by G. David Schwartz
A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue /
Midrash and Working Out of the Book
* * *
Our Shared History
By G. David Schwartz
Loyalty requires imagination. But loyalty is not unique in this regard.
Imagination is also required for commitment and well as
betrayal, support as well as neglect. Although it seems that more imagination is frequently
required for positively distributing the love we want to share
than for simply withholding it, the fact is that even someone
who withholds love is imagining there are no consequences to
withdraw and disdain.
The way history is typically taught, we share
an imagined identity due to a specific series of victories. Our shared history began with the victory of the Pilgrims
crossing the ocean and continued through the victory of the
Continental Army through World War I, World War II, Korea,
Vietnam, Granada, Iran, Bosnia and who knows where else.
To a large extend, our identity is build on the shedding
of blood, not the retaining of blood.
In order to save and protect, we have been more concerned
to shed blood than imagine it.
To the extent that our shared history is
build on victories from the war against England through the war
against oil hording, we have just annihilated Native Americans,
have chosen to overlook the Civil War which freed slaves for a
subsequent history of Jim Crowistic “separate but who gives a
damn,” and the divisiveness of Vietnam.
We might rationalize by qualifying our
remarks by suggesting that,
indeed, the history we share is a history where some are
disposed of their land, some are enslaved, some are released to
segregated lives separate from the opportunities we claim to
have fought to attain, and some are left to bleed to death in
rice fields. We
share a history of winners and losers, cowboys and injuns’,
plantation masters and slaves, exemptions and non-exemptions
where it seemed even people on the other side of the world were
not exempt from our need to share victory.
But not with them.
The history we share is one guaranteed to
make some of us feel good, feel healthy, feel wise, and others
of us feel betrayed, abused, and defeated.
Loyalty requires imagination.
But loyalty also requires a sense of what does or should
compel our loyalty.
If sharing denotes a sense of equality, as
contracted in the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution of the United States, we have enacted the
constitution of the character of the United States too often in
ways which find some of us feeling misery through our
contemporary history. This
is no real sharing.
How, indeed, can we share a history more
authentically without some of us, born white, born with the
privilege of drinking at whatever water fountain we desired,
staying at whatever hotel we could afford, sitting at whatever
restaurant counter promised to feed my hunger, without some of
us claiming a misery which is not mine?
And why on the good green earth would I want to share
misery? Instead, we
frequently stake an abstract claim to share an abstract
document, which quite realistically declares that our concern is
not to form the perfect union, but does claim to form a more
perfect union. Everyday,
our contract with the future bids us to form a more perfect
But how can I identify the means by which to
form a more perfect union with people who, those I am most
conveniently identified with, massacred, enslaved, segregated,
denied and derided and murdered?
How can I discover the way forward if some lands in
Alabama had fences between neighbors, but invisible barriers
between human beings which could not be seen, but could not be
demolished? How to
form perfection if I have not, and have no desire, to miss not a
meal but a year of nutritious foods, sleep with rats, rise to
In my country, my land of promise more than
liberty, but at least the promise of liberty, there are some
people who will assert that poverty and despair are myths.
They will counter the “myth” of underemployment and
unemployment, hunger and homelessness
with a myth of their own:
It’s your fault. American
is the land of opportunity, and you have had every opportunity
we have had. In the
land of opportunity, no one can stand in your way if you excel.
No one can stand in your path if you sincerely desire
those with racially discriminatory attitudes, not those with
leases they refuse to sign, not those with guns.
Look at Colin Powell.
Clearly, the problem of the one imagining
that attitudes are barriers which erect iron gates to the real
pursuit of opportunity, which will not even allow a
discriminatory bias to be perceived and, if it is perceived, be
responded to with a host of myths.
We have a number of myths, which run the gamut from the
perceived and acculturated education of a whole class of people
to the notion that blood is thicker than water.
There is surely good sense in the perception that because
the percentage of whites who attend college is higher than the
percentage of blacks who attend college that statistically
whites are higher educated.
Having a degree, of course, does not mean you
are smarter, as my grandfather and father continually reminded
me. Having a degree means only you have an opportunity to be
called in for an interview after you send in your resume. Having a degree means you have something to put on your
having a degree means you belong to a fraternity where blood is
thicker than water.
This myth of blood, a metaphor for what we
desire not only running healthy in our veins but running thick
through our relationships, is perhaps the most mischievous
notion ever devised. We are continually making choices based on our judgment of
values. So we are continually hearing prophets speak about the
blood of one being no redder than the blood of another, but what
those prophets are suggesting is that the preservation of blood
outweighs the preservation of privilege.
So often the prophets are heard as if they
are saying that we ought to preserve bloodlines when what this
really means to those who hear in such a manner is that we ought
to preserve wealth and rank, prestige and opportunity.
What we clearly have never done, because we have not yet
had an adequate metaphor to work with, is assert the primary
value of human beings over any and all contingencies, any and
all matters of fact.
What would we see at the movies, or what
would we read in books, if the violence, which is the background
of our shared history, were not continually espoused?
What would delight us if one of us did not share westward
expansion with incapacitated and diminishing native peoples?
What would inspire us if one of us did not
share the masters’ mansion and one of us did not share the
slaves’ quarters? What
would we have to romance if there were not other people to bomb
back to the Stone Age?
The beginning of a metaphor of preserving a
different sense of sharing, one which does not rely on defeat
but does portend victory, is expressed in the actions of some
escaped slaves, or some Diaspora freed persons who went to live
among white people. I
suppose, based on experiences I have had, or have read about in
the history of other peoples, that evading their roots was a
mere consequence of “passing,” that the primary motivation
African-Americans who went to live among
white people sought to survive no less than Jews who lived as
Marranos in Spain. In
fact, in the case of the Marranos, there was a practice of
Judaism behind the mask, so to speak, so we might well imagine
that escaped slaves or free persons not only sang, spirituals of
redemption but in a certain sense lived it.
The suggestion that those who passed were
less concerned to betray their people than survive, less deluded
into thinking they were going to
“make it” than escape beatings and lynching, allowed
in this case black people to live among white people.
One can imagine that they lived in fear of being
discovered. One can
also imagine that they married and had children, and attempted
to stake out of life less concerned with westward expansion and
bombing in foreign countries than simple survival.
Simple survival brings consequences with it.
The behavior of some people with whom I would be
identified by the hue of my flesh brought consequences with it.
One kind of behavior was the rape of black women which
resulted in the situation where, even today in the discussions
of some of my black acquaintances, the color of one’s flesh is
valued according to the hue of appearance.
However, whereas I am told that
African-Americans once valued a lighter appearance. One can well
imagine discussions where either a lighter appearance and
thinner lips, or a darker appearance and distinctive features
are valued. Eventually,
I suppose, we will each learn to value ourselves for what we
are, and what went into the composition of us rather than some
illusory wishing for a different appearance.
If and when that happens, perhaps we can then learn to
value one another beyond appearance.
But until that day, the following thought needs to be
African-Americans today are both tall and
short, heavy and thin, dark complexion and light complexion
because of the behavior of some white persons.
Although I am not going to confuse rape as a sexual act,
nor lust as a humanitarian act, we can well imagine there were
some blacks and some whites who genuinely loved one another,
even though the differences between African Americans today have
been, and continue to be, discussed in terms of genetic
What is too little discussed, perhaps, is the
question of what happened with those who “passed,” and where
their genetic inheritance went.
Once the issue is raised, the answer seems clear.
White people are also various shades of color, some of
which is inherited from their countries of origin, but some of
which is inherited from African blood.
Our shared history becomes no more
reasonable, but more to be reasoned about, if we have shared
more than invisible lines which cut deeply from plantations to
cities. Insofar as
we share the thickness of the metaphor of what makes us human,
we share the experiential power to cut across the invisible
lines that separate us. If
I am open to the possibility, I am open to the reality, of our
being brothers and sisters on more than a metaphorical level.
Furthermore, because I come from a people
whose innermost self is loving and tender and I face a people
whose innermost self is tender and loving, I have to believe
that my genetic composition is the result not of gene pools and
fleshly hues, but of love and tenderness.
I have never been content with the idea that
my great-great-grandfather enslaved the great-great-grandfather
of any other people. Nor,
in the face of the necessity of promoting a metaphor which
allows me to disclaim and deny that our future can ever be built
on sharing misery, one dispensing and another receiving, I have
the imagination, because I have the imagined genetic pool of
love and tenderness, to say I, even I, was enslaved. If not me, then some of my ancestors.
I have been exceedingly lucky to have passed
into Jewish life which tells me at least once a year: I am to
regard myself as having come out of slavery because none is free
until all are free. Which
I imagine the entire heritage gone into the composition of me, I
cannot be satisfied to say some of us were oppressed because we
limit ourselves when we oppress others.
Some of us were, and are, oppressed because of real
cruelty in the world. But
some of us are a bit nobler when we accept the loyalty required
to imagine not metaphoric brothers and sisters, but real flesh
and blood persons who may be at some distance genetically, but
are just outside my door physically, are my responsibility
because they are my kin.
None of us will be free until all of us are
free. We are the
consequence of sharing the process of living toward the
impending freedom. Those who do not recognize that, in the process, both acts of
violence and acts of tenderness have composed who we are
genetically, invisible, indelibly, are passing.
Worse than passing, they are disloyal.
In my veins flow histories of relations I
will never know objectively. At my hands flow histories composed
of violence. To
break the irrational archetypes and pursue the imaginative
powers of being human, we physically/metaphorically feel that
the question is never “What happened to her? What happened to them?”
The question is always, “What is happening to us!”
It makes us nervous to talk about blood
issues because, throughout our history, blood issues have always
been concerned with the flowing of blood out of us.
Even when such obnoxious and ignorant phrases as “black
blood” or “blue blood” were used, they were too often the
means of identifying whose blood someone wanted to let flow out.
When our survival is at issue, however, we will let any
blood into our body that will allow us to live.
The fact that we live now is the result of the numerous
bloods which have flowed into our body. To the extend that persons who passed were allowing blood,
red blood, the only color of blood there is, to flow, I have to
be appreciative to unknown ancestors and peoples of unknown
backgrounds and experiences.
Yet we are right to be content that our blood
stays in our flesh. We
are correct in the desire to protect our flesh, and in the long
run protecting our flesh means to protect all flesh because
bombs will not stay in a foreign country and riots will not be
confined to ghettos.
We do not need to hollow out a realm inside
us to accommodate the other.
We do need to stretch our arms.
We do not need to empty our mind to practice tolerance.
We need to stretch ourselves.
We do not need to sigh and move on.
We need to shout for joy and more mountains. Who will
The American I claim as my own is an America
that needs vision. Once
this American sees what vision will allow citizens to see,
regarding our own shared past and looking forward to our shared
future, we will need to repent. We will need to profoundly assess what we have done to one
another in the name of freedom for some, and retire some outworn
ways, and retrieve our founding contract with the future.
We have grown use to thinking of the human
condition as conflict, us against them, encroaching poverty,
misery and malefic health.
Rather, the human condition is her being the other side
of my face. She is
not a mirror image of me, and she certainly is not a negative
image of me.
She is the other side of my face. We
share blood. When
she is hungry, or thirsty, for material goods or spiritual
attunement, I owe it to my ancestors, to myself, to address her
G. David Schwartz is the former president of Seedhouse, the online interfaith committee. Schwartz is the
A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue and coauthor,
with Jacqueline Winston, of Parables In Black and White.
Currently a volunteer at Drake Hospital in Cincinnati, Schwartz
continues to write. His new book, Midrash
and Working Out Of The Book
posted 15 February 2005
* * *
My problem with targeted prejudice (recently, Muslims, as in
Ann Coulter’s "ragheads" comments or the Danish
caricatures of the prophet Muhammad as terrorist) is that I might be next. Of course, it is not
cool today to publish the kind of caricatures of blacks
that were popular in the 19th century, but many stand ready in
these instances to defend freedom of press.
I suppose you recall Ben Vereen's black face performance to a
select audience of whites and many ready to defend it in the
name of free artistic expression. In America today, it is more
politic to embrace the Other (like blacks), like Rosa Parks and
Coretta King, when systematically that very same person supports
social policies that are indeed racist and anti-black.
Where was the hoop and cry when $39 billion was cut in
programs affecting the poor. I suspect, because over 90 percent
of whites are middle-class, that the view was that these cuts
would have percentage-wise a modest impact on whites, and they
can be sacrificed for the larger policy of cutting taxes for the
rich, who are overwhelmingly white.
That's the duplicity, the slickness, that we find today in
both Democrats and Republicans and their political hacks and
opportunists. We Americans have to become more sophisticated in
our political perceptions. Though we have gone beyond the 19th
century caricatures, we have not yet escaped the racist myths of
criminals and welfare cheats. These have black faces. The news
emphasis this morning was on individuals cheating FEMA, not on
corporations and businesses cheating the government. But I
suspect those listening to the radio program put a black face on
the FEMA cheats.
America still has a long way to go to cleanse itself of its
racial mythologizing, that is, its racism—Rudy
* * * *
Westover: Giving Girls a
Place of Their Own
Westover, a girls' school in Middlebury,
Connecticut, was founded in 1909 by
emancipated "New Women," educator Mary
Hillard and architect Theodate Pope Riddle.
Landscape designer Beatrix Farrand did the
plantings. It has evolved from a finishing
school for the Protestant elite, including
F. Scott Fitzgerald's first love, to a
meritocracy for pupils of many religions and
races from all over the world. The
fascinating account of the ups and downs of
this female community is the subject of
Laurie Lisle's lively and well-researched
book. The author describes the innovations
of the idealistic minister's daughter who
founded the school in 1909, her intellectual
successor who turned it into a college
preparatory school in the 1930s, the quiet
headmaster who managed to keep it open
during the turbulent 1970s, and the
prize-winning mathematics teacher, wife, and
mother who leads the high school today. This
beautifully illustrated book tells an
about female education during decades
of dramatic change in America.—
makes it possible to look back in a new way into the
character of wells, and, more than that, into the daily
life of African-Americans a century ago.— Chicago Tribune
DeCosta-Willis join together across time in a scholarly
collaborative dance of sisterhood to produce a work that
not only holds an insightful mirror to the past, but
could be used as a guidepost for African-American and
other women today in living totally self-defined lives.—Tri-State Defender
A unique look
at the life o an independent, unmarried African-American
woman coping with financial hardships, romantic
entanglements, sexism, and racism . . . A substantial
contribution to African-American Studies—Publisher Weekly
* * *
* * *
Incognegro: A Memoir of
Exile and Apartheid
B. Wilderson III
Wilderson, a professor,
writer and filmmaker from
presents a gripping account
of his role in the downfall
of South African apartheid
as one of only two black
Americans in the African
National Congress (ANC).
After marrying a South
African law student,
returns with her to South
Africa in the early 1990s,
where he teaches
Johannesburg and Soweto
students, and soon joins the
military wing of the ANC.
portrait of Nelson Mandela
as a petulant elder eager to
accommodate his white
countrymen will jolt readers
who've accepted the
usually accorded him. After
the assassination of
Mandela's rival, South
African Communist Party
leader Chris Hani, Mandela's
regime deems Wilderson's
public questions a threat to
national security; soon,
having lost his stomach for
the cause, he returns to
America. Wilderson has a
distinct, powerful voice and
a strong story that shuffles
between the indignities of
Johannesburg life and his
early years in Minneapolis,
the precocious child of
academics who barely
tolerate his emerging
about love within and across
the color line and cultural
divides are as provocative
as his politics; despite
digressions, this is a
riveting memoir of
apartheid's last days.—Publishers
* * *
Becoming American Under Fire
Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship
During the Civil War Era
By Christian G. Samito
In Becoming American under Fire, Christian G. Samito provides a rich account of how African American and Irish American soldiers influenced the modern vision of national citizenship that developed during the Civil War era. By bearing arms for the Union, African Americans and Irish Americans exhibited their loyalty to the United States and their capacity to act as citizens; they strengthened their American identity in the process. . . . For African American soldiers, proving manhood in combat was only one aspect to their quest for acceptance as citizens. As Samito reveals, by participating in courts-martial and protesting against unequal treatment, African Americans gained access to legal and political processes from which they had previously been excluded. The experience of African Americans in the military helped shape a postwar political movement that successfully called for rights and protections regardless of race. For Irish Americans, soldiering in the Civil War was part of a larger affirmation of republican government and it forged a bond between their American citizenship and their Irish nationalism. The wartime experiences of Irish Americans helped bring about recognition of their full citizenship through naturalization and also caused the United States to pressure Britain to abandon its centuries-old policy of refusing to recognize the naturalization of British subjects abroad. / For Love of Liberty
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 31 March 2012