What’s Red and Green and Black All Over?

This coming Saturday, Dec. 6, is our neighborhood’s annual Poinsettia Tour.  It’s a lovely event featuring homes and places of worship in Reservoir Hill and our surrounding neighborhoods.  Not surprisingly, featured locations are each marked by a poinsettia plant at the front entrance.  For years Beth Am has participated in the tour (We’ll be open after services from 1-2. Check it out!) despite its occurring on Shabbat, understanding full well that Saturday is a good day for non-Jews (and non-observant Jews) to mosey about appreciating some of historic Baltimore’s grandest and most architecturally significant edifices.  As you know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, whenever possible we at Beth Am strive to be not just in and for but also of our community and participating in the Poinsettia Tour is one good way to do so.

But I must say I feel just a bit awkward placing Beth Am on the list of destinations partially because the event is on a Saturday but mostly because of the name which reflects a degree of cultural illiteracy (“ignorance” is too strong and loaded a term).  This is a mixed community.  There are many Christians to be sure, but also Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and any number of other faith traditions represented.  And poinsettias are, constitutionally by dint of their red and green color scheme, Christmas-oriented. This may not seem like a big deal, but I do believe the organizers of the event (who are friends and well-intentioned) are also missing an opportunity to engage certain member of or visitors to our community, helping us feel more a part of the festivities — and less apart.

Color, not of flora but skin, seems to dominate the news these days — with the epicenter of the crisis being in Ferguson, MO.  I’ve debated for a while whether to weigh with this blog, and I must confess I do so with some trepidation.  Nevertheless….

This weekend saw, among other things, the resignation of Officer Darren Wilson and St. Louis Rams players silent “don’t shoot” gesture which has juxtaposed the issue of policing and race and this weekend’s other major domestic news item: Ray Rice’s successful appeal and the ongoing national conversation about off-the-field violence among NFL players.

I was reminded of my own cultural illiteracy this morning as I read the provocative Jacqueline Woodson NY Times oped detailing the author and 2014 National Book Award winner’s experience of feeling blindsided by long-time friend and fellow author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).  The subject of the piece was an inopportune fruit reference, and the offending fruit was a watermelon (yes, it’s red and and green which I fully recognize is only relevant in my own associative mind).  Here’s Woodson’s account:

“As I walked away from the stage to a standing ovation after my acceptance speech, it was the last place in the world I thought I’d hear the watermelon joke — directed by the M.C., Daniel Handler, at me. “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon,” he said. “Just let that sink in your mind.” Daniel and I have been friends for years. Last summer, at his home on Cape Cod, he served watermelon soup and I let him know I was allergic to the fruit. I was astonished when he brought this up before the National Book Award audience — in the form of a wink-nudge joke about being black.”
“In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”
So here comes my confession: I had no idea watermelon was to African-Americans a fraught-fruit.  For whatever reason I was unaware of the phenomenon Woodson describes:  “…I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city…with trucks loaded down with the fruit.”  Most of all, I didn’t realize (or never bothered to notice) that despicable black caricatures often feature the seedy melon.
Had I been in the audience at the National Book Awards two weeks ago, I simply wouldn’t have gotten the joke.  This coming from a white man who lives in a majority black neighborhood in a city below the Mason-Dixon line, a city with a sordid history of Jim Crow racism and much worse. 
My point here isn’t self-flagellation; it’s to illustrate a point: cultural (and often historical) sensitivity is the cornerstone of healthily diverse societies.  With regard to Ferguson it seems to me, aside from the reactionary folks on both sides, there are two primary camps.  One group, fully acknowledging racism is alive and well in America and a double-standard does exist in our criminal justice system, is mostly concerned with the facts of the case: Who was at fault?  Was Officer Wilson justified?  What are the standard rules of engagement and did Michael Brown behave in a manner warranting the use of deadly force?  In other words, if he were a white kid would he still be dead?  This was the basis of Joe Scarborough’s rant on Morning Joe today.  
The other camp, though, sees the Michael Brown shooting as a red herring.  They’re concerned with a different set of questions: What larger societal problems has this incident brought to the surface?  Should police forces be outfitted as quasi-military organizations or should officers get out of their cars, walk the beat and get to know the communities they serve?  What’s a healthier balance between protecting American citizens in a post 9.11 era and protecting the rights of those same citizens?  In what ways has race been a significant factor in police brutality, and how might this be addressed systemically?  
I would submit that for any of us who don’t live in Ferguson (and most people who do) the first set of questions is much less important than the second.  We Americans think being informed is the same as understanding, so we assume an “eighteen-year-old punk” even if he was that is just that.  Like a watermelon is just a fruit or a poinsettia is just a plant.  But they’re not.  On some level they’re symbols representing cultural awareness or blindness.  Hillel the Elder said, “Do not judge another until you’ve stood in his place,” which is another way of saying we simply don’t know what we don’t know.  Remember that song from Avenue Q “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist?”  The point isn’t that we all hate a little.  The point is that we all misunderstand a lot.

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