US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) visits the Western Wall in Old City Jerusalem on July 24, 2008. Photo by Avi Hayon/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** áø÷ 
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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.

3 comments

Anonymous

“Far too often people cannot seem to sensitize themselves to black suffering or demonstrate sensitivity to our pain.”
I disagree. I find blacks are completely unable to take responsiblity to the suffering they cause. Yankel Rosenbaums murder is one. The fact that the police stood by and allowed blacks to thrown bricks at Issac Bitton and his son is another. How are these crimes different that from what whites did to blacks? All 3 people who killed James Byrd Jr in Jasper TX got the death penalty. The 19 out of the 20 black men who killed Yankel Rosenbaum were never charged. Lemrick Nelson was aquitted by a racist black jury despite the fact he admitted doing it and the dying man pointed to him as the killer. Mayor Dinkins and Sharpton applauded the verdict. Would they have applauded it if the vicitm had been black and the mob white? Later Nelson was found guilty of violation Rosenbaum’s civil rights and served 8 years. Black activists shouted “no justice no peace” because even though many whites were convicted under the same statue for crimes against blacks, they felt blacks had the right to murder this innocent Jewish man because another Jewish man committed a car accident 2 hours earlier. How is this different that how racist whites thought in the 1940’s? Yet this was the 1990’s.

“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.”
I feel the same way when blacks identify Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpon as a hero or civil rights leader. There attitudes (and in Sharpton’s case behavior) towards Jews, Asians, gays and women are as bad as the KKK’s was towards blacks. It is very hurtful and I really don’t think blacks care about the people hurt by their hate crimes or speech. Howard University and UC Berkely Black Student Union both recently had Farrakhan as a guest. Would Howard U have invited David Duke? Duke’s attitude towards Jews, Asians and gays is the same as Farrakhans.
UC Berkeley Black students held huge protests to condemn a speaker who questioned affirmative action then turn around a month later and invite someone who praises Hitler.
You say that people should respect that to some blacks George Wallace is as offensive to you as Hitler is the Jews. Well, Sharpton, Farrkkhan, Malcolm X, Jermiah Wright and Marion Barry (see his recent anti-Korean hate speech) is as offensive to many Jews, Asians and whites as the KKK was to blacks. Yet it doesn’t stop the NAACP, Tavis Smiley, and hundred’s of thousands of other black folks from openly promoting or praising them without consideration for the suffering they have caused other minorities.

    D'Juan Hopewell

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. I sincerely appreciate every single person who takes time to do so. When you reference Yankel Rosenbaums, my first reaction is to grieve. I genuinely grieve for that loss. I grieve for his family and automatically sensitize myself to their pain- instinctively. I think that’s exactly the point I’m getting at. While I grieve this one individual, others seem to easily fly right by millions of our kin and only want us to grieve isolated incidents of pain- which we do (most of us, anyway).

    Again, when you say his story is “one” example, that’s just it- it’s one example people want us to grieve while they ignore our millions. It’s quite hurtful. Even so, of course I side with that family wanting justice. I do so even understanding that blacks in that neighborhood have a very different narrative on what happened than what is commonly reported or even available on the internet (I’ve talked to residents of that community). But that narrative is never considered- only that whites suffered is what seems important (to the black residents there). Even so, of course I side with Yankel’s family- that is a genuine tragedy and justice should be served.

    As for your comparison of Sharpton and Malcolm X etc…not sure of the validity there. David Duke was a grand wizard of the Klan- a terrorist organization that literally killed masses of black people (and some Jews). You cannot point to the Nation of Islam as a group responsible for terrorism or deaths. Yes they taught self-defense, but never terror and I honestly cannot think of any instance in which they went out killing people. If you find an isolated case of a NOI member killing someone, it is just that- isolated and unrelated to the larger organization. So let’s say Farrakhan is a complete anti-semite…he, unlike David Duke, cannot be associated with the slaughter of people, nor Malcolm X (who didn’t even have a gun permit while Dr. King did apply for one while in Alabama). As for Sharpton, let’s assume his words did poison the atmosphere for Yankel’s death. That is a bad thing and that action should be noted. Still, we must concede it’s accidental, not a platform or policy of terror such as David Duke’s organization or the administration of Gov. Wallace that knowingly allowed blacks to be murdered and did nothing- indeed, he very much endorsed it and allowed for it on a large, statewide scale.

Jennifer Morgan

Wow, Mr. Hopewell. After reading this, I almost feel as though I can cite you in my next piece of academic writing. I am impressed with your depth of thought and knowledge, but it doesn’t surprise me. We write passionately about the things that personally concern and impact us, whether positive or negative.

While this is not a direct response to anything you stated, I wish to share a brief thought. I was personally intrigued by the mini-history lesson you provided. I teach high school. At the HS level, Black History has become almost obsolete. This is perhaps intentional but possibly incidental. Either way, day after day, I am faced with the challenge of teaching, nurturing, counseling, and building a generation of angry, deflated, and lost African Americans. Much of their/our plight was originally birthed in what you discussed in this post: a history deeply rooted in pain and suffering. Unfortunately, from a lack of knowledge and resources, neither parents nor educators can effectively address the needs of our young people and communities. Thus, the cycle never dies but is recycled, repackaged, and distributed: disguised, misdirected pain.

A bit lengthy but worth the read.

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