Jews and Juneteenth: A time for coming together

Guest Columnist
Melanie House-Mansfield

As Jews, we marked the 75th year anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps this year. A somber milestone depicted in film and pictorial accounts, the Holocaust showed what institutional hate can become when it is completely state-sanctioned.
The world remembered faces ashen white, humans reduced to skin and bone yet walking, pits of bodies and bone and smoke stacks rising.
Liberation was then met with compassion, rage, hope, laws of protection and reparations.
There’s another liberation day, purely American, that commemorates all-too similar moments.
Juneteenth marks the date of June 19, 1865, when enslaved Americans of African descent in Texas found out about The Emancipation Proclamation, decreed by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. For these Americans, this was supposed to be a liberation day, freedom from the yolk of oppression.
The Americans of African descent that were still enslaved may not have been captured on film, but many famous pictures were taken of brown, black and bronze bodies slashed, burned, dismembered, emaciated and dangling from trees like perverse earnings left to shine in the sun.
Both occurrences are etched in generational memory that has endured many tears.
However, even though the parallel lines of the back and Jewish experiences intersect at many threaded intervals, which are then intertwined into patterns of shared pain, defense, defiance, celebration and remembered points of brilliance, the systems and process that combine our experiences also become different paths through the maze of institutional racism in our equivalent American experiences.
This is why Jews and African Americans must come together to understand that our liberation days are becoming intertwined.
Light is being shed upon the hardened residue of institutionalized racism that exists for those who walk with brown and black skin down a street. Jews must remember the days when stars where placed upon their clothes to mark them as Jews.
As an American of African and Jewish descent, I cannot take my star of brown and black from my skin (nor would I want to). I do not wish to forget my family members who endured the atrocities of the concentration camps, nor can I watch passively as African Americans are captured on film enduring real-time reprehensible treatment that harkens back to the whip, to enslavement and dehumanization. The theatrics of oppression, and the imagery of its aftermath, are mirrored in the eyes of those who once lay in wait of a cremation at the concentration camps but were liberated just in time. They reverberate in the last looks of those who say, “I can’t breathe” then go limp and die.
Let us, as Jews, make our 75th remembrance one that holds up our fellow man. Let us remember that our cultural and ancestral paths have crossed and have been incorporated many times during our histories, and in our present.
I would be amiss if I did not speak to the realities that come with color consciousness. At times, the ideas of being wrapped in lighter pigmentation as opposed to darker have taken their toll upon relations between the Jewish community and the African American.
I am an artist by trade. As such, I find connections to my personal histories in all the myriad faces of the poetic muses. However, I must then put it in your hands, dear reader, as to what you will choose to remember or connect to. Will the 75th anniversary of the liberation from the concentration camps just be ours or will we honor all those we lost by helping to uplift and fortify the spark of social justice that should be for all of humanity?

(Melanie House-Mansfield, a Louisvillian of black and Jewish descent, teaches theater in the Jefferson County Public Schools. She has a Ph.D. in history and literature from Ohio State.)

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