ED GORDON, host:
From high prison incarceration to low high school graduation rates, African-Americans continue to struggle to reverse alarming trends that plague many in the black community. Commentator Eric Copage says that African-Americans should consider modeling what other communities have successfully done to overcome their hardships.
I was recently at a dinner party in a Manhattan apartment with a group of friends, all of them black except for a single white visitor. Towards the end of the evening, the conversation turned to how blacks can improve themselves socially, financially and in the area of education. One black man, a lawyer, blurted out, `Blacks should be more like Jews.' I'd head this many times before. All too often it meant blacks should be more clannish. The lone white diner, who identified himself as being Jewish, responded to the lawyer and my thoughts drifted to the past.
I'd grown up in Beverly Hills, which at the time was mainly Jewish. I asked myself, is it true that Jews really do stick together? And if so, should blacks use that as a model for advancement? My answer: It really doesn't matter. But there are Jewish traditions that we can and should emulate.
First, blacks should become custodians of our own history. There is a body of Christian scholarship about Jews, but for the most part they depend on themselves for their self-definition and history. It is true that blacks have scholars such as Molefi Asante and John Hope Franklin, but a lot of black history is interpreted by writers such as Taylor Branch and Eugene Genovese. No doubt these are good historians, but should they and other white people share custodianship of black history?
Second, African-Americans should have a collective narrative. Jews have the first five books of the Bible. Despite the best intentions of Black History Month, the shared black narrative, to the extent there is one, tends to focus on our enslavement and victimization in this country. Perhaps black leaders should consider holding a summit to try to come to a consensus on our collective narrative. The book and television series "Roots" was the beginning of that story. But where do we go from there?
Third, black folks should have a widely celebrated adolescent rite of passage. Bar mitzvahs, the coming-of-age rite for Jewish boys and bat mitzvahs for girls symbolize taking adult responsibilities in the community. While African-Americans do have rites of passage, finding someone who has gone through one is the exception rather than the rule.
And the fourth thing we might adapt from Jews is a continuous inquiry into who we are. How do we define ourselves? How are we to behave as black people? Should our ideal be that of a scholar or of a dropout? Of a thug or of a warrior?
The fifth but by no means last thing blacks might learn from Jews is to be unified without being uniform. When I was in school, I knew Jews who were Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. Despite their good-natured ribbing of each other about their differences, there seemed to be an underlying unity among them. This unity has been strained in recent years, particularly because of conflicts in the Middle East and between neoconservatives and liberals. Still I have a sense that most Jews feel that what befalls one of them might befall all of them.
The dinner ended and the Jewish man and I happened to leave at the same time. On the elevator, we recalled how stimulating the dinner conversation had been. When we reached the street ready to say our goodbyes, I said to him, `Jews really do have it together.' Smiling, he gently grabbed my right arm at the biceps and leaned in and whispered, `You'd have your act together, too, if you'd had your butt kicked for 5,000 years.'
GORDON: Eric Copage is the author of "Black Pearls: Meditations, Affirmations, and Inspirations for African Americans."
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