The Silver Thread: From Black Grievance to Black Gratitude


The Silver Thread

 From Black Grievance to Black Gratitude

           Bronze Medalist Gwen Berry unceremoniously turned her back on the American Flag while standing on the victor’s platform at a pre-Olympic national track meet in June of 2021. Last year, I heard the outcries of Black athletes taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest racism. Their protests were in the lineage of black rage first manifested at the 1968 Olympics, when runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith created a storm by giving the black power salute on the Olympic victory stand. 

Recently, mass demonstrations resulted from white police officers killing unarmed Black people. These protests mirrored the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, which lobbied for Black people to have equal voting rights and treatment by our institutions.   

            I respect and honor these protests and applaud the rights of Black Americans to express their views and grievances. I respect those who elevated George Floyd’s murder to a clarion call for Black justice. I view politicians like Dan Crenshaw, who wants to disqualify athletes who show disrespect for the Flag, and the Tucker Carlson’s of the world, who denigrated George Floyd and justified his murder, as furtive bigots. 

           Yet as a white Jewish American who is almost 80 years old, I am approaching a century of experience with race relations. I am a living witness to historical change and opportunity, which is rarely mentioned or honored. And so I wonder, “where is Black Gratitude?” Where is the appreciation for Black achievement and the country which fostered it? Grievance is justified, but gratitude, a secular cousin to Grace, is largely missing from the Black vocabulary. 

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a segregated town. The only Black people I saw were the maid who came weekly with the unusual name and the man who shoveled coal into the furnace of my apartment building. I have an early memory of being on a streetcar with my mother; I was probably three or four. A Black man gave me change for the exact fair. In my naive mind, I feared touching his hand, worried his color might rub off on me. In my Jewish community, Black people were routinely called “schwarzes,” a phrase I later learned was a derogatory term for Black people. It is not often heard these days, but when I do hear the occasional utterance, it sends a visceral shock to my gut as profound as when I hear Jews referred to as “kikes.”

           I was fortunate to come of age in the 1960s and experience social enlightenment as a college student. Martin Luther King became a hero to me for his Gandhi-like approach to civil rights in the same way I admired Bobby Kennedy, who opposed the Viet Nam War. My generation was pivotal in the evolution of race consciousness. I transformed from an unconscious bigot to a more enlightened adult who confronted bigotry and prejudice in our race relations and history. Black political-social history has continued down this path. 

My Jewish experience was different. Jews share a collective memory with Black people as being defined through a metaphor of victimization. My history was peppered with frequent reminders of the holocaust, but we also embraced a country that gave us refuge and a chance to live as we wished. 

Race relations still have a long way to go. However, in my lifetime, I have seen the election of a Black President and now a Black woman Vice-President. I have worked in the Detroit legal system, where most judges and attorneys are black. My daughter grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Detroit. Now, I see a high percentage of Black news anchors, celebrities, and entertainers.

I remember Nicholas Katzenbach, John F. Kennedy’s Attorney General, escorting James Meredith into Alabama State University, ordering George Wallace aside. Today black women are the largest ethnic group to achieve a bachelor’s college degree in five years. Black athletes dominate college sports., Colson Whitehead is the only novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize two years in a row. Where is the pride and satisfaction for Black professionals, Black billionaires, and Black celebrities? What about Oprah, Eric Holder, General Llyod Austin, General Colin Powell, Neal De Grasse Tyson, Langston Hughes, August Wilson, Thurgood Marshal, and Clarence Thomas?

Growing up Jewish, there was much more blatant anti-Semitism than today. Yet every week at Synagogue, when the final prayers of healing (Missheberach) were said, they included gentile American soldiers wounded in wars or ailing famous politicians or community leaders. None necessarily Jewish, all-American heroes. I was always taught gratitude to America, not for what it gave us, but more for simply allowing us to worship as we chose and pursue the goals we cherished.

           In the face of anti-Semitism, we were still allowed to forge a mutually supportive community. When we were not allowed into schools, clubs, or hospitals, we built our own. We created insular communities of self-support. I grew up with the obligation of supporting Jewish businesses and professionals. Our gratitude was an umbrella of freedom that allowed us to pursue our goals. It was our cohesion in a world filled with prejudice toward Jews. Our experience with discrimination and genocide led to self-sufficiency and fueled the foundation of the state of Israel. We lamented our past. We remind ourselves of our holocaust through or Shiva prayers but cherish the opportunities America had given us. Our Jewish News periodicals highlighacts of anti-Semitism but focus more on the accomplishments of community members and the charitable acts accomplished. 

           Barak Obama famously called his generation the ‘Joshua Generation.’ After the exodus from Egypt, Moses, the leader of liberation, had to pass the mantel to Joshua as the builder of a new nation. Moses’s generation had to die off; born in slavery, they processed a victim’s mentality. This made them unfit to build a new nation where free choice was the springboard of growth.

           There are still battles to be won over the abuse and discrimination heaped on Black Americans, but the narrative of victimization needs to be supplanted with the narrative of the opportunity afforded. More progress will be made when the Black community looks inward, not outward. The Black community is full of potential achievement and entrepreneurship. It can be a brotherhood of mutual support that must be highlighted. It should be a community built on pride for its successes and reverence, even if they were hard-won.

Weekly I see the carnage in Detroit or Chicago. It is Black people killing Black people in staggering numbers. These deaths represent a much larger number than that of Black people killed by white racist policemen. It reflects a lack of community, a lack of cohesion. It is unpopular to point it out; some will call me racist, but acknowledging truth is the first step to solving the problem. 

           As a clinical psychologist, I emphasize gratitude to combat victimization. Many of my patients were truly childhood victims. They came from homes rife with neglect, alcoholism, and abandonment. The spiritual teacher Caroline Myss calls it “wound-ology” when referring to people who define themselves by past hurts. Holding on to a narrative of victimization weakens their sense of power. It reinforces helplessness and, ultimately despair. Gratitude does not deny the contemporary evils and challenges of the world. It does not reject the challenges posed by the scars of the past. It simply asks us to focus and respect our efforts to accomplish in the present, to be grateful for the power of now. 


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