I’m Black and Jewish. I Can’t Let a Social Struggle Define Me.
At 45-years old, I am still learning not to let other people define me. As the son of an African American father and a white Jewish mother, I struggled growing up with feeling like an outsider: not Black enough to be embraced by the Black kids, not white enough to stop the racism leveled my way.
But while I no longer let my physical attributes define me, the recent anti-Semitic comments by a handful of Black celebrities — most notably Nick Cannon, DeSean Jackson, and Ice Cube — have me again exploring my identity.
My father, an African American Expressionist painter from Harlem, grew up Baptist. My mother, a teacher of the deaf who grew up in East Orange N.J., descended from radical Russian Jews, including a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. But these facts played no real role in my childhood. The only religious holiday we celebrated was Passover, which for my family had more to do with its cultural significance than it did with God.
I was six years old when I realized that I was not like the other kids in Saugerties, N.Y. My skin, while light, was darker than those I played baseball with. My hair was a big afro like my mother’s, with curls a bit kinkier than hers — “good hair,” my father’s mother, Maggie, liked to say.
But I saw being different as a positive. I liked standing out.
But then the kids I played with started to mimic the behaviors and language of their parents, and for the first time I was called “n****r.” Once, a white girl asked my father if he was the “boogie man.” Yet even when I was told by kids that “white blood is better than Black blood,” I took pride in being different.
Everything changed when my parents divorced, and my brother and I moved with our mother to East Greenbush, N.Y., a suburb near Albany, where she had taken a teaching position. It was 1986. My elementary school was a mix of middle-class kids and poor white kids from nearby Nassau, where I would see the occasional Confederate flag on a license plate, belt buckle, or trucker cap. I was beginning to self-identify as Black, which made the racial epithets now thrown my way especially confusing. Add to this my being into rap music while my peers listened to Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Cinderella and, for the first time in my life, I truly felt like an outsider.
In junior high, kids discovered Hip Hop culture and it suddenly was cool to be Black or, in my case, semi-Black. As nerdy as I was, I became a commodity. However, my classmates’ acceptance went only so far. Perhaps most upsetting, given the matter-of-fact delivery from someone I trusted, was when a white girl who I liked and I knew liked me said, without malice, “Xhosa, my daddy won’t allow me to date n*****s.”
Without telling her what I was going through, my mother knew, and she moved us to Albany, where I enrolled in a predominantly African American high school. It felt like a homecoming. I assumed that I could finally be myself.
Instead, being half white now made me stand out. The city was in the throes of a crack epidemic. There were families on welfare. Some kids I knew had fathers in prison, other kids sold crack. I personally knew two kids who went to prison for getting involved in a shoot-out at a nightclub. In other words, despite the many god-fearing African American families who lived there, the city was tough. I was not.
If you are mixed race, I discovered, the Black community will embrace you as one of them — until they don’t. It didn’t matter that at the time, I had a Black Muslim girlfriend, that I read Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. If you are perceived as an easy target, as weak, or a threat in social situations, your Black card can be revoked.
My problem? I had zero street cred. Status boiled down to, could I fight? No. Could I play basketball? No. And when I quit the football team after a hard tackle in practice, I was called “pussy” and “f****t.”
My nickname at school was “White Boy.”
I was trapped in a paradox: too Black to get in the door, too white to be accepted on the basketball court. I had thought I was going to the promised land, but learned that navigating the issue of race was far trickier than I had imagined.
And for the first time I encountered anti-Semitism. I don’t “look” Jewish, that is, my skin is darker than that of most American Jews, and my peers did not know I had a Jewish mother. So, when the ideology of the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, became popular at school among a small but vocal segment of students, I found myself exposed to a new kind of hate.
Most upsetting was the time a student, who I considered an intellectual peer, spouted off in the lunchroom that “Jews have tails and horns.” He didn’t know it was directed at me, but I did.
I wanted to be one of Dubois’ “Talented Tenth,” a term that designated a leadership class of African Americans in the early 20th century, and to have the intellectual community I wanted to be part of so easily duped by a bizarre mythology profoundly hurt me.
I couldn’t understand how people who have been oppressed and brutalized for hundreds of years could willingly entertain an ideology that seeks to dehumanize and criminalize a group based on their religious beliefs.
After high school, I moved to Manhattan to attend Borough of Manhattan Community College. I began to accept the fluidity of my racial identity. It truly was an existential moment when I embraced my outsider status, as being a Black man with Jewish heritage. But I had not yet come to terms with Judaism and, in fact, did not even attempt to integrate it into the equation. I was an atheist, and left it at that.
Enter the last three years, and a president who has fanned the flames of white supremacy, resulting in a reckoning of this country’s historic systemic racism. Into this mix has come a slew of disturbing social media posts from several prominent Black celebrities spreading anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories. This summer, the multi-hyphenate Nick Cannon, a host of Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” supported the hate speech of his guest Richard Griffin, defended Nation of Islam’s leader Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic teachings, and amplified Jewish conspiracy theories on his now-cancelled podcast, “Cannon’s Class.” DeSean Jackson, meanwhile, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, recently posted anti-Semitic messages, including a quote believed to be attributed to Hitler, while former NBA player and ESPN analyst, Stephen Jackson, defended DeSean, doubling down on his assertions. (Cannon, Jackson, and Jackson all later apologized.) And Ice Cube, an ardent supporter of Farrakhan’s with a history of writing anti-Jewish lyrics, posted anti-Semitic images to Twitter.
Systemic racism and violence against African Americans has created a reality where one group of marginalized people attempt to marginalize another group of people as a form of displacement for their own rage and frustrations. I also believe the anti-Semitic teachings of the Nation of Islam — which has it is true done much to inspire Black political self-determination — has created a false narrative that gives Black men permission to persecute those who are Jewish.
But where does this leave me? I’m not sure. But I do know that it has strengthened my desire to study Judaism and to better understand this aspect of my identity.
This external, societal conflict does not need to be my internal one. In learning, and growing, perhaps one day my multifaceted identities will teach me new things about who I am, and who I hope to be.
Xhosa Frazier is a poet and essayist, who lives in Woodstock, NY. He teaches middle school and high school English at the Woodstock Day School, and he also teaches in the Language & Thinking program at Bard College.
Co-published with The Forward.