Celebrating Heroes During Black History Month

If you had to pick one figure from Black history who inspires you, who would it be? An unfair question to be sure, as there are so many deserving possibilities and at different moments and for different reasons, we may be inspired by different individuals. But this was the question we put to Jewish leaders of color in an attempt to capture the diversity of understanding of history and the array of ways in which those who came before us continue to influence us. Their answers, kept intentionally brief are meant to pique your curiosity. Let us know how you would answer this question!

Lewis Gordon – Professor of Philosophy, Educator and Musician 

Black history matters.  Why? Because if black lives matter, so do our history.  It also matters because, in truth, there is white history. That history has so many lies that its proponents’ greatest fears are truth and reality. The damage has been particularly egregious with regard to the history of Africa. I thus offer five extraordinary Africans from antiquity. The first two are Akhenaton (1353–1336 BCE) and Nefertiti (ca. 1370–ca. 1331 BCE), whose philosophical reflections on the divine birthed monotheism. The second two are the mythical and historical Moses and Aaron. Whether the historic Moses was in fact the legendary Egyptian priest Osarseph or someone else or never existed at all, the fact of the matter is that either version makes Africa the birth place of his brother and him—and by extension, that of what eventually became known as Judaism. The last is Hypatia(ca. 355–415CE) of Alexandria. That African woman, one of the most brilliant philosophers and perhaps greatest mathematicians of all time (because she was possibly the true author, not her father Theon nor the probably fabricated Euclid, of The Elements—that is, geometry), was murdered in a zealous effort to suppress truth, the same effort that led to a world in which Africans such as these five are now refashioned into hues palatable for a world saturated with white supremacy. Remembering them as Africans, as black, brings to religion, philosophy, and science reflection that may awaken, along with truth and reality, a form of ethical relation to the past akin to historical justice.


Tema Smith –Be’chol Lashon Toronto, Jewish Communal Professional

Josephine_Baker_cropWhen I first saw the famous scene of Josephine Baker dancing with her shadow in the 1934 film Zouzou, I had no idea about her legacy. From living on the streets of St. Louis to performing in Harlem Renaissance-era New York City and eventually the cabarets of Paris, Baker made her mark and eventually leveraged her celebrity for causes she held dear. As a member of the French Resistance during World War II, she dedicated herself to the fight against the Nazis, both contributing to covert operations and encouraging troop morale through free performances. Though she maintained her home in Paris, Baker was committed to American civil rights, refusing to perform for segregated audiences and forcing the integration of numerous famous nightclubs. At the March on Washington on 1963, Baker was the only official female speaker, appearing alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in her Free French uniform. The French Resistance and the American Civil Rights Movement were two parts of the same struggle for her: the struggle for equality and freedom. Baker was not afraid to use her celebrity status to speak out where she saw injustice. She was fearless: whether risking her life as a member of the Resistance, or facing down the Ku Klux Klan, who issued death threats against her for her anti-segregation work. She used her artistry as a platform, and her celebrity as a springboard, all the while adopting children of different races who she came to refer to as the “Rainbow Tribe”. Her bravery and commitment, not to mention her artistic talent, continue to inspire me.

Robin Washington- executive producer of the PBS documentary “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!”

Irene_MorganIf you don’t know the name Irene Morgan, look it up — and here’s a link: http://tinyurl.com/l6kbfns  I’ve known many Civil Rights Movement leaders personally, yet their efforts would have been far more difficult if not for Irene, who only later in life received recognition for her courage on a Virginia bus 11 years before Rosa Parks. Already sitting in the back, she refused the driver’s order to give up her seat to a white couple. When accosted, she fought back—armed by her resolve and a pair of spike heels placed strategically you-know-where. Her case became an early test against segregation in transportation. And the rest is history.



Sandra Lawson –Rabbinical Student, President Reconstructionist Rabbinical School Student Association

Harriet_Tubman_c1895_editIf you Google Harriet Tubman you will learn that she was born into slavery, she was an abolitionist, an American Civil War hero, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and so much more. What I find so amazing about the woman who may soon grace our $20 bill, is that it took real courage to escape slavery but that was not enough for her. She risked her life over and over again making several trips back to the south to free her family and to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom. She lived her life to help others for very little reward, compensation or honors during her lifetime, she is a true american hero.





Michael Twitty –Afro-American Culinary Scholar, aka “KosherSoul”

Alex_haley_US_coast_guardThe person I would like to honor this African American history month is Alex Haley. Beyond the controversies, Mr. Haley gave his people a narrative to make sense of everything that led to the moment when “Roots” debuted both in print and movie form. Drawing on the stories he heard from his grandmother and her sisters as a child, his novel sent millions of Americans of all backgrounds straight into the passion for genealogy. He certainly inspired me to search ceaselessly for the origins of my family and the traditional foodways we brought from Africa to America and from slavery to freedom.



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