Reviving a Humanistic Legacy
The road to Black/Jewish concord requires boldness and decency.
It has got to be brought home to the current generation of African-American college students that they have a deep moral obligation to uphold the humanistic civil rights tradition that is at the basis of that great freedom movement that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave fervor to and sacrificed his precious life for.
The cynical and morally infantile Black History Month invitation by a group of African-American students at Brandeis University to an anti-Semitic Nation of Islam spokesperson flies in the face of this tradition. Worse. It spits in the face of this tradition.
This flirtation of Black student organizations at elite colleges with the venomous forms of ethnocentric Black populism associated with the Nation of Islam is, unfortunately, not new. Since the middle 1980s, intellectually infantile clusters of African-American students at Princeton University, Rutgers University, the University of Massachusetts--Amherst, etc., have with such invitations thumbed their noses at the humanistic civil rights tradition--a tradition honed by the best of African-American leadership, like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Benjamin Mays, Horace Mann Bond, James Weldon Johnson, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, to name just a few.
Why do they do this? The official reason given by these Black student organizations goes something like this: "We want to celebrate our cultural heritage," or "To satisfy our thirst for Black history," etc.
But this is usually just an ostensible purpose, since if the goal is viable knowledge on the African-American cultural heritage, on major historical developments relating to African peoples in the Old or New World, the purveyors of anti-Semitism among the Nation of Islam and other Black extremist groups are not credible sources of this knowledge. Why not instead send these Black History Month invitations to persons among that sizable cadre of top African-American intellectuals around this country who can effectively provide this knowledge?
So the ostensible purpose, presented always in a sanctimonious tone, is, well, just phony. The operational purpose is, I'm afraid, far more complicated. Complicated because the explanation lies deep within that contorted, humanistically twisted and evil past trajectory of slavery and racial-caste oppression along which we Blacks have traversed in Western civilization.
As Professor Mary Berry astutely remarked on "Nightline" last week, the anger, the intense alienation, the desire to pass on the pain to someone else (in short, for revenge) are difficult to manage for all of us--to discipline and pacify--whoever we are, whether Blacks or whites, Jews or Gentiles. So there are, sadly, some African-Americans--on and off campuses--who must project their anger and pain onto others. And of course, history's usual list of scapegoats are well known, with anti-Semitism persisting as a mode of this kind of cruel scapegoating.
Black professionals and intellectuals of my generation--the generation shaped by Martin Luther King's humanistic civil rights tradition--remain firm in our disgust for racist behavior, whether perpetrated as anti-Black racism or anti-Semitic racism. Somebody among the African-American students at Brandeis--a university founded in part by Holocaust survivors--ought to have enough understanding of Dr. King's humanistic legacy to come forth, boldly, and denounce Black History Month invitations to anti-Semites.
The road back from Black/Jewish discord to Black/Jewish concord and alliance demands this kind of humanistic boldness. It requires this kind of simple decency from broad segments of today's African-American student population.
Martin L. Kilson Jr. is Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government.