James Baldwin’s essay “The Harlem Ghetto”

The following notes/observations/thoughts that I’m sharing here are not from a place of knowing or expertise or comfort. I’m a white cis-gendered, heterosexual male who identifies with the Christian religion, is mostly able-bodied, lives a middle-class life, has citizenship in the world’s most militarily-advanced and collectively wealthy nation, etc. I write only to listen and process here.

(Image source: Los Angeles Times)

This week I read James Baldwin’s essay “The Harlem Ghetto” (found in Notes of a Native Son, pp. 59-73) and I found myself in the uncomfortable place of reading from my identity (which if it were to be a hyphenated-American would be white-American with ancestry from the former colonial powers of Britain and France, as far as I can tell from my partially reconstructed family tree) as Baldwin, a Black American, attempted to explain the tension between Black Americans in Harlem, New York, and Jews there.

He begins by unpacking a contradiction/tension in Black American thought from his era. He says that Black Americans have an “ambivalent relationship to the Jew,” explaining “To begin with, though the traditional Christian accusation that the Jews killed Christ is neither questioned nor doubted, the term ‘Jew’ actually operates in this initial context to include all infidels of white skin who have failed to accept the Savior.” But then points out that Black Americans identify with and adopt many Jewish stories like the Exodus (p. 68). This contradiction/tension indicates that antisemitism was common in Black American circles several decades ago and yet like many European and white-American Christians over the centuries, the stories of the Jews have been adopted, adapted, appropriated to tell the stories of other people—sometimes peoples who hate the Jews.

When it comes to sacred texts, those that remain important to the Jews (the Tanakh in Judaism) matter more to Christian Black Americans than the stories that are important only to Christians. Baldwin writes:

“But if the Negro has bought his salvation with pain and the New Testament is used to prove, as it were, the validity of this transformation, it is the Old Testament which is clung to and most frequently preached from, which provides emotional fire and anatomizes the path of bondage; and which promises vengeance and assures the chosen of their place in Zion.” (p. 69)

So, if Black Americans identify with the scriptures of Israel, the sacred texts of the Jews, why has the antisemitism found in Christian circles for millennia become part of the Black American Christian experience as well?

Baldwin notes that in the context of Harlem (pp. 69-70), “Jews in Harlem are small tradesmen, rent collectors, real estate agents, and pawnbrokers; they operate in accordance with the American business tradition of exploiting Negroes, and they are therefore identified with oppression and are hated for it.” In other words, the worst angles of capitalism—the Darwinian morals; the striving for more resources/capital; the willingness to exploit rather than be exploited—angles of capitalism often welded to white supremacist ideals, has been accepted by the Jews of Harlem and Black Americans were being exploited not only by those of white-European ancestry but by Jews who, as Baldwin will say, seem to have decided to take their share of “whiteness” rather than being at the punishing end of it.

Baldwin writes that when the Black American (p. 70), “hates the Jew as a Jew he does so partly because the nation does and in much the same painful fashion that he hates himself. It is an aspect of his humiliation whittled down to a manageable size and then transferred; it is the best form the Begro has for tabulating vocally his long record of grievances against his native land.”But here’s where Baldwin’s essay leaps into enlightenment for the reader, especially a reader with positionality like mine. Baldwin says, “At the same time, there is a subterranean assumption that the Jew should ‘know better,’ that he has suffered enough himself to know what suffering means.” This insight is sharp. The Black American has seen in the Jewish American a potential friend and ally but has felt betrayed; the Jewish American, on the other hand, who has themself been exploited, abused, violated, and murdered by white supremacists (most recently at the number of six million by the Nazis), has decided that Jews must protect Jews first. Baldwin comments, “The Jew, by the nature of his own precarious position, has failed to vindicate this faith. Jews, like Negroes, must use every possible weapon in order to be accepted, and must try to cover their vulnerability by a frenzied adoption of the customs of the country; and the nation’s treatment of Negroes is unquestionably a custom.” (p. 71)


Baldwin adds that the drive to survive and thrive as Jews in American that has led many American Jews to exploit Black Americans in order to achieve some sense of safety; some sense of power, creates the following situation (p. 71):

“The Jew has been taught—and too often, accepts—the legend of Negro inferiority; and the Negro, on the other hand, has found nothing in his experience with Jews to counteract the legend of Semitic greed. Here the American white Gentile has two legends serving him at once: he has divided these minorities and he rules.”

In other words, the Jewish American accepts the myths of Black inferiority; the Black American accepts the myths of antisemitism. All the while, the white American, still in power, goes on living as he has in his place of privilege and power. Baldwin ends his essay a few pages later (p. 73) saying the following:

“Here the Jew is caught in the American crossfire. The Negro, facing a Jew, hates, at bottom not his Jewishness but the color of his skin. It is not the Jewish tradition by which he has been betrayed but the tradition of his native land. But just as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol. Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”

Every semester, when I teach about Judaism as part of my class “Religion in Global Context,” I introduce my students to the history of antisemitism, how it relates to Zionism, how the Holocaust is the most grotesque example of the former, and added fuel to the latter, and how the Jewish experience in Europe, and European colonization of Africa-Asian lands (a.k.a. the Middle East and Egypt), shapes our modern world. I try to explain how, in part, the Israel-Palestinian conflict can be traced back to decisions by European colonial powers as exemplified by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Baldwin’s essay reminds me of these realities. The Jews of Israel continue to see the looming threat of antisemitism all over the globe. Their decision to self-preserve is understandable even if one watches how Israel has chosen to self-preserve with a sense of dismay, whether it be the large walls separating Jews and Palestinians, the nature of Israeli settler-culture, or the military activity by Israel in Gaza. For some, I think part of the confusion is how Israel—in the eyes of many who interpret their actions as being oppressive of Palestinians and a continuance of European colonial power—don’t “know better,” as Baldwin put it. On the other hand, as Baldwin recognized, the history of the Jews has been one of survival. As a people, they’ve had to choose pragmatically—what will prevent our enemies from annihilating us? And because of this, the question remains for many Jews whether this requires, say, forceful oppression of Palestinians or whether another way is possible.

(Image source: GBH)

As a good liberal white-American, I want to promote the friendship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as the answer. I want to use fancy language around “intersectionality”. But that doesn’t really address what I, in my place and time, with my identity, should do. It shows one option that Black Americans have; it shows one option that Jewish Americans have. But a person like me can’t be preachy. In fact, I don’t know that I have any role in helping make the world a better place with regards to this tension and these conflicts. I do know white-messianism is never the answer. I do know, the world is probably a better place when people like me are trying to be learners and followers rather than teachers and leaders (at least with regards to this subject matter and in the broader national and international contexts I’ve mentioned). Do I know what that means in real-time, tomorrow? No, I don’t.


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