Black and Jewish: Understanding Nick’s Head Canon
We should probably talk about Nick Cannon and anti-Semitism in the Black Community. But first, we should talk about my formative years, because I was nearly Nick Cannon when I was a kid.
As much as I rep Baltimore in my heart and soul, I was born in Albany, NY. I lived in Albany County and then Fulton County, which had its own chapter of the KKK. I was the only black kid in not just the school, but the entire county. My first 13 ½ years were a little…rough. I still have entire gaps of time I can’t remember. Poverty AND racism were prevalent…I got beat up a lot for existing. I only won one fight.
We moved to Baltimore the summer I was about to turn 14, just in time for high school. Coming from rural Upstate NY to Liberty Heights Baltimore, MD, I was now the only WHITE kid in the school. I got clowned a lot. Only beat up a few times though. My solution to be less “white” was to be as Black AF. I got into hip-hop extensively, listening to the most pro-black stuff I could find, and the 90s renaissance of Black music when positive Black messaging prevailed. As much as people remember the gangster rap of NWA, there was also KRS-One, Jungle Brothers, Paris, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, Rass Kass, X-Clan, etc. If you want to get “Blackity Black” in a month, listen to Public Enemy and X-Clan on repeat (NOTE: this only applies if you’re already Black). From there I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and lots of Baldwin and Hughes. I read up on DuBois and Garvey and Newton and Hampton and Seale and Davis. I started reading Final Call and watching NOI speeches. I forewent an AP American History course to take a Black History one in my school. Pan-Africanism was my mindset and aesthetic. I had a collection of ankh chains in my drawer, each one progressively larger as I “broadened” my mind. 14-18 year old me was a sight to see. Were it not for the music I chose to listen to when I first came to Baltimore, I probably would not have read as much or been as Afrocentric.
The downside to all of this, though, is that a lot of the “pro-Black” messaging I got was also anti-queer, anti-woman, and anti-Semitic. The whole time, you convince yourself that the “science” you drop isn’t really homophobic, or the patronizing pedestal foisting language about women who act/think a certain way isn’t really misogynist, or the “real” history of the Jewish people isn’t really anti-Jewish. As soon as I heard that Nick Cannon was fired from Viacom for an interview with former PE Minister of Information Professor Griff, I already knew what he said before even looking at the transcript. Griff was ousted from Public Enemy because of his comments about Jewish people and LGBTQ people. His comments were flat out bigoted, and had someone put his words next to those of David Duke’s with their names scratched out, no one would be able to tell the difference. In the interview, there was a lot of playing with terms. Griff claimed that he couldn’t be “anti-Semitic”, because the original Semitic people are Black, and he is far from anti-Black. A lot of hotepery is drenched in these types of verbal acrobatics. If you can stand to listen to Black Hebrew Israelites, you’ll hear a slew of anti-Semitic vitriol in the midst of their regular vitriol. According to them, the only true Jewish people are Black, originated from when Israel was all Black, and modern day Jewish folks are pretenders. They don’t accept the humanity of Ashkenazi or Sephardim. It is flat out hateful, and it is what Cannon was dancing with in his conversation with Professor Griff.
I converted to Reform Judaism in the mid-2000s from Methodism (honestly, agnosticism), but that is not why this type of rhetoric is so frustrating. It’s that there are thousands of Black Jews in the world, and there always have been. It is frustrating because Cannon and Griff and others like them break down words and create a fiction around them without real research. Etymology is great, but ignoring the impact of words when they were first used and contorting their original meaning to apply to one’s own modern purpose isn’t really “research”. The grains of truth at the base of their fantastical arguments frustrate. Of course, the original Hebrew people were dark skinned, because look at the land from whence they came. People in that region are historically darker than someone from, say, New Jersey. The entire Mediterranean and Middle East was a huge hub of trade and commerce and conquest. Even Rome’s armies and navies were diverse in color. To apply the modern 500 year old confines of racial identity to people who had existed 5,000 years ago is disingenuous. To claim that modern white-presenting Jews are impostors of the first Jewish people is insulting. It reminds me of when I try to have a conversation about my experience as a Black man, and then a white man leans in with a “counter-argument” that starts with, “Well did you know that Black people…”. Sir, you have never been Black in your life. You do not know more than me about this thing that I am. People claiming to know more about Jewish people who have never been Jewish should take a seat. I had to take several seats while converting, since I wasn’t born Jewish, I often must take several seats and continue to learn.
The most frustrating thing about the Nick Cannon issue is that I hate to see a Black person apply stereotypes and demonization to a group of people historically oppressed, as WE have had it happen to us. Black folks, especially men, are socially drawn as hyper-masculine, hyper-libidinous, emotionally shallow, super-human in strength, subhuman in control of emotions and morality. This stereotype comes from years of being forced to work or die. We were forced to “breed” to create a new workforce. Our emotions were not considered, and expression of emotion could mean death. Today, if I’m not smiling all the time, my resting face is seen as angry. This was foisted on us thanks to white supremacy. In parallel, Jewish people are socially drawn as greedy, controlling of media outlets and finances, sneakily making their business in the shadows. Right around the concept of “whiteness” was being developed, Christianity in Europe was quite strict. Many activities were seen as sinful, like money changing and entertainment. Jewish people took up those jobs, as they still had to be done, and they kept to themselves, as Christians were eager to find a reason to execute lethal “justice” (See “Crusades”, witch hunts, etc). Today, a lot Jewish people have prominent jobs in major entertainment industries, in business and finance sectors. There is no genetic trait that makes Jewish people more apt at math or business. They were put in those positions for hundreds of years, and now they are berated for doing so. All these stereotypes are born from the development of white supremacy, and perpetuating them perpetuates a system that would see us all in the ground.
Judaism is a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, but that because of society and out of a need for survival. Originally, Jews were not allowed into the “white” club. “White” meant of pale skin AND Christian. Judaism was racialized in order to further ostracize, much like modern biosts racialize Islam. Nothing good can come of that; we know this historically. Try as they might, oppressive powers tried to eliminate Jewish people. The Holocaust was just one of the latest attempts in history. Jewish culture persevered and resonates throughout society whether we realize it or not, much like American Black culture does.
Black Jews and other Jewish people of color, both born and converted, likely just shook their heads at Cannon’s conversation. I heard it so many times before. We are the some of the Jewish people of which he spoke. We are out here. It is bad enough we get questioned often by white-presenting Jews in our own temples sometimes. We see how Ethiopian Jews are treated in Israel and see how Netanyahu’s government continues to encroach on occupied land, like European colonialists did to the rest of the world. We then try to find respite in our Black community only to hear dismissal of our faith. It alienates us twice, when all we want to do is exist. And all of this is rooted in the same deliberately divisive system that pits us against each other. People like Professor Griff, Louis Farrakhan, and others have done a lot to instill pride and empowerment in American Black folks. No one can deny that. However, when denigrating another group of people is incorporated into that energy, it undercuts it. Leaning into anti-Semitic (or queerphobic or misogynistic) tropes helps no one. based on from whence the tropes come, it make the speakers appear to not want liberation or equality; it makes them look like they just want white supremacy in blackface.
About Chris Thompson
(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com
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