The Forward published a reflection I wrote on my experiences travelling in the South this summer, and how American Jews can borrow from the Jewish concept of teshuva to advance the national conversation on racial injustice.
When I arrived at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana earlier this summer, a staff member handed me a card with a photo of a statue of a young girl wearing a yellow dress. A quote on the back of the card explained that before this girl, Carlyle Stewart, was freed at the age of seven, she worked in the fields of the plantation.
“They had straps and a whip, and they better not catch you praying to God,” Stewart later told a researcher. “You can’t say your prayer.”
My wife and I were touring the South to learn about the history of racism in our country, and the Whitney Plantation, which memorializes the enslaved people who worked there, was our first stop.
On our tour, I learned new details about America’s brutal chattel slavery; I learned enslaved people who tried to escape had their hamstrings severed, and when pregnant women were whipped, they were partially buried face down to protect their valuable fetuses.
A few days later, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I learned that the popular understanding of lynching is woefully incomplete. Many of those murdered were black political and labor organizers. Lynching was, among other things, a tool for maintaining a broader white supremacist social order throughout much of this country well into the twentieth century.
As Jews enter the month of Elul and begin the season of teshuva — repentance — I’ve come to understand that I, along with many other white Americans, am collectively in a long process of penitence. Thanks in part to sites like those I visited this summer, mainstream white American culture seems to be finally taking seriously the important work of prominent black thinkers who place racial oppression at the center of this country’s history.
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