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Fires in the Mirror

Perhaps it’s because I am not from NY (let alone NYC) or because I wasn’t even born when the critical action took place in 1991, I had no idea about the circumstances that were referenced. To me, Black anti-Semitism and Jewish racism was just a stereotype that everyone knew. I never considered the truth to lie in a historical precedence. So, even though the introduction was long, I appreciated being brought up to speed on the tragedies that took place in Crown Heights.

One of the most disturbing pieces came when the characters discussed the Holocaust. From pages 54-62 two separate characters discuss the Holocaust in terms of their own identity. For the Black man, he belittles the Holocaust and the constant cries about it from the Jews. “In fact,/ no crime in the history of humanity/ has before or since equaled that crime./ The Holocaust did not equal it/ Oh, absolutely not” (54). “We were so thoroughly robbed./ We didn’t just lose six million./ We didn’t just/ endure this/ for, for five or six years…” (55).

It is strange that as people we feel the need to compare our pain to others’. Pain is pain is pain. And though, yes, the Holocaust itself only lasted the duration of WW2, the Jews as a peoples suffered for thousands of years before the Holocaust. Just as Blacks suffered from slavery. To say “just” and minimize the pain is so antagonistic and cold-hearted. How can you claim to say it was a “horrible crime” and then demean it?

The second character, a Jewish woman, feels as though people talk about that suffering too much. That the truth is being lost in the story. Which, ironically, she tells a story that is found within her own book. And how can you compare the suffering? To lose your identity as a Black person through slavery, to lose your name, your history, is horrible. To lose your family during persecution as a Jewish person during the War, to be forced to kill your friends and family, and flee your country, is horrible.

It is this pain and trauma, this suffering, that should open the doors of communication to both communities. They understand and carry with them the horror of their ancestors past, of their own past.

The rules of identity are tricky. What can you say? What can you do? Who are you? “How did I find out I was Black…” is answered with community and surrounding. Look in the mirror. Look at the parents. Those around you create identity. Not being able to touch technology during Shabbas forges a community where others relate and understand. The entire notion of identity through race and religion (as Black and Jewish) is founded in the sense of community. The stories related from the characters are based inside their community, their shared struggles, their shared views, their shared pain. It must have been difficult to live in a community where the internal struggles push into communal tensions.

Anna Deavere Smith does an incredible job of weaving together stories and characters from separate cultures into a joint production. She reveals the parts of their communities that are similar, the parts that rub each other the wrong way, the parts that show their shame and fear and hopes. She paints a picture of turmoil within the self and surrounding community. Smith’s masterful use of direct dialogue and excerpts from her journalistic interviews help to create a portrait of the turmoil that revolves around experienced and generational trauma and identity through language and community.

“You realize, man,

ain’t no justice,

ain’t never been no justice,

ain’t never gonna be no justice.” (84)

It is a difficult and complicated situation. Past, present, and future. Identity is difficult to understand. How it changes with time, location, experience. How suffering and victories add to identity. How distortion ruins the mirror image. How the fires burn inside.

“This is a very complicated situation” (29)

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