Trouble to See #4: Peeling Back Some Tricky Layers

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Peeling back another layer….

A few more layers of racial-justice-related issues to peel back in taking “Trouble to See,” using the fictional world of “Dirty Dancing” as an aid (see “Beyond the Romance“).

Consider that the integrated dance floor — where  non-Jewish staff mix after hours — is moving to Otis Redding, The Contours, and other African American performers. We know – even if the young dancers don’t yet – that white performers will achieve far more financial and popular success with versions of the same music adapted for white audiences. In the main ballroom, the mambo and meringue are all the rage (topic for another day, perhaps.) And so, if we look more closely at the dance floors, we might notice the fine line between cultural sharing and cultural appropriation.

We know, too — from our vantage point in 2016 — that prominent among the promoters of black music will be Jews, sometimes recognized as supporting important black music and sometimes seen as using black music to support themselves. See, for example, varying views on the earlier history of Chess Records as well as later involvement of Jews in soul and other music genres.

Here is just one contemporary remark, illustrating a common viewpoint, from a website devoted to hip hop music:

And the sad truth is that rappers might be rich while they are hot, but Jews and other white men that own the labels (and thus own the music) continue to stay rich after the rappers have faded off the scene.

The Civil Rights movement did not address these dynamics. Focusing on marches and sit-ins of the 1960s does not give us a perspective that is wide or deep enough to help us consider the complicated history of Jews and Racial Justice.

A Deeper Layer

At least from the early 20th Century, mainstream, White press and popular sentiment railed against music considered too sexually explicit and encouraging of inappropriate behavior in its fans. The story was repeated with ragtime, blues, jazz, rock and roll, up through hip hop. At each stage, what White people performed on stage and did on the dance floor was eventually accepted, while “Black music” was continually viewed in many quarters as retaining some “jungle” element:

“Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.

“…we was officially degenerate.

“…And poor damn Jews, clubbed to a pulp in the streets, their shopfronts smashed up, their axes ripped from their hands. Hell. When that old ivory-tickler Volker Schramm denounced his manager Martin Miller as a false Aryan, we know Berlin wasn’t Berlin no more. It had been a damn savage decade.”
— Sid, Black musician narrator, in Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edyugan (NY: Picador, 2011), p.78-79

Half-Blood Blues is set in Germany, but the illustration of how Jews and Blacks were viewed in the 30s in Berlin has a parallel in U.S. history. As with many other groups of new immigrants to the U.S., Jews were once considered exotic, often hyper-sexualized degenerates. When the U.S. eagerly and legally classified people by race, Jews were non-White. The lynching of Robert Frank, a Jew accused of raping a “White” girl, in the early part of the 20th Century is part of that non-White Jewish history.

half-bloodThe view that Jews are involved in Jazz “on purpose,” while Blacks cannot help themselves, had parallels in the U.S. as well. Jews are occasionally still subject to this stereotyping in U.S. mainstream press and public opinion. It is all too common still, in 2016, in White Supremacist comments, including some from current candidates for office. But Black people in 1963 regularly faced this kind of stereotyping – still do in 2016 – and this has dangerous repercussions in everything from housing to education. It has particularly deadly ramifications in policing.

The related image of Black youth as part of a “thug life,” promoted by the hip hop industry, benefited and still benefits quite a few people outside black neighborhoods, non-Jews and Jews, who do not live with the consequences of that image in their daily lives.

Related References

Collis, John. The Story of Chess Records. NY: Bloomsbury, 1998. See also 4-part YouTube series called “The Chess Records Story”

Stratton, Jon. Jews, Race, and Popular Music. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009.

White, Miles. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity. Univ. of Illinois Press, 2011.

Whitfield, Stephen J. American Space, Jewish Time: Essays in Modern Culture and Politics. North Haven, CT: Archon Books, 1988

and a few notes:
Half-Blood Blues stands on its own as literature and entertainment. It’s also a great opportunity to turn the neck, getting perspectives — from a black woman writer (from contemporary Canada) describing the lives of black musicians in Berlin in the 1930s — we might otherwise miss. This particular story also gives us a non-Jewish narrator, a Black man at risk for reasons unrelated to Jewish heritage, relating the rise of the Nazis from a vantage point we don’t often see.

The novel touches on the history of Rhineland Bastards. Learn more at USHMM, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

Confronting Jackals of Injustice

“Who will confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this free land?” asked Rev. T. Anthony Spearman during the North Carolina Council of Churches recent “Seminar on Race, Power, and Privilege.” The powerful sermon begins with a text from 2 Samuel 21: When her sons and five other men are subject to an extrajudicial execution and left without burial, Rizpah mounts a single-handed protest. She maintains a vigil for six months — “risking her own safety and sanity,” as Rev. Spearman describes it — until King David is finally moved to order proper burial for all seven men.

“Back around 9th Century BCE, [Rizpah] would have been my choice for mother of the year,” Rev. Spearman declares. “In all of antiquity there may of a certainty be none as devoted, radical or courageous.” He elaborates:

In her world, she had no authority. Hers was a voiceless life. She was devoid of power…a victim of what seems to be this nation’s cherished legacy, the hierarchy of human values that are known as …classicism, sexism, and racism.

detail of 1875 painting by George Becker. See, e.g., Heroines of the Bible in Art (1900)

George Becker, 1875 (Detail). See, e.g., Heroines of the Bible in Art (C. E. Clement, Boston, 1900)

Allan Aubrey Boesak says this mother does what she does — risks, resists, and reconciles an entire nation — all by her lonesome and silent self. She demonstrates how to truly beat a sword into a plowshare by doing justly, loving mercy and walking justly with her God.

…[Rizpah’s witness] is not dissimilar to that of Sybrina Fulton, Lesley [McSpadden] Brown, Samaria Rice..

From the beginning of the harvest til the rain fell down, her motherly heart was broken but her devotion was fully intact. For about six months R risks her safety and sanity to drive away the vultures of viciousness, the vultures of vulgarity, the vultures of victimization…. the jackals of injustice…

…although in anguish for the dead, her actions were on behalf of the living…only two of the young men were her sons, she fought on behalf of them all.
— from T. Anthony Spearman’s April 23 sermon (full sermon below)

Rev. Spearman notes that Rizpah’s story is not currently in Christianity’s common lectionary — it is also missing from annual Jewish reading cycles — and suggests its inclusion so that more people would be prompted to follow her example. Meanwhile, Rev. Spearman calls us:

Our times are in search of those with spirit of Rizpah, those who will rise up and do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God, those who will stand against the ones who keep making and upholding unjust laws.

Is there anyone willing to bend the moral arc just a little bit more?
Anyone willing to repent for the deaths of so many of our sons and our daughters?
Who will shoo the vultures away from the corpse of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray?
Who will discourage the jackals from ravaging the transgender body of Zella Ziona?
…demanding the repeal of House Bill 2?
Who will rise up and…confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this land?

It’s time for us to confront racism. It’s time for us to confront privilege, it’s time for us to confront power.
— Spearman (full sermon in video below)                                                              NC Council of Churches’ Critical Issues Seminar: Race, Power, and Privilege

Six Months is a Long Vigil

Six months is a long time for the sort of vigil Rizpah kept: “Can you just imagine the gruesome scene with those seven blood-covered bodies…,” Rev. Spearman asks, offering graphic details and concluding with “and the noble Rizpah protecting them from the scavengers waiting to gorge themselves on those corpses.”

buttonSix months is also a long time for the sort of vigil Beverly Smith has been keeping: Alonzo Fiero (Zo) Smith, age 27, died in custody of DC special police officers (SPO), November 1, 2015, in confusing circumstances that included no criminal charges; his death was ruled a homicide with compression of the torso (SPO knelt on his back, for one example) a contributing factor. For six months, Ms. Smith has been demanding accountability for what happened to her son. And, just like Rizpah, and the mothers of many other victims of police brutality, Ms. Smith is demanding justice for others as well as her own child. She waits still.

On May 1, the sixth-month anniversary of Zo’s homicide, District residents joined Ms. Smith in a march and rally honoring his memory and demanding, in his name, community control of police. (Read about Zo’s case and his mother’s campaign in East of the River and the Washington Informer; learn about the Justice 4 Zo community)

And, of course, many parents and concerned community members — including some whom Rev. Spearman included in his sermon — have been keeping similar vigil in one way or another for much longer. (See, e.g., Listening to Voices of Grief and Struggle.) Many of those involved in these struggles have joined together in groups like Mothers Against Police Brutality and Coalition of Concerned Mothers.

Where Were Rizpah’s Neighbors?

Rev. Spearman and Allan Aubrey Boesak, whom he cites, note that Rizpah accomplished what she did “all by her lonesome and silent self.” This rightly characterizes the bible story and highlights the power of one individual to make a difference. But it leaves open the question of what Rizpah’s neighbors were doing — or not doing — for the months she kept her vigil alone:

Did neighbors just shake their heads at Rizpah while going about their own business? Were most people too caught up in demands of their own lives to involve themselves? Or, perhaps, fearing to speak out against King David? Or, just maybe, were some of Rizpah’s fellow citizens working elsewhere, in whatever ways were available to them, in support of her protest? Did groups organize solidarity actions that didn’t make it into Second Samuel?

Rizpah’s example of solo action is inspiring and important. And I would hope that each of us answers, “I will,” when faced with Rev. Spearman’s query: “Who will rise up and…confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this land?” But I also pray that none of us is left, like Rizpah, to face those “vultures of viciousness” or “jackals of injustice” alone.

LongworthRev. Spearman is incoming president of the NC Council of Churches and senior pastor of St. Philip African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Greensboro. He is active in the Forward Together Movement/Moral Mondays.

I had the honor of meeting and protesting with Rev. Spearman as part of a Black Lives Matter Die-In at the U.S. House of Representatives in early 2015.

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First Steps in an Exodus from Racism

In the mid-20th Century, the Exodus story (neither Charlton Heston nor Christian Bales, but the second book of the bible) became part of the underpinnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Today, as a new civil rights movement evolves, how can we use the ancient Exodus narrative to once again help us explore key issues and increase understanding and involvement?
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Getting Exodus Right: Watch the Women and Learn (or: Family Travail Becomes Community Action)


A coffin in Egypt closes the Book of Genesis (Genesis 50:26), and the Exodus story is launched with a basket on the Nile (Exodus 2:3). Joseph’s death, which closely follows that of his father, Jacob (Gen 49:33), brings to an end the patriarchal stories. With Exodus, the focus shifts to the Israelite story, beginning with midwives Shifrah and Puah, Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Miriam (Moses’ sister), and Pharaoh’s daughter. Our focus is thus shifted, as one book ends and the next begins, from death to birth and from stories of individual and family struggle to a communal struggle toward liberation. So, too, in the United States today, we are moving:

  • from individual circles of mourning for black persons killed by police to a national movement against police brutality across the country, and
  • from disjoint demands addressing various forms of racial inequity to a collective struggle for racial justice.

In addition, men dominate at the close of Genesis, while Exodus opens with women in the lead; similarly, women have been primary leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The Exodus story looks, on the face of it, like a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples. But there are elements — particularly evident in watching what the women do at the beginning of the Exodus story — of the tale that can help us learn respectful coexistence.

Change of Mindset

Failure to dehumanize: The Egyptian midwives model for us at Exodus 1:15-22, using Pharaoh’s racist assumptions about the baby-popping Hebrew women to protect the Israelite community. (more on this)

Vision: Moses’ mother shows immense faith in her Egyptian neighbors, assuming that someone will rescue the child. And at least one Egyptian does rescue a child. Both women, thereby, refuse to dehumanize the other. (more on vision)

Passover is still months away (April 3-April 11, 2015). But Jews and Christians, along with others to whom the Exodus story speaks, can begin now to explore how we can use this ancient tale to change today’s realities, in our own communities and beyond. A few more “Passover Lessons” —

  • Crossers-Over
  • “From Privilege, Activism
  • Maybe We’re All Riff Raff
  • Rabbis, Rome and Slaves
  • “School for Freedom”

— from a 2012 crowd-sourcing.

What else can we learn?
Let’s start now to figure it out!
And let’s NOT WAIT to begin learning and acting
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“Church Synagogue Have Failed. They Must Repent.”

“Church synagogue have failed. They must repent….We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel telegraphed to President John F. Kennedy on July 16, 1963. Heschel called on the president to declare a “state of moral emergency.”

Heschel told Kennedy that race problems were “like the weather: Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.” He then asks the president to issue a variety of demands:

Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
— telegram can be found here, along with additional study resources on related topics from the American Jewish World Service’s “on1foot” pages.

Fifty years later, some of Heschel’s suggestions may sound odd. Do we ever speak of “national repentance,” for example? But his call for declaring a “moral emergency” in this country seems all too appropriate:

  • police brutality is a both a legal and a moral emergency;
  • suppression of the press is a constitutional emergency;
  • and the underlying racism is an emergency on every level.

Is any Jewish, or other faith, leader making a similar call at this time? (Please share any such.)

Perhaps individual faith community members must call out to their leaders. And I think we can start by asking our faith communities to ensure that Ferguson MO — and every other police department in this country — gets the message: “The whole world is watching.”

 

Some “actions” and study materials

Amnesty International’s call for investigation of police brutality

Change.Org petition to U.S. Atty Genl for national action on police brutality

ACLU materials on key issues, including racial profiling, the right to protest, and police practices

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice Campaign Against Police Brutality

Showing up for racial justice and their Police Brutality Action Kit

See also, high schoolers’ new mobile app to rate law enforcement

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