I’m writing to you on my first morning in Edinburgh, where my family and I will be staying for a week. We’re here for the Fringe Festival, but it’s also my first time back in the city since 1985, when I spent the summer studying 20th century Scottish literature at Edinburgh University. I’m looking forward to wandering the streets again, and to the memories and moments of déjà vu that I’m sure will come. Below me, Bread Street has come to life, though it is a very quiet life compared to the New York City hustle I’m used to. Some minutes ago, I saw what looked like a group of high school students walking by. Now, aside from the cars and occasional trucks driving past, and the man opening up the unfortunately named Babelicious Café across the street, there’s no other activity. I wish I could go back to sleep, but I can’t. Even back home in New York, once I’m awake, I’m awake, and so here I am, at 7 o’clock in the morning, trying to put into words what I’ve been thinking since I read the Facebook message you sent me not an hour before we boarded the plane at JFK that carried us across the Atlantic.
When I first received the call for submissions for your #BlackArtMatters special issue, I was excited. I have long wanted to write an appreciation of June Jordan, my first poetry teacher, whose influence on me would be hard to understate. However, when I saw the deadline and realized I’d be out of the country for most of the time I’d need to write, I set the idea aside, figuring I’d pick it up some other time. Then I read your message. I confess that what you wrote did not surprise me. In fact, and I would guess you have the same sense of this as I do, it was probably inevitable that doing #BlackArtMatters would garner you the kind of submission you messaged me about. Nonetheless, since my initial response was almost certainly not what you would have expected—it certainly wasn’t what I expected—I am going to quote back to you the first part of what you wrote:
So Rosalyn’s going through the submissions for #BlackArtMatters. Lots of fine stuff from black folk, lots of fine stuff from non-black folk. There is, however, only one submission from a Jewish academic, who…starts talking about how, since he's Jewish, he knows how black people really feel, except only partially, but totally blackly.
Like you, I was offended by the racist paternalism of the man’s claim, which I assume you have described accurately, if more than a little ironically. More than that, though, reading what you wrote made me very much want to respond to the request you made next, one Jewish writer to another, that I should send you something so that his was not the only Jewish submission you received—but then I started to wonder. Was his submission in fact the only Jewish one, and, if it was, how did you know?
In terms of confronting the man’s racism, of course, that question doesn’t really matter, but it nonetheless put me in mind of how easy it is for Jews, white or of color, to pass as not-Jewish until we either self-identify or are outed—a term I am using purposefully, since there are still places in the world, including the hallowed halls of American academia, where it is not always safe to be known publicly as a Jew. So, imagine for a moment that there were Jews who submitted work to #BlackArtMatters who chose not to identify themselves as such. It’s worth asking why they might have made this choice. More to the point, though, it’s against the backdrop of that possibility, and not just of white liberal racism, that I think we need to view this academic’s presumption that his Jewish identity gives him access to what Black people feel as objects of racial hatred.
Before I get into any of that, though, I want to acknowledge that this appeal to Jewishness as a kind of get-out-racism-free card was a prominent theme in my Jewish education, both formal and informal. Teachers, community leaders, classmates, family members—all too many of them, and they were all white, invoked the myriad persecutions Jews have suffered through the centuries to demonstrate that we were just as oppressed as Black people and that, therefore, we had a special responsibility to stand up for Black people and against racism. More to the point, the implication was that standing up explicitly as Jews—in other words, as another oppressed people—was a way to prove we were not, that we could not be, racist. All too many of the same people who said those things, though, habitually referred to Black people using the Yiddish word shwartzes. It didn’t matter whether they were indeed standing up against racism—as in, “It’s just not fair for the shwartzes to be treated that way”—or whether they were saying something that they thought of as “common sense,” as in, “You’re going where? Be careful! It’s not safe over where the shwartzes live.” The word came to them as naturally as the word Jew did when they were talking about our community.
Now, as I’m sure you know, if you’re speaking Yiddish, and you’re talking about a Black person, shwartze, which means black, is absolutely the appropriate word to use. If you’re speaking English, however, calling a Black person shwartze, or Black people the shwartzes, is essentially the same as calling them niggers. I have no doubt that the Jewish academic you messaged me about would categorically reject the notion that claiming “to know what Black people feel” is rooted in the same sense of white privilege that allowed so many of the white Jews in my youth to use the word shwartze so casually. Nonetheless, I am going to assume he’d at least listen to my argument. After all, in writing to you, I am also implicitly writing to him, and the only way doing that makes any sense is to imagine him as willing to listen and to change.
I realize that there is a tremendous amount to unpack in what I’ve just written—brief though it may be—and that, without really intending to, I’ve committed myself to a good deal more than this short note. Now, however, I hear my wife and my son waking up. It’s time to make breakfast and then we’re off to explore Edinburgh and what this year’s Festival has to offer. I will write again when I can.
As a poet and essayist, Richard Jeffrey Newman’s work explores the impact of feminism on his life as a man. As a co-translator of classical Persian poetry, he writes about the impact of that canon on our contemporary lives. His most recent books are For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016) and the translation The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi's Shahameh(Junction Press 2011). He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY. His website is www.richardjnewman.com.