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A Home Safe From Fear: My American Dream

Temple Beth El Jefferson City

The small synagogue in Missouri where my mother’s family still worships. By Gsevy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I started writing this in June 2015 after the shootings at the church in Charleston. It was like I’d been hit by a lightning bolt, witnessing yet another pogrom in the country that gave my Jewish family haven. I realized that I was living outside the shtetl walls, allowing the violence to continue unchecked because it wasn’t happening to me. I regurgitated pages and pages of words. As a resident of the Netherlands, I was facing my own paralysis in the face of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Europe. As a US citizen, I felt I was sitting out history. Some of that is here, creeping in once in a while. There is an emotional connection, yet I am stymied by my inability to act effectively. I am disgusted by my own limitations. By my need to earn a living, to pay taxes, to live within confines.

I sat on these words until recently. I cut away most of them and this is what’s left. It’s my American Dream. It’s the one my grandparents bequeathed to me: a home safe from fear.

The dark-haired children of immigrants

There was a time when being Jewish was a form of blackness. When Jews were persecuted by the KKK and had to change their names from Cohen to Crane or Levy to Johnson; when Ari became Mark and Esther, Edith. My great uncle, the first of his family to be born in America, loved to tell a story about how he subverted a department store’s policy against hiring “Coloreds or Jews” by selling their umbrellas when it was raining and then pocketing the money. When my father, who was just a boy, played baseball for Hughes High School in Cincinnati, fans of the opposing team would chant, “Hughes, Hughes, niggers and Jews”. His high school yearbook reveals just one small and skinny dark-skinned boy.

“We were all seen as black,” my father explained to me. All those dark-haired children of immigrants.

His mother, my beloved grandmother, called Black people Schwartzes — black, in Yiddish. Despite her prejudices, she herself was often mistaken for “colored” and more than once was asked to ride at the back of the bus. In this day and age, the only place anyone would think she was black is Spokane, Washington or Ukraine.

Members of my family.

Members of my family in the first half of the 20th century.

The American Dream

When my lucky relatives arrived in the United States sometime at the beginning of the 1900s — fleeing unimaginable persecution that would only become worse in the coming decades — they were able to make a home. They were able to become quickly and unapologetically American in small Midwestern cities. Cities with few, if any, Jews. America was a place that offered them safety and freedom.

There was no nostalgia in my family, no old world longing. Instead there was an active forgetting: a forgetting of the mother tongue, a denial of its very existence, a complete erasure of the past: so much so that the details of where my relatives came from remained a mystery for a long, long time.

My father’s mother came to America when she was six. Her last memory of Poland was a pogrom. One in which she saw her childhood friend torn apart by pigs. She told me this as a matter of fact. There were no traces of emotion in the telling — no attempts at gaining sympathy. The way she told it to me was dry and quick. She said that when she arrived home, her mother said to her: “Dina, it’s time we moved to America.”

The American dream. We had it. For us it was modest: a home without fear. A place where you looked forward, not back. A place where Jews weren’t killed by the millions and where the law sometimes restricted us, but not for long.

Two Americans

I have been two Americans at once: an American who was horrified by the overreach of state violence, most of which, I used to think, was directed outside our borders. And I was the grandchild of immigrants who knew with certainty that she owed her life to this amazing country and its protection. I can state with great certainty that had my family remained in Lithuania, Romania, or the Pale we would have been wiped out. Erased from the world like families in Syria and Rwanda and Biafra and Eritrea.

“I can state with great certainty that had my family remained in Lithuania, Romania, or the Pale we would have been wiped out. Erased from the world like families in Syria and Rwanda and Biafra and Eritrea.”

Over the years, I have come to understand that the American Dream that embraced my family did not embrace the families of dark-skinned people. The American dream could only be attained by people who could disappear into the visual tapestry of privilege. It might be true that in the first part of the 20th century Jews were visibly different and treated as pariahs, but by the latter part, the notion of what was white had broadened to include us. Looking Jewish was no longer a real thing, other than by choice.

Dark-skinned Americans have been facing racist structures so ingrained that those of us outside those structures didn’t even realize they existed. We knew that Black people and Jewish people faced discrimination when it came to buying and owning property, but not how structural it was and not how much more it hurt Blacks than white Jews. Mortgages and financing were refused to certain areas of cities that were predominantly Black (redlining). Real estate covenants prevented home sales to Blacks and Jews. Property was stolen. Family wealth destroyed. The government actively worked to prevent Black people from owning property. We knew about Jim Crow laws, but had forgotten sunset towns. And this was not just in the South. It was all over the country. And if you think it’s over, you’re wrong. Predatory credit schemes keep poor people poor and some banks may even check out your Facebook friends before issuing loans.

“We knew about Jim Crow laws, but had forgotten sunset towns. And this was not just in the South. It was all over the country. And if you think it’s over, you’re wrong.”

A home filled with fear

We’ve all seen it by now. Grieving families. Black men and women killed before our eyes. Families left without even the hope of justice. It is finally blindingly obvious to me that Black people in America have been undergoing pogrom after pogrom for generations. Black people in the United States have had their history dismissed. They have had their fears dismissed. They have been denied their future and their place in the world. Look it up. Rosewood, FloridaTulsa, OklahomaHurricane KatrinaCharleston. Too much tragedy for me to list. Too many pogroms.

Just as my great-grandmother once feared for her children, parents of Black children still fear for theirs. They share the same concerns. Will they come home whole and alive and unhurt? How can I protect them? What can I do? Where can I go?

Pack up your pain

Unlike my great-grandmother, Black people in the United States have nowhere to go. There is no place in the world inviting the huddled masses to their shores. We all know that. And it’s not like racist structures aren’t global. They are. Ask the Eritreans killed for their organs. Ask the Syrian families wasting away in refugee camps. Ask the refugees locked up by the Australian government. Ask the Latino-American families torn apart by heartbreaking policies.

Now, more than ever, it’s time for the United States to make good on its promise to its citizens and its promise to those seeking refuge. Life. Liberty. Home. We have to make the minorities among us feel safe. That is the very least of our responsibilities.

“Now, more than ever, it’s time for the United States to make good on its promise to its citizens and its promise to those seeking refuge. Life. Liberty. Home. We have to make the minorities among us feel safe. That is the very least of our responsibilities.”

We have to put aside our own pain and our own past and all that baggage we carry and make the American Dream of home and life without fear real for everyone.

This is why I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s not because my life or anyone else’s life matters less. It’s because I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. I can’t unknow what I know. I can’t not put myself in the shoes of a Black woman grieving for a loved one. I can’t erase history — or what I know of history. I know that when the lives of those around us have value, real value, and when we understand their history and see the patterns, we can change the patterns.

Privilege

Me, I used to say, I’m the granddaughter of immigrants. It wasn’t my family who owned slaves or wrote the Jim Crow laws. No, we were busy being persecuted in Eastern Europe at a time when America was desperate for immigrants so that they could secure the country from the First Nations and the Mexicans. I could tell myself that I did not contribute to the past wrongs. At the time, I didn’t understand that those wrongs continued well into the present as well.

Little by little, my privilege became apparent to me. It started small. The ease with which I could get entry-level work. The cops who harassed an Hispanic couple for jaywalking when I was doing the same thing at the same time without notice. The cop who laughed at my friend and I as we were smoking weed in a parked car. My African-American colleagues who recounted police harassment as if it was normal. Because it was normal. They felt it every day. As my former colleague Malcolm Martin told me, “I can’t even remember the first time I was approached by the police.”

In more than a half century of life, the police have stopped me two times. Twice. Two times a month for my colleagues would not have even been remarkable.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s just what I can see. There have been so many ways I benefited with my apple cheeks and my Shirley Temple curls and my light skin. Most of them invisible to me. I still struggle, even with my privilege. It's not as though I have no fears. It's not as though I face no injustices.

I still carry centuries of pain buried deep in my DNA. There is a great sadness inside me. A looming apocalypse. A well-deserved fear. I’m not going to hide it away. I’m just not going to ask others to put my pain first. I’m not going to make its recognition a requirement for stepping in and doing what little I can.

A version of this article was previously published on Medium.

  • Harriet Cole

    Wow!! Did my niece , Tori, write this remarkable article? It’s stunning! Thought provoking–

    • Tori

      Thanks Harriet. Yes. Your niece wrote this.

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