Der Kampf geht weiter

Jewish youth in the diaspora have always been polylingual. Many speak German, others Spanish, Yiddish, French, Gruzinic. Some, believe it or not, have also taken to learning Black American English. Kevin Coval and Adam Mansbach are two such young Jewish men, and they both have new books that explore race and ethnicity in America.
Kevin Coval’s new book – “Slingshots: A Hip Hop Poetica” has been described as “a midnight craps game between Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks and Big Daddy Kane, thrown against a synagogue wall. Kevin Coval’s wordplay is fierce, frenetic and funny, but these words didn’t come to play. This is poetry that scours both the world and the self for stones big enough to fling at the Goliaths of our times.
Coval writes:

“I think all people, regardless of race, go through our natural steps in identity development. At some point, I learned enough about where I came from that I no longer wanted to be black. And I also didn’t want to be white. I wanted to be Jewish. Hip hop, the self-critical gazing that comes from it, asks you to represent. It took me a minute to figure out what I represented. It made me inevitably look and search for identity.

Adam Mansbach’s most recent novel “Angry Black White Boy or The Miscegenation of Malcom Detornay” follows one guilty white boy in his dream to establish a holiday in which white America formally apologizes to black America. Mansbach poetry has been called “dense with music, with insight, and with honesty. His is that rarest of poetry collections: one destined to become dogeared.
The most interesting thing to me about these two writers is that Jewish themes are, for the most part, subtext in their work. To their detriment, the Jewish themes that do exist are largely ignored by those seeking out both hip hop culture and new Jewish literature. Their work represents a perspective that speaks to the Jewish relationship to the American color line and one that can critically examine the relationship between Jewish and Black America.

13 thoughts on “Der Kampf geht weiter

  1. This reminds me of a CD i recently got call Celebrate Hip Hop, a collection of Jewish rappers. There is just something subtley racist about all of this. This is the modern day Al Jolson in blackface. I always hear about the relationship between African Americans and Jewish Amnericans, but more often, it’s Jewish kids trying to act Black because they think it’s cool. It’s not cool, it’s embarassing. This is not a true appreciation of another people. and it’s not true friendship. It’s “look at me! i’m hip too! Look! I can rap!” Don’t Jewish peopel have their own music and culture? Or do we have to nerd out on Black people’s all the time?

  2. actually, geoff, as cultures of the oppressed, jews and blacks have an infinite amount in common and their cultures have forever had a back-and-forth interplay which has resulted in their inexorable linkage.
    what do you make of marcus garvey’s “black zionism,” the black hebrews, the united drummers of israel, etc.? how do you feel about the fact that the first dj to cut a hiphop mixtape was a white jew named steinski? or that the first hip-hop group to enjoy mainstream success (thus opening the door for black artists) was composed of three white jews from nyc — the beastie boys? or that jews co-founded the n.a.a.c.p.? or that abraham joshua heschel was one of the primary figures in the american civil rights movement? etc., etc., etc.
    your remarks reveal nothing more than personal prejudice.
    malcolm x is one of my personal heroes. i am a white jew who lives in israel. i hope that makes you squirm.

  3. there is one difference, though between Jolson and Mansbach. Black folks loved Jolson — The Jazz Singer was a huge hit in the Black Theaters in Harlem and Jolson recieved raving reviews in the Black press. Mansbach, on the other hand, has been publically ridiculed by his ‘peeps’. He was at Columbia a few years ago and was practically laughed off stage by the Black students. Danny Hoch – on the other hand – is down with the brothers.

  4. good points. daniel, you definitely check out mansbach’s texts tho – they are certainly interesting. Kevin Coval is an old friend of mine, we performed poetry and taught youth performance poetry together. I think he’s certainly an interesting concious jewish phenomenon in an environment that pays little attention to jewish culture. I don’t like his politics tho, but I guess thats beside the point.

  5. I think its real nice that Messrs. Mansbach and Coval feel guilty and want to apologize for what their people did. I always though what one did to atone for one’s guilt and sham as to apologize for oneself and ones forbearers, not establish holidays and force others to apologize.
    So if they are ashamed of what Jews have done to blacks, they are certainly welcome to make obeisances and ululate to their hearts content. They can even agitate to create a special holiday, a “Yom Black Folks” if they are so inclined.
    But please, please, keep it to yourselves, OK? Let us white gentiles apologize or not as the spirit moves us. We really don’t need Jews apologizing for us and ginning up yet another occasion of forced white gentile abasement. We can deal with our own redemption in our own way. We don’t need special emissaries from other religions to morally educate us. We know how important it is for y’all to be a light unto the nations, a spiritual Florance Nightengale to us benighted heathens, but really, this is the 21st Century, OK?
    So tell your boys to deal with their own guilt, we will deal with ours, OK?

  6. BigBill, I’d read the texts first. They are much more important and a lot of more textured than apologies for racial oppression. In fact, I don’t think they are apologies at all.

  7. Geoff says:
    “Don’t Jewish peopel have their own music and culture? Or do we have to nerd out on Black people’s all the time?”
    We could ask a similar question every time a black gospel choir sings about God or the messages found in the prophetic books. The issue for me is whether the group doing the borrowing is simply imitating the original or is adding to the original such that the result is something original itself.

  8. No, but there’s something to that, at least in Adam Mansbach’s writing. His deal is that he tries to be Jewish; discovers it’s a ‘fake’ identity; and instead embraces the ‘White’ identity that American culture has laid out for him.
    It’s a difficult and thought-provoking issue. But it’s entirely germane to Geoff’s and J’s comments. Mansbach essentially positions his narrator as one who would prefer to, who finds it more comfortable to, take up the identity consistent with, which doesn’t disturb, that of the mainstream and Black cultures, that of being someone positioned as simply, most authentically, White.

  9. Robin,
    I think thats a fair assessment. The positioning of the narrator reflects in many ways an immigrant narrative, something inherent to any jewish-american novel. (Look most of this country isn’t Jewish and I live here too, should I be Jewish? How Jewish?) So in speaking about this sort of cop out, choosing a white identity because it fits into mainstream and black culture – I would go farther. To assert that the Jewish identity is a fake one and choosing whiteness is a compelling critique of African-American culture – that its conceptualized itself as an
    /alternative/ to whiteness, a /protest/ of whiteness rather than something /different/ from whiteness altogether and congruent to other non-white narratives in America. The protest to this is in many ways the Black Arts movement. But we haven’t had a Jewish arts movement in America. Why not?

  10. Eli .. exactly. The why not is a complicated thing, I guess. Think all those history books about Jews and the history of Hollywood and inventing whiteness, and the Reform movement’s push to have Jewish ethnicity done away with, and Jews reinvented as “fellow citizens of the Mosaic faith”, and Herzl’s journey from assimilation to affirmation, and so on. Jewish identity in European societies has since the enlightenment been partly about trying to negate a Jewish identity, I think. France as a country where the dominant Jewish culture is now Sephardic and the Jewish community is not stigmatised about affirming its Jewishness is an interesting place in that respect right now.
    There is an intersting interview partly on that topic in last week’s Canadian Jewish News with French intellectual Pierre Assouline. He says (I’m translating):”today, French Judaism is Sephardic. When we see an Ashkenazi, we put him fast in the museum! There are hardly any left, the way things have gone, because many died in the concentration camps, and many Ashkenazis assimilate more than Sephardis do through mixed mariages. So what changed most in France, I can say this with confidence, is the urban landscape. Today there are in many Parisian neighbourhoods that aren’t even Jewish, like the 16th and 17th boroughs, an incredible number of synagogues, butcher shops, and kosher restaurants. On my street, which is not at all in a Jewish area, there are three synagogues. Last week, in London, I wanted to go to a kosher restaurant with my family. There is only one. All the other kosher restaurants were in the suburbs.”
    I think that there is this ambivalence rooted in European post-Enlightenment thinking which tries to neutralize Jewish identity, for many people Jewishness is something either to melt into Whiteness (Bachman) or to laugh at as demoded Ashkenazisms (Heeb) or whatever. Rarely on its own terms. I think that with the redrawing of geographic boundaries and respatialization of Jewish communities — a transitional stage right now — we are getting beyond crippling Eurocentric thought, realizing that ostentatious displays are not just embarrassing Jewish traits but perfectly normal across the Levant, and generally moving forward. Yes I think a Jewish arts movement is perfectly consistent with that just like Black arts movements and African-American movements have been so important in those communities. Decolonizing our minds and all that.

  11. i realized you can’t see my email, so um…its hidden in this post…i have this interesting newsletter about sephardic america i wanna forward to you.

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