Sexism. And yes, anti-Semitism. It was in books. It was in our Hip Hop. It was spouted by demagogues we listened to on cassette tapes. Like you were eating this big cake of Blackness you wanted to gobble up, but laced with slivers of poison. Sometimes, you even started thinking the poison was the best part. Back in the day at least, you got caught up you might have some people to snatch you back. Parents, friends, mentors. Get you some other stuff to read. Some other voices to listen to. Put you back on track. If not, you might end up in a cult somewhere in Georgia dreaming about pyramids and ancient aliens. That conscious sh*t could get downright loony. Again, I digress. Nowadays though, with the internet, and a plethora of would-be “YouTube scholars,” the garbage just festers. There’s no one there to push back, just lots of confirmation bias. Toxic info gets shared back and forth as “knowledge,” leaving those most yearning for identity and understanding to be led by those who long ago lost their own way. And every last one, to a person, will tell you their beliefs are pro-Black. That they are fighting the good fight. That they are waging a war against white supremacy.
But, nah fam. Let me stop you right there. Cuz you’re caught up in the Matrix. And don’t even know it. You stare into the abyss too long and it not only stares back, you end up taking a bit of it with you. But there’s no liberation at the end of that road. Just a darkness that’ll eat you up if you let it. You won’t become the thing you’re fighting against–you don’t have any of that power. But you’ll become it’s impotent shadow, mouthing nonsense you don’t even understand, in its service.
Here’s the thing: anti-Semitism is a part of white supremacy. I’ll repeat that: it is part of white supremacy. Make no bones or doubts about it. If anti-Blackness functions as a fulcrum on which white supremacy turns, anti-Semitism is a base pillar. That’s where it comes from. It is part and parcel of the “othering” of Said’s Orientalism, or as he put it, Orientalism’s “strange secret sharer.” None of the things DeSean or Cube or Nick said were original. They weren’t invented by a cadre of Black thinkers. Instead, they’re part of a long history with roots in the European Middle Ages. They’re some mythology that white people made up, and with a remarkable ability to persist and adapt. Scratch the surface of any white supremacist or fascist movement, and you’ll find anti-Black racism. Scratch the other side, you’ll see anti-Semitism. The two in fact often shake hands, as in Nazi German’s “Negermusik”: a derogatory term for Black jazz, wrapped up in conspiracies of Jewish plots. Today, in parts of Europe, we can see how Islamophobia and anti-Semitism still shake hands, as countries blame their immigration problem on plots of George Soros. Our past is often prologue.
We’re not going to scrub those ideas from the world, or the spaces they inhabit. They’re too old and entrenched. What we can do, however is offer alternatives. A bit of light to pierce the dark. So that when someone encounters the toxicity, they recognize it for what it is, and where it comes from. So that when blanket assertions about “Jews” or “secret relationships” are made the listener is armed with counter-narratives. Because there’s never ever really one story. History and human relationships are much more complex. If anyone is giving you easy, simple, straightforward answers (that fit preconceived biases you may not even know you already hold) quite likely, it’s a lie.
The good news? It’s never too late to step back and walk away from the abyss. You just have to choose too. So in the spirit of Julian Edelman, I offer a brief and random listing to educate and counter. Because the histories of Black and Jewish people are too intertwined and tied to oppression, to have us fall into the trap of adopting white supremacist narratives. F*ck that noise.
Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning graphic novel on the Holocaust, via a take that seems borrowed from Orwell’s Animal Farm. In this case, the mice are the Jews and the cats are the Nazis. Don’t let the “cartoons” fool you; this is a searing and terrifying account told from Spiegelman’s interviews of his father’s experiences living in WW2 era Poland: from the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment to the eventual German invasion, to survival in a concentration camp. All the terrors of the Third Reich unfold in personal detail. Spiegelman complicates his narrative by showing that his father is an imperfect man: in once instance he openly espouses anti-Black sentiments, even after all he’s endured–something that confounds Spielgelman. But we also see how enduring genocide leaves its own trauma on those who survive.
Want to see how hate and pogroms work here in the United States? Check out this graphic rendition of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, courtesy of HBO and the Atlantic for the modern adaptation of Watchmen.
Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, provides an alternate look at America that (like the best alternate histories) is very much also a twisted mirror of our own reality. When Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940, it ushers in a step towards American fascism and its attendant handmaidens: racism and anti-Semitism. There is also a way in which the imagined nationwide anti-Jewish riots in the narrative mirror the anti-Black riots of 1919. The book is probably the better version, but earlier this year HBO made a series adaptation that is worth it alone for certain poignant scenes–even if the somewhat changed ending may not sit well with fans of the original. But you know what? Why not get you both?
Guess who was fascinated by the codified laws of race and Jim Crow in America in the 1930s? You guessed it. From a blurb of Whitman’s book: “Nazism triumphed in Germany during the high era of Jim Crow laws in the United States. Did the American regime of racial oppression in any way inspire the Nazis? The unsettling answer is yes. In Hitler’s American Model, James Whitman presents a detailed investigation of the American impact on the notorious Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime. Contrary to those who have insisted that there was no meaningful connection between American and German racial repression, Whitman demonstrates that the Nazis took a real, sustained, significant, and revealing interest in American race policies.” Oppression can have strange interconnected roots.
Two books. One of these I read recently. The other, sometime around 25 years ago. The first is the more modern award-winning work by Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, which looks at the roots of racism, in particular anti-Blackness, which he traces from the Middle Ages through slavery to modern day. The second is Robert Wistrich’s The Longest Hatred, which does as much for anti-Semitism. Everything has a history. Neither of these ideologies emerged from out of nowhere. What’s more, they have become so entrenched, we may not always recognize them when we see them: hence our defensiveness when we’re called out. Understanding the tenets behind them, their foundations, and the many shapes and permutations they take is probably the best way to avoid their pitfalls and to push back against them. When you know a thing, inside and out, you can unlearn it and unmake it.
Everyone knows Billie Holiday’s haunting ode to lynching, Strange Fruit. Lesser known is the song’s author: Abel Meeropol, a Jewish activist and schoolteacher. Meeropol wrote the poem in the 1930s, disturbed at the violent racism in the United States. As the story goes, Meeropol saw a photograph of a lynching and it “sort of put him over the edge.” He wrote his poem in response, which he set to music and played for a club owner. That owner played it for Billie Holiday and, well, the rest is history. PBS Independent Lens put together a documentary on the song and its origins, which is still as good today as when I first saw it in 2002. It’s fittingly titled, Strange Fruit.
While we’re on Independent Lens (big PBS fan here), I’m reminded of the 2008 documentary At Home in Utopia. Blurb: “In the mid-1920s, thousands of immigrant Jewish garment workers catapulted themselves out of the urban slums and ghettos by pooling their resources and building cooperatively owned and run apartment complexes in the Bronx. Adjacent to the newly opened subway corridor and in the midst of empty fields, they constructed the United Workers Cooperative Colony, a.k.a. ‘the Coops,’ where they practiced the utopian ideals of an equitable and just society.” What’s great about the documentary is it intertwines this bit of radical activism with African American history, not shying away from the complicated struggles to racially integrate the coop in the 1930s. One of the most poignant scenes details a Paul Robeson concert in 1948 in New York’s Westchester County near Peekskill. White reactionaries, incensed at Robeson’s communist affiliations, sparked a series of riots that targeted African Americans and Jews. An informative documentary of lesser known moments of solidarity.
Albert Einstein: genius, and also, advocate against American racism. Everyone may know Einstein for his theory of relativity. Less talked about is his public and private stance against racism: from speaking out against Jim Crow and even activism against lynching. He wrote as much in a 1940s article: “There is a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of quality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skin. Even among these, there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious. But they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of whites toward their fellow citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.” Einstein was also a member of the 1946 American Crusade Against Lynching headed by Paul Robeson. But as we talked about before, racism is a system. And Einstein, like all of us, wasn’t immune. While ready to fight against anti-Blackness, he unfortunately held anti-Chinese and xenophobic beliefs, at least much earlier in his life. The human element: done some things bad, and some things good. Above, an image of Einstein visiting and teaching at the HBCU Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to receive an honorary degree and lecture Black students.
Some histories, we could all stand to know more about. Above is an article from the Washington Post, which was something I had an inkling of but was unaware of the systematic extent with which it was carried out. In the mid to late 1930s, as the Nazis came to power, and the United States administration dithered on allowing those fleeing persecution (and later certain death), Historically Black Colleges and Universities stepped up to the task. Some 50 Jewish scholars were offered teaching positions, and a literal granting of life, by administrators at HBCUs such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Tougaloo College in Mississippi. As one Jewish refugee who found salvation at North Carolina Central University as a professor stated, “If I had not found a refuge at that time, I would have been arrested, deported to a Nazi concentration camp, tortured and eventually killed.” Many found themselves shocked at their encounters with Jim Crow. Image above, Jewish refugee Ernst Borinski teaching in the Social Science Lab at Tougaloo College, Mississippi, circa 1960. (Coral Gables Museum).
So that brings us back to John Lewis and the concept of Good Trouble. His 2013 graphic novel trilogy March, told the story of the Civil Rights movement from his perspective. It was a reminder that he certainly knew how to adapt to the age. Dude even cosplayed at Comic-Con–as his younger self! It’s a worthy read. Not because the Black Protest movement was singular in ideology (It wasn’t). And not because there weren’t other radical voices that offered worthy challenges to Lewis (they did). But because for this particular topic, Lewis’s understanding of the broad scope of injustice (and all its victims) is a worthy lesson. One that I am still learning.
Nothing I’ve written here means that everything is kumbaya, or dare I say, kosher. There will be points of disagreements along numerous lines of fracture in Black and Jewish relationships: politics, identity, and more. Whiteness alone, especially as constructed in America, and who is let in and who isn’t (even with impermanence) will remain a tangible source of possible friction in Black and Jewish relationships. So will ethnic community tensions created by proximity and difference. There are also intra-group discourses around race, as posed by what Shahanna McKinney-Baldon terms Jews of color. As Cheryl Lynn Greenberg notes in her examination of Black-Jewish activist relationships, there’s no glossing over these very real thorny issues. She writes that even during the heyday of oft-cited Civil Rights solidarity, “cooperation and conflict coexisted” between both groups, “with tensions caused by economic clashes, ideological disagreements, Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism, as well as differences in class and the intensity of discrimination faced by each group.”
But none of this means we have to fall back on old dehumanizing tropes to explain those conflicts, either now or in the past. Or to generalize and resort to essentialist narratives. That’s, quite frankly, laziness. There are other ways to have these discourses, even when challenging, even when we will not agree. Besides, often disagreements come down to individuals or organizations that then become a stand-in for mass definition and identity. But there is no Black ideological monolith that is easily grouped together; neither is there a Jewish ideological monolith that can be neatly singled out. The road to mutual understanding ain’t easy. Neither is vanquishing anti-Blackness or anti-Semitism: whether from the white supremacists who employ both, or our own internalizations. Otherwise we’d have gotten rid of both a long time ago. It’s hard work. You’re going to stumble. But you don’t have to stay where you’ve fallen. Get up. Learn better. Then dedicate yourself to doing better.
It seems a fitting then, as I began, to end with John Lewis:
“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. […] Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.”
I ain’t there, John. That’s a heavy haul. But, working on it.