Four years ago I married my high school sweetheart. We gathered under a chuppah of cherry blossoms, twinkle lights, and kente cloth in our adopted home of Washington, D.C., and became a family. We were madly in love and full of hope for our future. When we consecrated ourselves to each other, we also became a symbol of America. A type of America you either fight for or fight against: a black Jewish family.
We are the most American family I know. What could be more American than a Thanksgiving table laden with jollof rice and kosher turkey? We are a mixed-race melting pot, a Jewish African Norman Rockwell painting, boating on Cape Cod and drinking beer in Milwaukee and road tripping the California coast. We are a happy story of children and grandchildren of immigrants flourishing. We are the American dream, the cover of the brochure. There are people who make a point of vigorously shaking our hands, of knocking over other people to greet us at synagogues, of welcoming us with comical cheerfulness. We are a stock photo, a campaign ad. Sometimes, I literally catch myself posing. We make them happy and they want to be our friends. We are the America they want to believe in. I don’t mind, because I want to believe in it too.
That was the picture we had at the time. To some, we were a dream. To others, a nightmare. But we would soon discover that some people thought what makes America great is white people.
When I got pregnant, I cried tears of joy. I told my family I was three weeks along at Passover and they screamed. I passed on wine and chopped liver and my cousins whispered and smiled knowingly. I was glowing. My belly grew and something strange happened. I started writing. With every kick and every ultrasound I lost the ability to be quiet. To be a stock photo of smiling American multiculturalism. I lost my capacity to stomach inequity when I learned I was having a daughter. I wanted her to have more than me and to demand more for herself. I began to demand things for her I never would have asked for myself. It was my first act of motherhood. I kicked up trouble, demanding movements for justice make way for my kid. My husband worried and made blueberry pancakes—the only thing I was willing to eat at the time.
At a work event, a favorite colleague saw me and ran over to rub my belly and squeal. She cooed over ultrasounds and asked my due date and showed me pictures of her grandkids. Then she asked me if I understood what it means to have a black child in America. Was I prepared? I nodded yes. I had read bell hooks and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kimberlé Crenshaw and Chocolate Hair Vanilla Care and the Curly Hair Bible. I had watched all 14 episodes of Eyes on the Prize. I had studied for the exam and expected a good grade. She nodded with approval and said, “You’ll have to be her advocate. You’ll have to fight for her every day. But you’ll be good at it, I think. Just don’t ever forget, you are not a mama to a white child.”
On Election Day, 2016, I was eight months pregnant. Boxes of paintings and books sat at our feet, as we were still settling into our first house. I was too pregnant and exhausted to get up the stairs, so we watched election results from the sofa bed. I fell asleep and woke up to each new state being called for one side or the other. My husband was afraid I would get so upset at the results that I would go into labor. I breathed deeply and steeled myself. The baby kicked happily.
The next day, I went to work at 6:00 a.m. and started making plans. I listened to Hamilton. “I am ready to fight,” I told myself. “Breathe deep—don’t go into labor.” I stopped in the coffee shop next to my office. People were crying. It was pouring in Washington and it was hard to see where people’s tears ended and the rain began. I rubbed my belly and told my daughter it would be OK. It had to be.
A few weeks later, nine months pregnant, I was informed I was listed on a neo-Nazi website as one of many “Jews who someone should shut up.” My husband was terrified. He insisted we take a day off work to determine if there was any credible physical threat to me or his child. I was mostly amused, as George Soros and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were also on the list. Thanks for the career boost, Nazis! But my husband did not laugh. We had a long talk with the Southern Poverty Law Center and they assured us there is no immediate danger. My husband installed an alarm system anyway.
Not long after, our daughter was born happy and healthy. She slept through Inauguration Day as I paced anxiously around the house. Our neighbors were braced for riots that never came and one advised me to get off the streets with my daughter. It felt just like it did when MLK died, she warned. When my husband finally got home from work, I cried and buried my face in his chest. “It’s hormones,” I lied. In the morning I dressed my daughter up in pink footie pajamas and a pink hat and posted a picture of her on Facebook with the caption Nasty Woman in Training. I wondered if one day she’d be disappointed to find out I didn’t go to the Women’s March. But I also wondered why the march leadership refused to include families like mine in their anti-oppression statement. Now that I could look my baby in the eye, I found that my inability to be quiet only grew.
Then, that August, we changed from being a happy multicultural family to being a terrified one. It happened slowly and then all at once. The anti-Semitic graffiti by our synagogue, the nooses hung on D.C. campuses, our friends running from their JCCs clutching their pregnant bellies and their babies. Then the rally in Charlottesville changed everything. I watched people march against our existence as my baby slept in my lap. They were young people. I stared at her little face, all tuckered out from crawling through the yard in the August heat. Who could hate her? I realized that who we are had become something to worry over, an issue to be handled, no longer something to celebrate.
People called me up to tell me they planned on confronting Nazis at a rally in Boston. They wanted to stand up for families like mine. They wanted to be good friends. I begged them to stay home, and open their wallets or their laptops instead. I said, “Stay away from the Nazis with the guns.”
What did it all mean? When your personal life is political, and your family identity makes people angry, you never know who will push you in front of a train and who will drive the train. So I never shut up. My colleagues call me brave. The truth is, it’s not bravery that drives me, it’s the terror of first-time parenthood coupled with the terror of raising a black child in America and the lingering taste of the Holocaust on my Jewish tongue. I am not brave, just very loud. The loudness makes me feel safe because I know evil grows in silence.
Every day there are new questions: What does it mean to raise a black Jewish daughter in the age of Trump? How do we keep her safe? Am I making her less safe or more safe by raising my voice? How do we give her a Judaism that will embrace and love her? What if all the Jewish summer camps have no black girls? What if American feminism continues to betray her? Where should we live, and how will it inform her identity and self-esteem? How will I teach her about slavery, about the Holocaust, about the Klan? I used to think I’d tell her a story with a happy ending—an imperfect country on the right path. A black president Mama campaigned for. Baby pictures on Hillary Clinton’s inauguration day in a Run Like a Girl onesie.
Now I am losing faith that it’s still possible. I threw the onesie in the trash. We scour the internet for books with black Jewish kids. We read to her all the time.
Whether you see us as a brochure for American multiculturalism or as a threat, we inspire opinions. People have takes on us. We are something to be celebrated or something to be afraid of or something to be angry about. We are never just a family, until we are alone, in our own home, surrounded by stuffed animals and trucks and pink hair bows and books and so much love. My baby is loud, just like her mother.
The day neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, was the day I stopped recognizing the path America was on. We were never a perfect place: I’d been in a driving-while-black incident with my husband and I had had a swastika drawn on my synagogue as a child. But before Charlottesville I believed we were on the path to justice and I believed in the American dream and I naively dove into a life more perilous than the one I was born into by becoming the sole inhabitant of white privilege in my home. Despite it all, I would dive all over again. I love my family.
This coming Aug. 12, white supremacists will march again. As plans currently stand, they will march just a few miles from our home in Washington, D.C. They will celebrate their macabre anniversary. They will march against our lives. They will march for death. We will not walk beside them. We won’t dignify them with our presence. We will take our daughter swimming in our neighborhood pool and feed her extra treats and hold her so close. We will have an escape route planned and a go-bag in our car. We will be a family.
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