Wednesday, February 27, 2008

African Hebrews of Jerusalem...

A few people have asked me about my preliminary anthropological research with the African American community in Israel. Here's a piece we just published for this week:

American Black Community Finds Home in the Negev
By John L. Jackson, Jr. and Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda

African Hebrew Israelites, often referred to as Black Hebrews, are the largest organized group of African-American expatriates living anywhere in the world. The African Hebrew Israelites are the followers of Ben Ammi Ben Israel, who they believe received a vision in 1966 in which he was directed to return African-American descendants of the ancient Israelites to the Promised land, and to establish the long-awaited Kingdom of God on earth.

By 1967, Ben Ammi convinced approximately 400 African-Americans (largely from Chicago) to leave, America (known as the "Lands of the Great Captivity"), and travel to Israel. The first group of "returnees" arrived in Israel in 1969, after a brief sojourn in the wilderness of Liberia.

The movement can be understood in the context of the "great awakening" to historical roots and cultural identity that African-Americans underwent in the 1960s. The Hebrew Israelites maintain their return was not just to their ancestral homeland of Israel (which they consider northeastern Africa), but to a way of life that would testify to the power of God.

While only approximately 3,000 saints (as they call themselves) reside in Israel, thousands live across the US, Caribbean, Europe and Africa and identify with the community, living according to their doctrinal tenets.

Organizing in Israel
On arrival in Israel in 1969, the African Hebrew Israelites were given temporary visas and assigned to Dimona, an economically-depressed development town in Israel's Negev region. The initial welcoming proved short-lived, as a change in Israel's Law of Return less than a year later cast the community into a legal limbo. At first the members did not have work visas, but were not deported by the government. Beginning in the early 1990s, African Hebrew Israelites were given temporary resident status, and the community members received permanent residency in 2003.

Meanwhile, faced with overcrowded conditions, no access to schools or health care, and the constant threat of deportation, the Hebrew Israelites were challenged to develop institutions that addressed their basic needs. They developed a biblically-based system of communal living and sharing, called All in Common, which drove the economy. They also founded, Bayt Safer Akvah (Brotherhood School), a community-run school under the auspices of Israel's Ministry of Education.

In 1980 an abandoned absorption center for 1970s-era immigrants was given to the community by Jacques Amir, a sympathetic mayor. Renovated by the members, the site provided a brief respite from massive overcrowding. Later proclaimed the Village of Peace, it is now a destination for hundreds of tourists each week.

Community services include a general store, guest house, health spa, dance studio, communal dining area and sewing center, all staffed and maintained by community members. They produce a line of soy and vegan food products that are marketed throughout Israel and operate a global chain of vegan restaurants in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Washington DC, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, as well as Acre and Cape Coast (Ghana).

Spiritual and Social Life
Some have mistakenly reported that the African Hebrew Israelites claim to be descendents of the 10 lost tribes. The community actually considers itself the descendants of the tribe of Judah, as they spiritually identify with Judah's role as the "gatherer" of the other tribes. (King David was from the tribe of Judah.) The community's vision invokes Israel's prophetic mandate to be a "light unto the nations." The Hebrews take this charge seriously, incorporating a respect for what they see as the "sacred Truth" into every aspect of their culture.

The Hebrews maintain a firm distinction between religion on the one hand, and spirituality on the other. The former is frowned upon, and seen as the root of many evils in the world today. "The true worship of God is an entire way of life, a continuous action, from the meal you eat in the morning, to the job you work on," wrote Ben Ammi in God the Black Man and Truth. "It encompasses your every deed and thought pattern."

The Holy Council--12 men known as princes, chaired by Ben Ammi--constitutes the group's spiritual leadership. Twelve ministers oversee the daily affairs and operations of the community. A third tier of governance, Crowned Brothers and Sisters, oversees the daily affairs of the adult community. The community's vibrant cultural dress--all bordered with fringes and "cords of blue", like a tallit--is unmistakable.

Polygyny, the practice of having more than one wife at a time, was practiced among Hebrew Israelites until 1990. The community defended this practice because it accorded with biblical tradition and also because of the community's unique demographic conditions. Significantly more women traveled to Israel in the first wave of aliyah, and the community valued marriage and companionship, even if it meant one man having multiple wives.

In addition to keeping the Holy Days prescribed in the Bible, the Hebrews have incorporated a New World Passover into their calendar, which commemorates their exodus from the United States in 1967. Each May, hundreds of international guests join in two full days of feasting, music and family-oriented fun. Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) observances feature the annual "Dance for the Land" featuring an elaborate display of sound and motion celebrating their joy at being back in their ancestral land.

The Prophetic Priesthood, the body of men responsible for administering spiritual needs of the community also read psalms to women during pregnancy and labor, counsel couples considering marriage, officiate weddings, conduct Sabbath services, and perform circumcisions on the male children. Fasting, for all older than 13 years old, is part of the community's mandatory Sabbath observance, and considered part of their holistic approach to health.
Health and Wellness

It is here, in the arena of preventive health, that the African Hebrew Israelites have scored, perhaps, their most impressive success. They have virtually eradicated high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity from their community. Indeed there have been no deaths in the community attributable to these diseases, which in the US disproportionally impact African-Americans.

Members of the community are vegans. Tobacco, drugs, and alcoholic beverages aside from naturally fermented wines are avoided. Regular exercise (three times weekly) is mandatory for all adults, as is a monthly massage. No-salt days, sugarless weeks, and live food weeks dot their calendar. According to the community's belief system, the choice of relationships, clothing, and music all matter where health is concerned, and every effort is made to create an environment conducive to healing. This consciousness is woven into the lifestyle, resulting in an admired comprehensive health literacy. In 2006, Ghana's Ministry of Health summoned a team from Dimona to assist in the development of a health and nutrition program crucial to that West African country.

Working for Peace on Many Fronts
The Hebrews also participate in civic activities of the State of Israel. Since 2004, more than 125 of their youth have served in the Israel Defense Forces. Defending their homeland is viewed as a moral obligation, and other members of the community reach out to the neighboring Arab population. By virtue of their experience in overcoming prejudice, the group considers itself uniquely positioned to mediate disputes where ethnicity and other differences are at the root of social strife. A conflict resolution center, the Dr. Martin Luther King/SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference)-Ben Ammi Center for a New Humanity, opened in 2005.

Israel's Foreign Ministry considers the community a corps of goodwill ambassadors. They are particularly active throughout Africa. Today, the frictions that once characterized the community's relationship with the Israeli government and with Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties, who denied the community members were Jewish, are a distant memory.

Times may not have always been rosy for the community, but along the way, public praises have poured forth: the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus recognized them as a "miracle in the desert," and the Foreign Ministry's website calls them "a phenomenon in a land of phenomena."

Their struggle for acceptance behind them, the African Hebrews continue to look at the challenges ahead. "Ever onward and upward," says Prince Rockameem, 74, one of the founding pioneers. "If you're coasting, you're going downhill!"

[Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda is a spokesperson and historian for the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Born and raised in Washington, DC, he has lived in Dimona since 1978. He is also executive director of the African/Edenic Heritage Museum's "Exploring the African Presence in the Promised Land," an exhibition documenting Hebrewisms and other connections of Africans to Israel.]

Friday, February 15, 2008

Still Thinking About Tiger: "with friends like these...?"

Kelly Tilghman apologized a couple of weeks ago, but Tiger Woods had forgiven her long before that. Tilghman, if you have already forgotten, is the Golf Channel TV anchor who made an on-air joke at Tiger’s expense last month, a joke that ended with a punch-line about other golfers needing to “lynch him in a back alley” if they wanted any real chance at success. His last two victories at Buick and Dubai only reinforce her point about his dominance of the sport.

Woods didn’t so much forgive Tilghman, truth be told, as dismiss the entire story out of hand. His camp called her comments “a complete non-issue” and argued that they weren’t meant as a racial slur at all. Tilghman was suspended for a bit, but chalk that up to Reverend Al Sharpton’s interventionist calls for her firing. Woods isn't the one who demanded her head.

Of course, Tilghman is just the latest in a current spate of broadcasters and celebrities who have been sanctioned (or just publicly embarrassed) for insensitive statements--think of Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Isaiah Washington and, of course, Don Imus. But one thing that makes the Woods-Tilghman affair different is the fact that Tiger himself, the butt of her lynching comment, didn’t express public outrage at all.

In the Imus controversy, those Rutgers basketball players who were the target of his "nappy headed hoes" remark actually held a press conference to express their anguish, some players even allegedly exploring the possibility of legal action. When Michael Richard called his Black hecklers “niggers” during an on-stage meltdown last year, they immediatly responded with white-hot indignation, storming out of the comedy club. But Tiger wasn’t offended. He simply wanted everybody to move on.

Tiger’s response exemplifies some of what makes the current state of race relations in American society so unprecedentedly complicated. Even explicitly racial statements (and any talk about lynching a black man in America will continue to be a racial statement for many, many years to come) often get denied and downplayed in public circles. Speakers claim not to have meant them in racist ways, and they are sometimes even insulted by the very accusation of racism.

This reminds me of a recent example of some white female students at a Florida university who borrowed jerseys from their Black friends on the school’s basketball team and, with the Black athletes’ knowledge and blessing, went to a local party wearing those jerseys and donning blackface--posing as those basketball players (an example I mention in Racial Paranoia). When the administration expressed disapproval, all the students invloved, the Black basketball players and their white college-mates, were shocked and a little annoyed. The women didn’t mean the action in a racist way. And their Black friends had even helped them prepare for the party. So, why were other people making it into a racial issue? From the students’ perspective, this was simply a case of friends poking “good fun” at one another. Their personal ties were supposed to trump the weighty history of blackfaced minstrelsy as a denigration of Black culture. And for those few students, it ostensibly did.

Woods can dismiss Tighlman’s statements on similar grounds. The two are old friends. They have been professionally acquainted for over a decade, and Tiger can use those intimate facts to justify a generous assessment of her intentions and motivations.

Making racism about intentions is obvious and seemingly justifiable. However, in a politically correct moment like the present, a time when very few people are willing to hazard the public scorn and shame that comes with expressing unabashed racism in mixed company (which is why the Internet’s relative anonymity unleashes such virulent and unapologetic performances of racial hatred), reducing racism to people's intentions also transforms it into a kind of impenetrable “black box” that allows everyone, even the most disingenuous, a degree of plausible deniability.

When is calling a black person “nigger” and talking about lynching him not considered racist? When the perpetrator can claim that the statement doesn’t represent what is really in her heart of hearts. She may have accidentally said a bad thing, but she is still a good person deep down inside. Richards and Imus each used this exact reasoning in their own defense.

Any notion of racial actions disentangled from supposedly non-racist hearts is exactly the kind of rhetorical move that only works in the context of longstanding and intimate social relationships. Woods and those Floridian students called on these kinds of inter-racial intimacies to brush aside and forget any of the larger political and social implications of their friends’ gestures. But for people disconnected from these specific interpersonal histories and intimacies, who aren't a part of these particular social networks, it all looks and feels like just another example of internalized racism, of blacks "selling out," and of whites wanting to have their racist cake and eat it, too.

Americans need to do a much better job cultivating diverse social networks. We still live in racially segregated worlds, even when we labor side by side at the job or happen to watch the same reality shows on TV. Hopefully, more of us will work proactively to desegregate our friendship networks, but we also have to be careful that we don’t allow our comfort with particular individuals from across the nation’s deeply etched (and structurally pre-determined) color lines to reproduce racisms of old--only with a more powerfully new and non-falsifiable escape clause.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Publishers Weekly review just out today...

...and unlike the Kirkus Review author, this reviewer seems to have read more than just the beginning and end of the book.

Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness
John L. Jackson Jr. Basic, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-465-00216-0

Calls for a conversation about race crop up persistently—as in the wake of the Imus scandal or O.J. Simpson's acquittal. Jackson's (Harlemworld; Real Black) examination of how race remains singular in American consciousness proves a lively opening gambit to a thought-provoking analysis. After a loose historical survey of race matters before the 1960s, when “brash and brazen American racism” was mainstream, Jackson focuses on the current state of affairs in racial fears and distrust that have gone underground and express themselves as racial paranoia and “de cardio” racism (“what the law can't touch, what won't be easily proved or disproved, what can't be simply criminalized or deemed unconstitutional”). Racial paranoia, not “just 'a black thing,' ” owes much to the way mass media confirms or subverts stereotypes; de cardio racism is cloaked, “papered over with public niceties and politically correct jargon.” Jackson explores particularly fresh areas in his illuminating consideration of The Man Who Cried I Am and 1996, racial paranoia's canonical texts and in his attention to the McCarran Act's effect upon black thinkers. Passionate and committed Jackson is, but his content is balanced. Casually scholarly and often witty, Jackson offers the reader “new ways of talking about race's subtler dynamic and new ways of spying racial conflict in the twenty-first century.” (Apr.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Racial Paranoia--a book that scares people

Kirkus Review just ran an amazingly unprofessional review (actually a misreading) of my forthcoming book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness.

The revealing thing about the review is that it is clear the reviewer didn't read the book carefully, if at all. They describe it as full of academic jargon, though it is not, and then they say that I claim blacks are debilitated by paranoia, which is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what I argue in Racial Paranoia. THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF WHAT I EXPLICITLY SAY--AND DESCRIBE.

I knew the provocative nature of this book would upset some people, but a short and dismissive Kirkus Review by someone who seems to have simply skimmed the book's preface and conclusion before churning out a canned and hasty "review" is WILDLY IRRESPONSIBLE.

Knee-jerk responses like these are EXACTLY the reason why I wrote this book in the first place--and why I ask readers to think about race a little differently than they have been trained to do. This reviewer is an example of someone thinking they know what the book is arguing without really reading it, which is inexcusable.

The reviewer describes the book as "repetitive," but evidently it should have repeated its main argument even more often--since the 30 or fewer pages that this reviewer actually glanced through clearly didn't hammer the point home enough.

The good thing, however, is that this malicious misreading actually proves part of the book's point. People think they already know everything they need to know about what other people are saying when the topic is "race"--even without ever listening.

I haven't gotten the name of the reviewer yet, but I'm sure it will be telling information. More on that in a bit...