a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

You don’t know what it is to be…

Posted on: October 18, 2010

A picture of Yavilah McCoy and her family on Shabbat that I found on Google



a Jew.

I’m working on my memoir and am struggling with it.  To help  get some inspiration I’ve re-read bits of Rebecca Walker’s “Black, White, and Jewish” as well as bits of Stacyann Chin’s “The Other Side of Paradise”.  I’m only one train ride away from completing Ernest Adam’s memoir, “From Ghetto to Ghetto” and in reading these three amazing memoirs by Black people I feel like I’m missing the “Black Card.”

Let’s just keep in mind that I can dance (or at least I could when dancing was the norm on a weekend)  I don’t take shit from anyone, and when I look in the mirror I’m very clearly Black.  Yet, and this is where I’m struggling, I don’t feel black when I walk down the street and never have.  That is to say, I’ve never felt prying, questioning, concerned, skeptical eyes on me when I, say, enter a store.  I haven’t been subject to racism by anyone other than other Blacks who just don’t “get” my Blackness.

I’ve never been able to pull off certain words, sayings, slang in the way that it’s done by cool Black youth.  My years of private school education and my obsession with the perfection of the English language prevents it.  When I do try to say something “cool” I sound more like Carlton Banks rather than Will.  Remember that episode of Fresh Prince of Belair when Will and Carlton are trying to pledge a fraternity and the brothers want Will and not Carlton because he’s not “black” enough.  I was Carlton.  I am Carlton.  I don’t, and haven’t ever fit into the mold of what Black is supposed to be.  I only know my own reality of Blackness.

It sounds silly to say I don’t feel Black because I do.  As I watch my dark brown fingers glide across my keyboard in my sight line I know that they are my Black hands.  When I look at myself in the mirror and notice my aging face I see the dark brown circles under my eyes.  When I go shopping and notice a yellow, orange, or hot pink garment without trying it on I know that it will look good on me.  I see the eyes of Black men on me on the street trying to figure out if they have a chance.  I hear people compliment my skin tone, my hair.  My Blackness is what I make of it, and what I want to make of it.  I don’t let anyone’s opinion of what is and is not Black affect me but in truth, at times it does.

I wonder if I’d feel differently if I grew up in the 70s rather than as a child of the 80s.  My experience would surely be different if my parents didn’t shield their financial woes from us and instead told us the burdens our life was having on their bank accounts. 

When I finally admitted to myself that I was a lesbian I jumped into my newly admitted identity feet-first.  I embraced the culture and learned all I could and was able to pick and choose what suited me.  As a Jew-to-be I already feel like a Jew even though I may not “look” like one.  I wonder, though, if this expectation of what a Jew is and is not is something that I will be able to weather as comfortably as I have the expectation of what a Black woman is and is not.  Whether I chose to ignore the stares that may have been directed my way at any given time or I legitimately did not see them is not a question but more a fact.  I didn’t see them because I was brought up by my parents to never second guess anything.  I was taught that I was entitled to everything and the world was what I made of it.  I never wanted for anything and every door was opened for me.  I didn’t see those eyes of a white person, Asian shop keeper, or Indian bodega owner on me because in my mind, they were not.  I have every right to walk into any establishment of my choosing, whether it be a corner store or Louis Vuitton.  Had I been born in 1959 rather than 1979 it would be different.  If I grew up in a small town in Mississippi rather than a big-small town in Ohio it would be different. 

I don’t know what it is to be anyone other than Erika.  I don’t know what anyone else’s Blackness is because I didn’t live it.  I can learn about it, understand it, absorb it but I can’t own it.  Just as I don’t own anyone else’s Gayness or Jewishness.

Last night the clarity of my identity as a Black Woman, which is how I will always self-identify first, became clear when Mirs and I had a casual conversation about ancestry.  Her mother, a genealogy maven, is digging deeper into her family tree on both sides.  I commented that it must  be easy for white folks to find their roots because they have a paper trail.  Black folks, on the other hand, can usually only go back so far before the names turn into numbers and we lose track.  I made a comment referencing cargo (African slaves) rather than names and noticed she wasn’t actively listening.  Did I think she was brushing off tragedy that is the inability for me to find my lineage, no.  Was I furious, yes.  I felt the “Angry Black Woman” boiling up and sort of laughed inward because it’s times like those when I know I’m Black.  We were able to get on the same page and in the end, I challenged her to ask her mother to root around in my family tree. 

Thankfully Texas and North Carolina are far enough away that we shouldn’t find out that her people owned my people back in the day.  It is this people-ness that is the connector for me.  I’ll never feel the Jewish that you feel but I feel Jewish.  I don’t feel the same Gay that you feel but I’m gay.  I don’t feel the same Black that you feel, but I’m Black.  As a Black, Gay, Jew there are things that I won’t always understand but there are the lessons of my people that I will always be able to bring to the table.

6 Responses to "You don’t know what it is to be…"

Sometimes I feel like that, too. Although I grew up in the Bronx and pretty much all over NYC, once I got older I stopped talking a certain way, stop dressing a certain way, it wasn’t me. Now I get comments from my friends that I “crossed over” and I “forgot my roots.” What roots? The roots that make people stare at us when we talk in a certain matter as if we didn’t go to private school? The roots that allow us to think certain behavior is acceptable?

Long story short, I get you. Also, I’m a convert to be and shul shopping, and I LOVE YOUR blog. You mentioned going to the Village Temple in a post. Have you gone back? I’m looking for a medium sized shul to attend. ( I want to convert reform)

Hey Kell,

No, I have not gone back to the Village Temple. Over the summer it did not feel right. I wasn’t really over wrought with a feeling of welcome when I attended Shabbat services. On the other hand, the Rabbi was really welcoming when I talked to her on the phone and handles conversions on a case-by-case basis one-on-one, which I appreciated.

I know it may sound weird but if you want to Shabbat hop together, I would be into it! Send me an e-mail and perhaps we can do something for the Shabbos after next? If that’s too weird, check out Be’chol Lashon, I’m giving a talk next month 🙂

I was thinking that when I saw on the shul’s website. I’m a total weirdo though, and was looking for shuls with female rabbis, no idea why. (I’m crazy haha).
I’m loving this website Be’chol Lashon already, thanks for this.
I’m going to send you an email about that tomorrow (my eyes are falling asleep as I type this) plus I have more questions for you haha. Thanks for replying.

That’s not weird! What I’m looking for in an NYC synagogue
1. A woman, person of color, or queer person as a rabbi or cantor
2. Ethnic diversity on any level
3. Inclusion of LGBT people in a geniune way.
4. To feel welcomed in a geniune way

It can’t be that hard, can it??

Oh wow, this was nicely written, and I can understand where your coming from on a lot of statements.

thanks jacqueline!!

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