This Black History Month comes at a particularly fraught time in our nation’s history, given just a few of the events that took place over the past year: the shooting of Jacob Blake; the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery, and Elijah McClain, among many others; and most recently, the white nationalist-led insurrection at our nation’s Capitol that left five people dead and many others wounded.
These travesties and more are proof that Black History Month isn’t meant simply to educate us about things that happened a long time ago: it is supposed to ask us, ‘How far have we truly come? What barriers do Black people still face? How does white supremacy still manifest, from the blatant to the unnoticeable, and how do we dismantle it?’ In the same way our Jewish holidays use the past to inspire us to create a better today and tomorrow, Black History Month asks that we not see racism as something we’ve overcome, but something we must continue to eradicate in the pursuit of equity.
This, of course, is not easy. For generations, so many of us were fed a societal diet of mythology, idealism, and nationalistic jingoism in our history classes. The sugarcoating, whitewashing, and the absence of inconvenient truth made digesting this regimen problematic. Growing up, I was required to read the stories, sing the songs, and obey the edicts of who we are supposed to be as a nation. To be a “true American” required compliance and conformity.
And yet, as a Black man, I have a nearly ancestral obligation to call out this toxicity and work as hard as possible to extricate it. As a Jew, my moral and spiritual imperative is to not only to seek out all that is right and just in the midst of this upheaval, but also to heal my community. As an aspiring rabbi, it will be both a mitzvah and a mandate that I help us all to remember, to heal, and to learn for the sake of our future.
In the vein of remembering, I can’t help but think back just over a month ago to the Capitol insurrection. Being the history enthusiast I am, I sat transfixed in front of my computer, excited to witness a little-seen act of governmental transition: the certification of electoral ballots. After a while, though, the dynamics of the day began to change rapidly, forever altering one of this nation’s most sacred rituals.
The dictionary defines terrorism as “unlawfully using violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” Prior to the insurrection, those in attendance at the rally were worked up into a rage by the president’s and other speakers’ mistruths and various colorful metaphors. Those present were encouraged to go to the Capitol and then sought to intimidate legislators into overturning a legitimate election.
There is no fabricated conspiratorial alibi for this outrage. Its participants, fearful of this nation better embracing the notions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, came draped in Confederate flags and other racist symbols. They built a hanging gallows, and wore racist and antisemitic insignia. No matter the faction, these fellow citizens violated everything our nation claims and aspires to be.
As a Black man in America, I’m quite cognizant of the consequences of protest and anger. An uprising based in civil righteousness and justice is an organic part of a people’s progress; an uprising rooted in dishonesty and hate is nothing more than a tragedy. This should never be associated with the false equivalency of the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, during which brave individuals actively sought racial justice. This Capitol mob was the accelerant of domestic terrorism.
It is not hyperbole to note that this was also an example of white privilege, cut and dry. Many rightly believe that if there were advance notice of a Black Lives Matter protest in the same area, the result would likely be a heavily fortified police and military presence. In addition, social media would be abuzz with fear-filled rumors of violent and destructive interlopers. Despite the multitude of postings publicizing the event prior to January 6, federal law enforcement was unprepared. This was all very emblematic of hypocrisy, originating not only in the hearts and minds of the oppressors, but furthered by their distorted national narrative.
This is not yet the America most of us dream of, but it is an unavoidable part of our DNA. American equality and exceptionalism are checks that are still in the mail. If we truly love what this country is capable of, we must continue to speak the hard truth to power. We’ve seen seismic steps in our progress, but the tragic debacle of January 6 demonstrates that we have many more steps to go.
As this Black History Month draws to a close, I call on the diverse and unified people of the United States to douse the ugliness threatening to steal the narrative of the oppressed and the marginalized. This trademark passion we have as activists for social justice the United States is why we speak out, why we march, and why we kneel. A rabbinic schoolteacher once told me that “the future has a strong pull, or influence, on our present.”
With our future in mind, may we all pray – and act – for a compassionate America in 2021 and beyond.
Observe Black History Month with these Jewish resources, and visit our racial justice issue page for year-round action items and educational materials.