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Re-Cognizing History

By Imani Chapman

Guided by Jewish values, the diverse communities of the JCC Movement are committed to growth and change focused on inclusion and accountability, including racial justice and equity. As part of this endeavor, JCC Association of North America’s embRACE team, a subset of a larger inclusion effort, strives to engage and elevate partners and educators in this work, both within and beyond the JCC Movement. The team invited Imani Chapman to write this blog post. As a Jew of Color, she brings a unique perspective to the work of inclusion in the Jewish community and beyond. Chapman has been a regular presenter for JCulture, and last year, she presented at JCCs of North America Professional Conference.

My parents named me “Imani.” Imani is the seventh principle of the African-American holiday Kwanzaa, created by Dr. Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga, and like אמונה (emunah) often is translated as “faith.” The translation I grew up with, however, is “faith in our people and the victory and righteousness of our struggle.” I grew up surrounded by stories of what is now considered history—history my parents co-created: the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike, the Third World Women’s Alliance, the establishment of the Puerto Rican Studies Department at Brooklyn College. My parents were and are my best examples.

Even though these were the stories of my childhood, the power of the dominant cultural narrative cannot be underestimated. After all, “history is written by the victors,” goes the aphorism often attributed to Winston Churchill.

The histories I was taught erased so much of what really happened. I’m so grateful for the MLK of “nonviolence,” but it took decades before I heard the phrase “nonviolent direct action!” Additionally, I was limited to stories predominantly featuring one type of hero–mostly male, mostly Black, mostly straight, mostly able-bodied. I was in my 20s before I learned about Bayard Rustin, the architect of the 1963 March on Washington–a Quaker and a gay man–which made him (and the movement) vulnerable to heterosexists. Just last fall, I learned from speaker and organizer Dustin Gibson about the differential treatment of heroes like Tubman and Truth due to their disabilities.

We are most often taught to recall heroes who are dead, many even murdered and martyred. During the course I designed on allying, my high school students asked me, “Who are the current-day models for us?” We talked about people who had pushed me in my thinking or offered language to match some of my pivotal experiences: Paul Kivel, Rev. William Barber, Dr. Ken Hardy, John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika, Dr. Dolly Chugh, Gibrán Rivera, Tuesday Ryan-Hart. Since then, I’ve had the great fortune to engage with the work of Resmaa Menakem, Rev. angel kyodo williams, April Rosenblum, adrienne maree brown, Brenée Brown, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, Edgar Villanueva, Tarana Burke and others. Each one of them has influenced my work with JCC Association of North America.

Why is it, though, that we rarely hear about collective success or strong coalitions?

Civil rights strategist Eric Ward led me to re-cognize the truth I’d gleaned from my parents about the collective “we.” He said that Rosa Parks didn’t just sit down on a bus one day because she was tired and the next day there was a boycott; there was organizing happening. When visiting the Rosa Parks Museum with my family this past summer, I came to understand more deeply what is meant by collective organizing. I learned about Virginia Durr who sponsored Rosa Parks’ time at the Highlander Folk School, which was co-founded by Myles Horton (and others) in Tennessee and known for its role in the Civil Rights Movement. I learned about the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery. I learned that WPC member Jo Ann Robinson, along with two students, typed up, mimeographed, and distributed tens of thousands of leaflets that made the bus boycott, which she’d forewarned about for some time, successful. I learned of scores of others who made 13 months of boycott possible. Such collective wins are the work of countless people–people with lots of courage, and many who are out of options.

When talking about Black history in Jewish communities, I often hear four names–Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. There is no doubt that these people are heroes. Full stop. Here, though, are some questions: Who are your heroes of today? Your alive heroes? Your heroes without Wikipedia pages? Your heroes with marginalized identities? Your complex heroes?

We tend to look outside ourselves for the “hero.” Yet, each of us has the potential to make great change—especially as part of a community. How do you move into solidarity with others? How do you sustain that solidarity while perhaps also dodging antisemitic tropes of Jews funding the left or other misunderstandings by those with whom you seek to ally? How are you building authentic relationships, deepening your analysis of the intersections of oppressions, cultivating a belief in transformation? How are you getting to what both my mom and john a. powell call “a larger we”?

Layla F. Saad writes:

If you are a person who believes in love, justice, integrity, and equity for all people, then you know that this work is non-negotiable. If you are a person who wants to become a good ancestor, then you know that this work is some of the most important work you will be called to do in your lifetime. Here’s to doing what is right and not what’s easy.

My parents are ahead of me on the road of good ancestor-ship. I’m following along. You coming?

Imani Chapman is the founder and director of imani strategies, llc, which offers consulting, workshops, and one-on-one and group coaching to promote equitable leadership and collaboration. Her work with stakeholders in religious communities, secular communities, schools, and non-profit organizations has helped root their efforts for sustained change. 

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