EVERYWHERE I GO
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Everywhere I go, I will be Black. Glory Aganze Barongozi
It was a small story in the “Washington Post” in May 2015. The author spoke of his time in Baltimore, a refugee from Uganda, and how ready he was to leave as his high school graduation neared. He felt small in Africa. He felt smaller in Baltimore.
Contained in his seven-word existential truth are two very different pieces of wisdom. One of them is an affirmation, the other a lament. Both of them proclaim an essential aspect of life: the importance of embracing who you are.
Even a narrow reading of Barongozi’s words is profound. For a poor person of color, disadvantaged in societies that privilege lighter skin, higher caste or economic affluence, there is no escaping the biases that pursue darker skin and emptier wallets. It has taken me a long time – much of a lifetime – to understand the immutable truth of his observation in a world in which the content of character is secondary to the color of skin. The truth of it is evidenced by the fury with which it is challenged. There is even now an organization that calls itself “liberal” that rejects the notion that race matters beyond overt racism. (Ironically, the potential to compromise hard-won Jewish privilege is their Exhibit A.)
Many years ago, I was responsible for inviting Rev. Jesse Jackson to speak at the convention of my rabbinical association. I was his “body man” at the convention, and therefore sat in on an interview with a talented Jewish reporter with a very identifiably Jewish surname. She pressed him on his emphasis on race in his politics. Seemingly as a non-sequitur, he asked her, “How do I know you are Jewish?” Flustered, she said, “Well, I told you.” “And how do you know I am Black?” he asked. While she stammered for a second, he placed his forefinger on his cheek.
So many communities, my own included, invest an exhausting amount of energy to persuade ambivalent members to be more open, more “out” about their immutable identities. For more than forty years, I have worn a kippah (yarmulke, skullcap) in public as a message that I choose for you to encounter me as a Jew. But all I have to do to recede into anonymity is reach up and swipe a piece of cloth into my pocket. It does not change how others perceive Jews – good, bad, or indifferent. It indeed changes how others perceive me.
Inherent in Barongozi’s words is the understanding that what is organic for him is a disadvantage. Even in the celebratory reading of his words – which, I reiterate, he did not intend – is the notion that his skin color makes him different. He will always be noticed first for how he looks, especially here in the United States, and will have to contend with another person’s biases before he opens his mouth, extends his hand or reaches into his pocket. Does a White person contend with perceptions as well? Yes, full stop. But no matter who you are, if you consider that an equivalency, you are playing a game of sophistry.
So it may come as a surprise to you that I want to conclude with a defense of the positive meaning of this statement in two different senses. First of all, I endorse the value of always being your whole self. I know how popular it is with some people to emphasize that the amount of difference from each other in our DNA is statistically insignificant. Look at nature, they say – one honeybee is essentially unrecognizable from the next, two blue jays are indistinguishable, a trout is a trout. Never mind that we don’t look at a penguin with a penguin’s eyes; it is precisely those tiny differences that allow us a sense of uniqueness. Mr. Barongozi deserves, no less than any human being, to encounter the world and be encountered by it with the fullness of who he is. As a person of faith, I will add “as God intended him to be.” Everywhere he goes, he should be Black.
And secondly, I endorse the practice of making others uncomfortable with their biases. I will admit that part of my advertising my Jewishness is something of a dare. Even if I run the risk of provoking a bigot into antagonism, I still want to make it clear that their prejudice will not define me. Indeed, if by confronting their own inclinations they are forced to reconsider them, then the world around me is a safer place for me and Barongozi both. And you.
It is fair to ask, then, why is it that I sometimes hide the symbol of my Jewishness in my hip pocket. I think that anyone who presents in a non-conforming way will understand: sometimes, I am just tired. (My wife can often spot someone who notices my headgear and starts heading toward me. She leans into my ear and says, quietly, “Incoming.”) It is an opportunity not everyone has. But it doesn’t change the fact for me or for anyone else. Everywhere you go, you will be who you are.