Informing Posterity’s Identity: Melding Blackness and Judaism

blThis afternoon I was enjoying a leisurely walk when I passed an elementary school during recess.  My step slowed and my smile grew as I watched uniformed black children enjoying games of tag and soccer as they ran beneath an American flag and around a handsome stone school constructed in the early twentieth century.  Watching the happiness emanate from these kids at play, my joy rose.  I caught snippets of some of their conversations as I walked by and images of my own childhood were recalled to my own mind.

Something about seeing black kids happy and at school made a pride rise in me.  These are not images I see in media about this generation.  Let all your opinions be formed by the news and one might think that there is no such thing as a successful all black school in these United States where all the kids are not some combination of malnourished or angry or unnecessarily rowdy.  For all I know, these kids could have been these things as well—but I saw them as more than that, different than that.  I saw them as beautiful people, a happy story, not a sad plight. And my heart soared.

I continued on my merry way and then a thought came to me that I had never contemplated before in these words, “I’m going to have little black kids!”  I will hopefully get to help shape and create the next generation of black Americans as a parent!

So you may be wondering, why did you experience this thought as though it were an epiphany?  Are you black?  If not, are you intending to procreate with someone who is?

Let me take a step back to both introduce myself and explain where I was coming from prior to stumbling upon this school.  I am Jewish.  I was coming from a group interview discussing the recent Pew study about current identification and participating trends in the American Jewish community.  In short it suggested that affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews is declining and assimilation is on the rise.  I have spent most of the past decade actively exploring my Jewish identity and establishing roots within the community.  My faith is tremendously important to me; it is my primary identification when asked to define myself.  I have thought extensively about the type of Jewish children I want to raise.  However, I am also black—and until today, I never gave much thought to what it means to raise a black child.

A point of contention among some about the Pew study findings is that it may fail to take into account 21st century methods of expressing Jewish identity that may not fit traditional ideas of what standard observance looks like.  Judaism evolves with the times, despite the arguments of some to the contrary.  Interestingly, the study found that relative to other religious groups more Jews found it possible to identify as Jewish but not as religious.  To me, this makes sense.  Being Jewish, as a member of the faith versus a designation of peoplehood or race, did not exist until about 200 years ago.  There is a real fear among some that assimilation will lead to an erasure of Jewish identity and the dilution of the culture.  I believe that “Jewish identity” in this context should be expanded to “Jewish religious identity.”  In my observations a Jewish heritage seems likely to persist even if the religion is not traditionally preserved and I would argue that this doesn’t make the people any less Jewish.

In many ways I have come to view American blackness through a lens similar to the one I use to critique Judaism in America.  I have often felt myself on the outside of the monolithic “Black culture” referred to in academia or the news or the blogosphere; who are these “black” people and does the writer know that there are many ways to live in this skin?  But let me ask a different question; if a Jew can be accused of assimilating out of their identity, is it possible for someone black to do so as well?  One might immediately think ‘Yes,’ and cite all those people who ‘passed’ and the abounding ‘Oreos’.  I think those are simple answers to superficial questions.  A primary reason for passing as white was self preservation in a time when being black came with extreme legal and economic barriers to accessing society and almost no safety for self or property granted under the law.  As for the accusations of ‘oreo-ness’, being black on the outside and white on the inside, I think this idea is the heart of the comparison between the Jews pointed to as assimilated and being a member of a potentially less visible black (upper) middle class.

The concepts of the “Assimilated Jew” and the “Oreo” deny people their intrinsic identity as a member of their respective group(s), their birthright, by declaring that their representation of self is insufficient for acceptance within the birth community.  The fact that someone can even point a finger at a so-called unobservant Jew but know that they are Jewish because they choose to self-identify as such or declare a person of ostensible African descent to not be “black enough” (or to deny someone their black heritage because they look too “other”) is patently offensive.

Growing up obviously black but mostly without a community of people who looked similarly I have often been uncomfortable with the performance component of culture.  My blackness is apparent and I embrace it and it is truly who I am—but I don’t know how I learned it, and many may argue my education is incomplete.  As I am entering a stage of life where I am becoming increasingly family focused questions of identity and culture are never far from my mind.  For the longest time I have thought I would marry someone who is also Jewish so there is a high likelihood that my children will be multiracial.  As such, articles and media related to mixed identities have been of particular interest to me.  It’s almost silly how basic it seems that I neglected to recognize the import of my future children’s blackness.

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial I contemplated black masculinity and identity and how that will affect my baby brother as he grows up but I failed to connect that to my place in that narrative as a black female, and G-d willing as the future mother of black children, children that will also be Jewish and learned in the ways of Israel (the people, Yiddishkeit, not necessarily the state)—but children who nonetheless may potentially be perceived as black first depending on how the genes do their business.  So, therein lies a new responsibility for me.  In preparation for the creation of posterity I need to clarify for myself what it means to be “black”, both inside and outside of America, and combine that knowledge with a meaningful history and sense of pride that they can comprehend and grasp onto.

I don’t contemplate my blackness as I do my Judaism.  Blackness wasn’t a choice, I Am it—there is no wrong way; I live it.  Judaism was a choice, I have Become it, and I deliberate over how I choose to express it.  My children will have the dual privilege of Being both of these things so I must have a clear, if flexible, definition of these identities and what they mean for a single person to embody them.  Lack of engagement will be unacceptable.  I have teaching to do.

But parenting is a partnership.  And my future husband will have to support me in this—and whatever his identity he will have to cultivate in them as well, and he will have my support.

I want my to see my kids dance and run and laugh at school with wide smiles under a flag that resonates with them and hearts full of love, a feeling of self acceptance and the knowledge of who they are, what they stand for, and where they come from.  These are the things I want for my kids and for the sake of generations to come I need to strive for this to the fullest extent of my abilities.  The future lies within us—to make it better we must start with self.

Courtney D. Sharpe is both a Washington native and recent transplant.  Born into a nominally Catholic African American family, she began practicing Judaism at age 15 in suburban Texas and later completed an Orthodox conversion.  Courtney recently returned to the District and is actively seeking to meld her religious identity with the exploration of her hometown. 

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