Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Chauncey DeVega says: In Regards to This Black Jewish Thing I Am Mighty Confused--Or WASPY Jewish Folks in My High School Who were Whiter than White

Gordon has been excited about beginning a Black-Jewish dialogue for some time. When I would come into town, he would suggest, "hey, let's talk about the relationship between Blacks and Jews." I would demur. We would talk on the phone since my exile into the land of obese white women and ghetto fabulous, underclass negroes who don't know that they are embarrassing themselves by acting out the worst stereotypes of black-female relationships at the local sports bar during the Superbowl....in a less than perfect world, these two, the PWT and her coonish suitor would be perfect mascots for a Klan postcard--a story for another time--and this topic would arise once more.

In regards to Gordon, I would share my anecdotes, and my response that perhaps being a product of the Tri-state area (Connecticut; New York; New Jersey...the cradle of civilization) I don't see a strict divide behind Jewish folk and White ethnics at large because to me the former are just Italians from another part of the world. This could also be a function of those long, hot racially charged summers of the early 1990s in New York where I would listen to Public Enemy and go to Crown Heights. It was also a time when I was becoming increasingly politicized, and would encounter open hostility from Hasidic Jews--as well as the shared mutual animosity between Blacks and that latter group in the City. I didn't feel friendship or even progressive, leftist, or minimal center-left empathy or sympathy in those encounters. Rather, I saw White (and other) ethnic hostility towards Black Americans, my people, whose arrival predated the great waves of European immigration from groups who were no more than a few years rooted in this country. I have never forgotten the hypocrisy and/or absurdity of those interactions where black citizenship, belonging, and personhood were questioned by those relatively new arrivals.

But, Gordon convinced me that my stories of W.A.S.P. status desiring Jewish folk, and my interactions with them, are entertaining and revealing of some deeper truth. I trust his judgment, so I will eagerly share.

In my little corner of the world, as a teenager who was one part Colin Powell and one part Prince (the camouflage when combined with purple velvet did go a long way with the ladies), I attended a High School where the Jewish kids were the most WASP-like--meaning more desirous of a normalized, elite, invisible Whiteness than the other White students with whom I went to school.

It was really an interesting schism. The Jewish students in my High School had their own fraternities and sororities. They had their own parties. They lived on the North side of town, i.e. the "good" part of town. They, as a function of class privilege, and maybe a sense of their tenuous hold on Whiteness wanted nothing to do with the Black or Hispanic kids in the school. No, it wasn't because on divergent interests, or "culture" or "class" per se. In hindsight, and as I have learned more about Whiteness and the (white, as we can't forget the Ethiopians and others) Jewish community's relatively recent, but now secure hold on that racial identity in this country, it seems those young people knew to be close to us was to be far from the goal they imagined for themselves.

Ironically, on matters of politics, these same students who also belonged to a proto-politically Zionist group by the name of Exodus--Zionist as in political Zionism not religious Zionism (my distaste for religion in all forms is well documented on this site, but I do offer that qualification) would reflexively defend the state of Israel and all of her deeds (both good and bad) with the requisite amount of militant guilt and quickness reserved for many in American Jewry. On cue, they would recite the mantras that 1) "the land was empty and we made it bloom" and 2) "any criticism of Israel is by definition Antisemitism."

For me, the rough parallel I draw is between those middle and upper class Negroes who have moved out of the 'hood but passionately portray a certain type of hip hop, minstrel, ghetto underclass blackness as a compensation for insecurities about identity and "authenticity." Like that particular cadre of young folk among the Black upper class, some of American Jewry try to out-radicalize the radicals.

In much the same fashion, if you were to ask these kind of conveniently Jewish students about their racial identity, the obligatory and narrow, "Who or what are you question?" i.e. the "What race are you?" they would almost always respond "White." But, if this ethnicized identity was threatened it would activate and they would reflexively become "Jewish."

I didn't have the language to describe the dynamic at the time. Now I see a parallel: this activation of identity mirrored the White, conservative, reactionary backlash that awaited the incremental gains of the Black Civil Rights Movement. Here, White racial resentment was activated as a knee jerk reaction to a sense of black progress and White insecurity. Ethnicity doesn't necessarily matter per se, until White ethnicity is threatened, or can be leveraged, in the face of Black progress. In my part of the world, WASP-Jewish identity seemed to function according to this model.

To conclude: I offer three stories which may or may not speak to the dynamics of a working class Connecticut Negro's experience with this Black-Jewish stuff--

1. I was never called a nigger to my face by poor white trash. Yes, they uttered it, but they knew better than to say it. The only time I was ever called a nigger was by one of the Waspy Jewish kids in my elementary school. Interestingly, he would later go on to be the president of our High School Jewish fraternity. We were in sixth grade and my "playmate" Jeremy called me a nigger. Now, respectable negroes certainly know that standing order number one in these circumstances, our prime directive, is to unleash a can of whoop ass on said offender--which I diligently proceeded to do.

The substitute teacher called us over and demanded an explanation. With great pride I explained what I did and why--without apologies. She was shocked and threatened to send me to the principal, to which I replied, "that was an agreeable solution as my parents told me that my self-respect could not be negotiated." The teacher was shocked. Upon reflection, she offered that instead of hitting Jeremy again, that a compromise was in order. I asked, "what compromise?" Her reply: "call him a kike as that would make things equal." I replied, "No, that is wrong and I don't think that is exactly the same anything and that those words are wrong and hurtful and people shouldn't talk that way to each other." She encouraged me. I said, "no!" Once more, much dejected, she surrendered and made Jeremy apologize. And no, I did not accept his peace offering.

2. In college, while I was in my early Black Nationalist phase, Norman Finkelstein came to deliver a speech. I was enthralled with the presentation and his intellectual sharpness. Innocently, after listening to his discussion of Israel as a Racial State and the hypocrisy of Black leadership in this regard, I asked how did he explain Cornel West's then recent work on Black-Jewish relationships and his endorsement of Israel's right to exist and its then expanding settlement program. Finkelstein, in classic, sharp, provocative prose (and in front of a a group of protesters from the ADL) replied, "that is easy, Cornel West is at Princeton and he is a whore for the Jews." Bombs exploded, people yelled, and I sat down.

3. I love women of all colors, hues, ethnicities, and races. I have my eyes affixed on a Black queen now, but I can't forget my past. Truly, there are days when I reflect on my adventures and I realize that I am Dr. King's dream come true (extra points if you get the joke). But, I do have two particularly great crushes in my life (besides of course the standard tripartite obsession of Sarita Choudry, Rosario Dawson, and Lucy Liu).

In High School there were two Jewish sisters I was enthralled with. The first was Sandra Bernhard. Lord, she was the stuff of fantasy. So sexy was she that I awoke many a night humping the bed Ghostface style aroused by her lesbian scene on the television show Roseanne.

The second object of my desire was more attainable but equally impossible to possess. In High School, a young woman came of age by the name of Taryn Chorney. I had no game at the time, and could only imagine having the courage to ask her out. She was utterly beautiful and charming: imagine a "Jewish" Eastern-Europeanesque Lisa Bonet from Angel Heart. Taryn was that kind of sexy. Effortless, intelligent, and sensual. Years later, I would see her at the popular late night diner in town, I am not crazy, and my instincts (then much refined) sensed an opening, but I reverted back to being the insecure Prince-Colin Powell of my High School years. Ultimately, the Black-Jewish divide kept us apart because I could not envision a scenario where mutual attraction overcame parental disapproval.

Maybe Gordon, with his grand experiment, can give me some advice about how to close that gap?


Bethlehem Shoals said...

I'd talked with the other Jews involved about how this might be one big set-up. Because these days, when Black/Jewish relations come up, it seems like the Jews more often than not begin with the assumption that either 1) there's something the two groups have in common 2) there's a historical kinship between the two. And then are left with their respective dicks in their hands.

I'm pretty sure that the Jewish contributions to this series will be smart enough to focus on this point of contact, rather than taking it for granted. But still, they're what we see as the basis for the discussion, instead of the question of why Blacks and Jews even have, to use Bush/Blair's words, "a special relationship." So, without digging too deep into anyone else's upcoming posts, let me throw out one idea: all the types of Jews you put forth are, for me, somewhere between embarrassing stereotypes and embarrassing cultural trends. Hasids are somehow "authentic," but also trashy; really wealthy assimilated Jews are in denial; self-conscious literary/entertainment Jews have commodified identity. I know there are certain cultural markers of being Jewish—no, not just big noses and shouting—that give me a more stable sense of what it means. But my own sense of self is in part a reaction to all the dumb shit I see Jews doing in the name of self-definition.

I don't know, are things really so different for Black folk? I know there's an undercurrent of essentialism there that's never going to go away, and it's the source of both solidarity and a lot of external bullshit. But beyond that—if that's possible—I think both groups to this day deal with a similar dynamic when it comes to negotiating identity.

Or I don't know, maybe every ethnic group with the slightest claim on relevance goes through this. I guess it's that Blacks and Jews have stayed Black and Jewish in ways that the Irish and Italians haven't, and the story of Asian isn't (however unfairly) front and center in the story of this country.

Signing off, a former American Studies grad student.

Anonymous said...

I’ve known Chauncey since we were both 5. We’ve been close friends for 28 years. And we both grew up in the same town. As a result, I feel that I can corroborate some of the things that he mentions in his above article.

Our Connecticut home town can be best described as suffering from an “East / West Berlin” type illness. While there is no real “wall” dividing neighborhoods, when we were growing up, there might as well have been.

The “wall” started somewhere near the strip mall section of town called “the Plaza” - where the abandoned industrial parks slowly gave way to trees and greenery. That was basically Checkpoint Charlie.

The northern part of town was generally affluent, white collar or leisure class, and homogeneously white. The north had large wooded fenced-in yards with deer running through them upon which sat large Normal Rockwellesque homes. 2.5 kids. Soccer moms, etc.

Meanwhile, the southern section of our town (where both Chauncey and I lived) was at best solidly middle-class - a mix between blue and grey-collar. At worst, it was lower-middle-class where flower pots in the windows told you whether it was a good or a bad neighborhood. And the people were of all ethnic backgrounds. Both Chauncey’s and my parents worked 40+ hours a week. For me, my dad worked so much that I remember hardly seeing him when I was a small kid.

However, even with these great similarities between him and I, it’s still hard for me to really understand everything that Chauncey went through. The reason is that my father’s family is Jewish and my mother’s family is German-American. Thus, for me, the latent racism found in our town could never really affect me in the same way. I was only affected by it because Chauncey was affected by it. And since he was my best friend- what hurt him, hurt me.

The reason why I mention this is because I was harassed and picked on and ignored by the exact same group of “Exodus” kids that Chauncey was. And to them, it didn’t matter that I was “white”. And it didn’t matter that I had Jewish relatives (some of whom spoke Yiddish as a primary language) who were wonderful to me and loved me despite the fact that I wasn’t Jewish myself. In short, it didn’t matter at all.

What did matter to them, however, was that my family wasn’t from the right part of town. I wasn’t involved in the same cliquish activities as them. I didn’t share their same “pattern of behavior” or their parent’s political views which were obviously parroted down to them.

I mention this because I think it’s important to acknowledge the underlying issue of classism which permeates our “Southern Connecticut Town”, and how much it really complicates the subject of Jewish / Black relations over the last 100 years. To be honest, what saddens me the most about this whole issue is that the two communities could move from a period of general acceptance in the 1950s to one of incredible hatred (such as in Brooklyn) in less than 30 years.

Chauncey is truly my “brother from another mother” and I would lay on railroad tracks for him and his whole family. We’re united by common interests, a common background, a common moral compass and a common desire to see good things done for good people.

And my honest hope is that if we can find these great commonalities within each other, other people will be able to do the same thing.

-Bill the Lizard

Frank Partisan said...

Poetryman plugged this blog. If he thinks it's a good blog, you can take it to the bank.

When I was a kid, I had an infection, and went to the Mt. Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis. I should mention that the Mt. Sinai Hospital existed, because of discrimination against Jewish and black doctors. It was where you'd get a Jewish or black doctor in Minneapolis.

As Bethleham said, I guess it's that Blacks and Jews have stayed Black and Jewish in ways that the Irish and Italians haven't, and the story of Asian isn't (however unfairly) front and center in the story of this country.

As a Jewish lefty, its about class.

gordon gartrelle said...


I'll save the details for my piece, but growing up I had a very different experience with Jewish people; the fact that we grew up on opposite sides of the country has a lot to do with that.

I will say this, though--you didn't speak to the girl because you didn't want to get rejected. It wasn't because she was Jewish.

chaunceydevega said...

I will say this, though--you didn't speak to the girl because you didn't want to get rejected. It wasn't because she was Jewish.

trust me Gordon it was. Frankly, she looked better than Lisa Bonet and I knew rejection was a given...not worth the risk for such a fragile, young, respectable negro ghetto nerd. but in my heart i have to believe that i had a chance that second time.

you vegas negroes don't have any fear because gambling is in your blood.


All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

i wouldnt suprise me at all if a lot of middle class black folks actually take cues from the jewish/white (we mand no distinction in TENN) to define their self worth and value (material that is)

Anonymous said...

i'm not sure that one can pin a reason for anything on what side of the country someone grows up on. from my experience, location and class matter a whole lot but broadly applying generalizations about either is dangerous.

i grew up in brooklyn but every neighborhood was different, every block was different, and things can change rather quickly. there are a million different imagined brooklyns and they're not all congruent to each other.

which reminds me of this time i went to a hip-hop show during my freshman year (94-95) at the suny albany gym. it was mobb deep and the fugees (weird bill, right?). during the lame opening i was kind of hanging back at the bleachers and there was no one around but a group of black teens, years too young to be in college, passing an l.

wanting to get high i asked if i could join their circle and was denied. asked if i could cop some weed then and was basically warned to step off because these kids were from brooklyn. trying to build some camaraderie i reply "yeah, i'm from brooklyn too." the dude looked at me like i was an alien.

brooklyn, to them signified why i was out of bounds for even speaking to them. to me, why i felt i could be down. in truth we both come from very different brooklyns, and both with a large element of fiction to them.