The “Essence” of interracial/interfaith marriage: Culture is Key
Inspired by February’s Black History Month and March’s Women’s History Month, I’d like to do a close reading of Essence magazine, which I get regularly through the good fortune of having a fiancee who works for Time Inc. This is of the March 2010 issue. It’s a long, somewhat rambling post coming from the heart.
One article that really jumped out at me was a column called “I’m Just Sayin’.” March’s edition was titled “The Wince” and written by Grammy-award winning singer, writer, and actress Jill Scott. The “wince” she’s referring to is that feeling she gets when she sees an attractive, successful African-American man married to a white woman.
I felt my spirit…wince. I didn’t immediately understand it. My face read happy for you. My body showed no reaction to my inner pinch, but the sting was there, quiet like a mosquito under a summer dress.
Scott is not racist. She invokes the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow to explain her reaction. White men placed white women “on a pedestal” while black women were “overworked, beaten, raped and farmed out like cattle to be mated.” Even after slavery, Black men faced the prospect of lynching, beating or prison just for looking at white women the wrong way. Through it all, in her eloquent words:
Black women and Black men struggled together, mourned together, starved together, braved the hoses and vicious police dogs and died untimely on southern back roads together.
And so, when she sees a Black man with a white woman, she feels “betrayed.” And so, as an African American woman, she laments:
While we exert efforts to raise our sons and daughters to appreciate themselves and respect others, most of us end up doing this important work alone, with no fathers or like representatives, limited financial support (often court-enforced) and, on top of everything else, an empty bed. It’s frustrating and it hurts!
Even though she intellectually thinks this feeling a little wrong, she still feels it.
Our minds do understand that people of all races find genuine love in many places. We dig that the world is full of amazing options. But underneath, there is a bite, no matter the ointment, that has yet to stop burning. Some may find these thoughts to be hurtful. That is not my intent. I’m just sayin’.
I can relate to this sentiment. As a modern, secular but committed Jew, I respect everyone’s choices in whom they choose to date or marry, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t “wince” a little when I see nice Jewish men or women in love with goyim.
Obviously, the comparison between Blacks and Jews here can only be drawn out so far. Because the overwhelming majority of American Jews are and have always been white (despite what some terrible books like Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks try to argue), they have always had tremendous economic and social advantages conferred by their skin colour. Class divisions between Jews and Blacks also strained the real but complicated Black-Jewish alliance that has stumbled and soared periodically throughout the late 19th and the mid-20th century. But that’s another post altogether.
But here, I think, the comparison can be helpful, for Blacks and Jews and everyone else too.
Clearly Scott’s piece struck a nerve. Ta-Nehisi Coates has offered some criticism here and here, where he finds “this constant ‘plight of the black woman’ bit bewildering.” He notes the statistics show that 93% of married Black people in America are married to another Black person. While he acknowledges and respects Scott’s concerns and sense of history, he worries that this falls into the racist trap of conflating the individual with the group. Even before commenting on Scott’s piece, Coates worried about the “Black Damsel in Dating Distress” syndrome because it denied “agency” to Black women, who were supposed to simply “wait by the phone” for Black men to rescue them.
I agree with much of what Coates wrote there. But I’m also sympathetic to Scott, and to blogger Tami, who defended her sentiments here. Surely’s there’s a gender dynamic at work here. Here’s where another Jewish comparison proves useful.
Traditionally, as Jewish and gentile marriages began to rise in the United States in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the majority of Jews marrying out were men. Conventional publications praised Jewish women as keepers of the home and faith, but pop culture demonized them as unrelenting Jewish mothers and materialistic Jewish American Princesses (JAPs) who no Jewish man would want to marry in place of the whore/madonna shiksas that represented the American dream.
Blogger Phoebe has written about all this extensively, and especially here, where she notes the Black-Jewish connection and also the gender implications that Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg might have missed in their discussion of this issue. Phoebe assures readers that there are:
plenty of Jewish women a) had their first relationships with non-Jewish guys, because that’s who happened to be cute and around, yes, even in places like New York, and b) have been able to ‘get’ Jewish men (and even — imagine — reject them. Jewish women dumping perfectly good Jewish men, for the same reasons anyone ends a relationship with anyone else! Yes, it happens.), but for whatever reason the man they end up with turns out not to be Jewish.
Indeed, more recently, those gender levels of Jewish intermarriage have evened out considerably, though not yet entirely. But intermarriage remains a fact of American Jewish life. The question is what, if anything, to do about it.
And here’s where some history of Black-Jewish relations becomes instructive. I’m writing my dissertation on the intellectual relationship between Alain Locke and Horace Kallen. Heavily influenced by Franz Boas, Locke argued for a cultural definition of race. Those anthropological ideas helped inspire him to lead the Black Arts movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. He believed African American culture, a hybrid of African heritages and traditions mixed with American influences, was something that should be maintained, built and improved upon, and ultimately shared with the world.
Similarly, Kallen, while not an observant Jew, was proud of his Jewish culture, and spent decades advancing Zionism, Jewish education and other Jewish cultural endeavours in the United States. He married a Christian woman. But this did not trouble him, because he appreciated being able to celebrate multiple religious holidays, being able to interact with a variety of traditions, and ultimately to impart both his Jewish heritage and his wife’s and other heritages to his children and grandchildren.
With Jews, as opposed to Blacks, the problem is a bit different: Jewish numbers in America are slowly but surely dwindling (particularly non-Orthodox Jews), and so assimilation represents a threat to numerical survival. Which is why, as Kallen and the Reform and Reconstructionist movement have done, embracing patrilineal descent is so important. As my Reconstructionist rabbi preached in his touching speech on intermarriage at the High Holidays last year (he does not perform interfaith marriages, though he does perform gay marriages between two Jews), Jews must do everything they can to welcome non-Jewish spouses into their lives and communities, to make conversion desirable while not actively proselytizing, and at the very least to ensure that Jewish tradition remain an important part of their family life.
Going along with that is embracing the idea of Judaism as a culture, which can be transmitted to spouses and children through a variety of ways. And if you listen to Scott’s discussion on CNN, we see that she too understands race as a culture. So taking a page from Alain Locke, if we understand race culturally, inter-racial marriage becomes somewhat less problematic. Because the positive values associated with African American culture can also be shared to spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends and children regardless of the colour of their skin.
This won’t make the “wince” go away. I still feel it for Jews, and people like Scott will still feel it for Black men and women too. So will many other who feel the powerful call of historical community. But this frame of mind may make the wince somewhat easier to deal with.
UPDATE: weiner adds:
Phoebe responds to my post.