I’m a Jew of color. I won’t be quiet about anti-Semitism.
Nick Cannon’s comments and Diddy’s public support for him brought a familiar pang of betrayal, disappointment and anger
I still remember the look of discomfort my friend Danielle Scruggs shot me as our professor went on an extended rant in an undergraduate journalism class at Howard University.
He’d started by bitterly complaining about a white editor who’d insisted on characterizing Louis Farrakhan as anti-Semitic in a story the professor had written. He was allegedly informing us Black would-be journalists of the importance of protecting our work from white editors who would sully it with cultural ignorance. But he soon spiraled into a larger rant about “the Jews,” assuming he was speaking to an audience who shared his opinions.
Silently, Scruggs caught my gaze and grimaced. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed silently. I grimaced, too. Neither of us really knew what to do or say in the moment, but we knew he was in the wrong.
“I remember feeling really taken aback, because there’s a Black-and-Jewish person right in front of you,” Scruggs said when I called her this week. “I should have said something instead of looking around in horror. Even if you’re part of a marginalized class, you can still have prejudices that can be really harmful and that’s something we should keep in mind.”
I have written and spoken at length about the love and pride I have for my alma mater. (We are legion, we are obnoxious, sorry not sorry.) But this week, I’ve been disappointed, to say the least, in two of its most high-profile sons: Nick Cannon and Sean “Diddy” Combs. When I saw anti-Semitic comments from Cannon and then Diddy’s tweets of solidarity after ViacomCBS fired Cannon for making them, I felt a familiar pang of betrayal, disappointment and anger — the same pang I’d felt two years ago when Alice Walker, a personal hero of mine, praised an anti-Semitic author as “brave” in The New York Times.
I have an unconventional relationship with my Jewish heritage, in part because I grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt. Unlike almost everyone else I knew in my hometown — where it was de rigueur upon meeting someone for the first time to ask if they were “saved” — my immediate family did not participate in organized religion. My paternal grandfather was both a preacher and a serial abuser, which contributed to my Black father’s distaste for the church. My Jewish mother, Lilian Oliviera-McDonald, was born in Suriname and grew up in Amsterdam, where daily life was far more secular than it was in the American South.
I grew up without going to Hebrew school or shul, but still surrounded by totems of Jewish culture. We had a menorah that my mother picked up from an Amsterdam antique shop. When I took it to elementary school for show-and-tell, I still remember the puzzled look my teacher gave me until she saw my mother, who came to take the menorah home instead of letting it sit in my locker for the rest of the day. We had multiple copies of The Diary of Anne Frank — in English, in Dutch, an annotated version with bits that were left out of the first edition, plus a copy of Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family by Miep Gies. My parents’ library was filled with the works of Jewish writers and thinkers, and tomes about Jewish history, such as William L. Shirer’s enormous text, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
My mother supplemented my public school education with art and books by and about Black Americans, and she did the same with Jewish culture. One of the earliest trips I can remember taking out of North Carolina was at age 9 when my parents and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I quickly became a weird little Holocaust expert, connecting the stories of people such as Frank and Elie Wiesel and Ephraim Shenkler — who wrote a memoir of his experiences as a small child living in the Polish ghetto — with the story of Zlata Filipović, who wrote the bestselling Bosnian war memoir Zlata’s Diary. I never forgot that the gentile woman who hid Shenkler was also violently anti-Semitic. She locked him in a cupboard that was too small to accommodate him. His growth was stunted and his feet grew deformed. When he was finally freed, Shenkler had to relearn how to walk. Later, when I became interested in learning more about gender, sexuality and politics, my feminism was informed not just by the works of Walker, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis and Paula Giddings, but by women such as Bella Abzug, Wendy Wasserstein, Eve Ensler and Susan Faludi.
Not everyone around me was learning the same history. When my classmates learned of my Jewish background, they’d tell me, “The Jews murdered Jesus.” I didn’t have enough of a religious education to know how to respond. So I just shut up.
When, as a child, a friend of my grandmother’s made an offhand remark about having to “Jew [someone] down” in the course of making a deal, I kept mum. And when my Black journalism professor at Howard ranted in anger, I shrank into my seat and kept quiet then, too.
I struggle with my connection to Judaism. Entering Jewish spaces often means entering white spaces and being subjected to anti-Blackness and questions about whether I truly belong, an experience that’s common among Jews of color. I don’t live far from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in New York City, and when I see Hasidim on the street, there is a feeling of recognition, but also rejection, of knowing that to many, I don’t count or I’m not Jewish enough. Jews of color often face a burden to publicly prove their Jewishness while white counterparts can take that part of themselves for granted.
I still remember how I felt in 2011 when I saw a photograph of culinary historian Janet Amateau. It was the first time I’d seen someone Jewish in mass media who looked like she could be a member of my mother’s family, and I gasped. The images and culture I’d grown up consuming had been about Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. I was descended from Sephardic people, who were more common in Southern Europe or Arab countries. But I didn’t have much of an understanding of what that meant, aside from the fact that my mother’s surname — Oliviera — pointed to a diaspora of Portuguese and Spanish Jews who spread out during the 15th and 17th centuries seeking refuge from the Spanish Inquisition. I had a similar feeling of revelation when I met Lauren Bayne Anderson — the editor of Howard’s student newspaper. She was the first person I’d met who was also Black and Jewish. I had a massive crush on Lenny Kravitz, but this was different — she was real, not a celebrity. We could kvetch and kvell together! When I brought a boyfriend home for the first time a couple of years later — also a Howard student — I made him sit on my parents’ couch with me and watch Fiddler on the Roof.
Works such as Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, recently revived by Signature Theatre in New York, and James Baldwin’s Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White offer bridges to explain the specificity of the Black anti-Semitism, which in New York is often bound up in battles over real estate and a lack of shared understanding. But there is always more to learn.
The Netherlands was one of the places where Spanish and Portuguese Jews went when fleeing religious persecution, which is how the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam came to be built in 1675. “They went to France, to Italy and some went further north to Belgium, and particularly Amsterdam, because it was a port city, a center of trade,” my mother explained. “So Amsterdam has this very specific history in that regard … it was kind of liberal with regard to Jews. If you want to settle there, fine, just don’t be too obvious with whatever it is you do. Just keep quiet, and you were able to do things that in a lot of other places you just couldn’t do.”
After the November 2016 presidential election, one of the first places I visited was the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and plenty of others had the same idea. It was so packed, visitors had to wait, stretch and crane their necks to read the text accompanying many of the exhibits. Everyone was anxious about what the new administration would mean for minorities.
I remember my mother pointing to the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in Missouri and Philadelphia. She didn’t need to reread Hannah Arendt. She had grown up in postwar Amsterdam, where no one forgot what the Nazis had done. In the winter of 1944, people were reduced to eating tulip bulbs as they tried to outlast the German occupation, and many starved to death. My mother shared stories of driving around Amsterdam years later with a friend. The friend showed my mother where her family hid during the war, right across the street from a Gestapo outpost. People in Amsterdam were still wary of German accents in the ’50s and ’60s, my mother said, recounting stories of Dutch people confronting German tourists on public transportation with rejoinders such as, “Back so soon?” and “I want my bicycle back!” The Nazis took everything during the occupation, even rubber from bicycle tires. The first car I bought with my own money was a Volkswagen Passat, and when I drove it home for the first time, my mother called it a “Nazi Cadillac.”
My mother learned to be wary of German public officials of a certain age — those who likely served in the Nazi government and escaped postwar prosecution. For a time, my family lived in a small country village in Germany. When my father, who served in the Air Force, was invited to bring his family with him to meet the mayor of Bitburg, Germany, during President Ronald Reagan’s visit to the country in 1985, my mother refused to go. The official was a member of the Christian Democratic Union, a conservative German party that was home to many ex-Nazis. When my father asked how he should explain her absence, my mother responded, “Tell him I’m a Jew from Amsterdam!”
“There are all these things about growing up in that particular time, space and that particular era that become part of your consciousness and part of your worldview,” Mom said.
In the wake of the terrorism of Charlottesville, Virginia, and the attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, I began to seek out other Jews of color, especially Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who is vocal about Judaism and race online. It has been frightening and disheartening to witness a blooming of violent, white supremacist anti-Semitism.
This week, in the wake of Cannon’s statements and subsequent firing, and Diddy’s rush to embrace him, my stomach turned anew when I saw messages like this one on social media. It was genuinely chilling, and this time, the anti-Semitism was coming from people who looked like me, people who attended the same historically black university as me and reveled in the school as a place of Black pride and intellectualism, just like me.
But unlike in that long-ago journalism class, now is not the time for me to shrink back, to remain quiet.
“Surviving something obliges you to carry on the knowledge,” my mother told me when I FaceTimed with her this week. “I remember [someone] saying, ‘Never think it won’t be so bad. We thought that in 1936 and it was late in the game.’ ”