What Is It Like to Be Both Black and Jewish?
I was recently asked to take part in a reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York. I was asked to come up with a six-word memoir that somehow related to Jewish life. What follows is my memoir and my commentary on it.
Black, Jew. Both outsiders, even here.
Because I lived in the house of my mother, the child of Eastern European immigrant Jews, and my father, the descendant of slaves stolen from Africa. Because I was reared around peoples who knew each other without having to speak the same language. Both sides of my family knew by heart the road we’d all traveled. From the Holocaust to Santa Monica; from the slave pens to Emancipation; from ghettos and hangmen; from racial stereotypes and public burnings; from humor derived through pain and homelessness over and over again—we knew each other. We understood the signs and scars and signals and the segregation, racism and hatred piled upon each other’s souls.
And I reflected both images. Inside I was aware not only of being hated but also of hating myself from two points of view in the same mind; of wanting to escape not only oppression but also repression—self-abnegation. There was joy in my appreciation of Chaim and LeRoy, Aunt Fanny and Fontanot. But there was also trepidation. This was because I became aware of a tide that is governed by forces that even Einstein could not conquer.
As we, the hated and feared and used peoples, were torn apart from the outside and in, I—Walter Mosley—also felt the forces of history pulling apart the sides of my family. The elder blacks and Jews were dying out, and modernity had eschewed any kind of history that didn’t turn a profit. The young people are forgetting what bound the disparate sides of my family together. And so that delicate bond, so beautiful and revealing, is scarring over with antipathy that derives from ignorance and a brand of self-hatred that identifies the me in you and hates you for it. A hatred that disguises itself as self-love but is really its own opposite.