To My Jewish Brothers and Sisters,
I say with love and extreme sincerity, shalom. I feel it appropriate at the outset of this journey, wherever it might take you on this blog, to address you and all others on some very serious topics and rules of engagement.
The intent of this blog is to communicate the many nuances and peculiarities of thought of the black poor and working classes as it pertains to politics, culture and theology. In understanding that- our shared understanding, theological presuppositions, collective experience- I move ultimately toward creating greater understanding, effective political outreach and mobilization. However, understanding any person or group requires a historical perspective, for no one is the sum total of this present moment.
Our history is one deeply embedded with pain. Unfortunately, to many of us, it often seems as though that is lost on people. Far too often people cannot seem to sensitize themselves to black suffering or demonstrate sensitivity to our pain. It has been said that suffering and death do not register for many people until the face of it is whitened. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps for others, most find it easier to connect with the pain of the Jewish people and to your sufferings. This is most true for the dark chapter of history known as Nazi Germany.
Routinely, I find it necessary to speak on this chapter of history in order to get others to connect the emotional dots. In no way do I wish to flippantly reference or even exploit such a sobering, painful experience of a people. Further, I do not ever wish to compare any pain or suffering with another- suffering is suffering, period. Rather, I stand in solidarity with all oppressed people and side with them in their oppression. Whether it is the pain of the Irish in their quest to blend into the melting pot, the Japanese who were brutally forced into internment camps or the indigenous people of this land who were slaughtered by the millions, I stand in solidarity with all. I also believe that these histories ought to be examined with a solemn reverence and deference in interpreting them to those who claim it as their own historical experience.
When I refer to the Jewish experience, it is only because people can easily identify with it and quickly connect to that pain. Though it may not be their history, most (in my experience) seem to understand that there ought to be a level of reverence for it. Let me illustrate what I mean, from an outsider’s perspective. People understand why streets ought not to be named for Hitler or his fellows, sports teams ought not to be named for the Nazis or the Nazi flag flown. As a black man, I cannot articulate the pain I feel when I see that entire counties are named for Jefferson Davis, streets for Confederate generals and slave owners, sports teams for major universities call themselves the “Rebels” and monuments are built in honor of those who owned, raped and murdered my grandmothers. Indeed, those who fly the Confederate Flag often are oblivious to the fact that the Confederate States did have a flag and the one they are displaying was not it. What they are flying is the battle flag of the Confederacy- a much more piercing statement.
I can remember working as a field organizer once for a campaign. On our first day of work we were all asked to identify our political hero. A young lady from the state of Alabama cited George Wallace. I was not only shocked, I was deeply hurt. I spoke with her days later and asked her if she understood why it would not be okay to identify a lieutenant of Hitler as her hero. She quickly denounced such an action. I tried to explain to her that George Wallace, while certainly not Hitler, was somewhat of a “lieutenant” in our struggle as black people. Many know of his hardline stance on segregation but not enough know of the many blacks who were brutally murdered under his regime and of his refusal to provide basic protections to blacks fighting for justice while he was governor. While she appreciated my view of history, she would not withdraw her support from her hero. In her eyes, George Wallace was much more than what my people understood from our experience.
This is the great divide. This young lady, like many in this country, choose to see many other things in our nation’s dark past and hold dear to them. They simply don’t get it. I’ve never heard anyone try to defend Nazi Germany or idealize portions of that regime. While it’s possible some have, I have personally NEVER heard it. Yet, it is true that the Nazi Party restored Germany’s pride after the devastation of war. It is true that they were able to confront the crisis of mass unemployment during the depression era quicker than any other nation. It is also true that they even hosted the Olympic Games. But no one tries to bask in the glory of those days or defend those successes as simply “history” in a much broader context, independent of Jewish suffering. It is understood that 6 million Jews died and perhaps 10 million others. There is only shame and deference to the Jewish people in interpreting that chapter of history.
In the Middle Passage alone, my people, according to some scholars, lost as many 40 million at sea (there is no consensus on this and many would say as few as one million died at sea). There are cases such as the slave ship, The Zong, in which 133 sick Africans were thrown overboard simply to collect insurance money. Thomas Jefferson, in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, charged the King of England specifically with this crime when he said, “He has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither.” In that many of the delegates refused to sign until Jefferson struck this clause, it can be said that not only was the Constitution a slave document but the Declaration of Independence also.
Of course, once we arrived to the new world, we endured the most gruesome and barbaric form of slavery known to man. Is it any wonder some call it, “The Peculiar Institution?” While most are truly uninformed on the depths of this experience, even fewer know the breadth. As late as 1951, the U.S Congress was passing legislation to make slavery in America criminal. Even worse, a sincere effort to end it entirely by the Roosevelt administration came about only from fear that the Axis Powers would use the country’s treatment of blacks as effective propaganda to court black support. There was good reason to fear. During the Philippine War, several black soldiers refused to fight or joined the other side in response to the vicious racism U.S soldiers displayed as they ravaged the Filipinos. In addition, after returning from World War I, many black soldiers were lynched in their uniforms as a reminder that the social order still stood on American soil.
So then, in trying to relay these concepts to people and truly create an understanding that may not naturally exist, I often refer to the Jewish experience. I pray that I cause no offense in doing so. I am not a Jew. I cannot truly understand the Jewish experience for it is distinct from my own. I only wish to do no harm in communicating our experience, though I find it most effective to refer to yours. It is not a history I treat lightly, nor do I wish to turn it into a purely academic exercise. History, for those who have been oppressed, is not merely an academic discipline. Rather, it is an ever present reality.