Project America

LABA Rabbinic Intern Kendell Pinkney interrogates the meaning of America today.

‘I wish I could be optimistic,’ I uttered hesitatingly, my eyes more pinned to the ground than on the faces arrayed across my computer screen, ‘but to be real, I think I am done with the American Project.’

As soon as the words dribbled out of my mouth, they splattered with the kind of silent shock that that is unique to an unexpected winter rain and moments of despair. When I finally looked up, I saw the neatly partitioned, downcast faces – the white faces – of my peers, administrators, and colleagues staring back at me in the wake of my admission that I did not see a future for myself in America.

Much like many other black and non-black folks the world over, I have spent these past weeks both numbly mourning the loss of black lives due to systemic racism, and rolling my eyes at the embarrassing abundance of documented examples of casual and not-so-casual racism aimed at individuals, protestors, and organizations. In no case, however, have I been surprised – this is America.

What is this thing called America?
A grand experiment?
A shining beacon to the world?
A melting pot where everyone who works hard can have a fair shot at achieving the American Dream?

These were some of the vaunted mythologies that were woven into the fabric of my Texas primary education. However, as is the case with many black children across this country, I received another education at home. As early as 7 years old, I knew that in order to receive the same consideration or opportunities as my white peers, I would need to be three times as skilled. Conversely, I also knew that if I acted out in some unwise, cliched way, as is typical of many teens, I could very well be punished by society three times more harshly than my white peers. As I grew older, these ad hoc lessons of my childhood evolved into a less benign kind of hyper vigilance and self-effacement. To this day, whenever I leave my apartment, I am always suspicious if a white person’s gaze lingers on me just a touch too long; and if I go to a location where I could seem out of place, I make sure to smile broadly, laugh easily, and use my clearest non-regional diction in hopes that my show of “cheer” and “propriety” will communicate “I am not a threat.” This is the kind of internal calculus that goes into “living while black” and raising black children in America; and ever since I learned these lessons as a child, I have squirmed under the yoke of my country’s history.

James Baldwin has long served as a leading voice for many of us black folks who are straining under the yoke of America’s history-mythology-complex. As he wrote in 1970:

“…as long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name…They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate.”

Part of Baldwin’s solution was to escape this “most monstrous of traps” and emigrate to France. He did this not to turn his back on his fellow black brothers and sisters, rather he left behind the American Project in order to preserve his desire to live and to find the “quiet” needed to focus on his writing, much of which would subsequently critique the very ills of American society. Baldwin chose to leave his home both in order to draw closer to his own humanity, and to send out a subtle clarion call for white Americans to draw closer to their humanity through seeking to do justice.

This notion of going out from one’s home immediately calls to mind that foundational story of Abraham, or Father Abraham, as he has often been called in the black church. As it says in Genesis 12:1:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

“Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land – your native land – from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”

And in the following line, it reads:

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

“And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great and it – your name, that is – will be a blessing.”

Contained in these few lines of Genesis and in Baldwin’s need to emigrate lies a profound truth that is recognizable to all artists: In order to do the hard work of art and self-creation, you must often go to unexpected, far flung places.

In a small but meaningful way, my 2015 experience as a LABA fellow served as a kind of way station on my journey towards making art and “making” myself. During that year, as I gathered with 12 other Jewish culture makers to learn and discuss the theme of BEAUTY, I found myself researching and working on a new play about my conversion experience and the tension it raised between me and my black, Christian family. A more profound question that arose during my research, however, was whether the tradition that I had adopted – rabbinic Judaism – saw the innate beauty in me as a black man, or was it only in my “choosing to be chosen” that I became beautiful? I still wrestle with this question today. As a current rabbinical student, I am privileged to spend my days perusing texts that might help me arrive at a more clear conclusion. Clear conclusions, however, are seldomly the best conclusions, and they rarely lead to worthwhile art.

As we head into the theme of CHOSEN this year in LABA, I am interested in both witnessing how the new LABA Fellows will handle the unwieldy nature of Jewish texts on chosenness, and what they will create as a result of that handling. This theme feels even more urgent given the struggles of our country, and the many choices that we will need to make in the coming months and years: What kind of country will we choose to be? Who will we choose to assign value and dignity in our society? When and how will we know if we have made the right choices?

As for me, I will eventually need to figure out whether I will choose to make a life in this country, or somewhere else. Truth be told, I do not know what choice I will make. And that frightens me. Still, despite it all, I look forward to exploring this question in the LABA community, because I know that behind the very act of choice lies the power for actual change.

Kendell Pinkney is a Brooklyn-based (temporarily Miami-based) theatre-maker and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His collaborative works have been presented at venues such as 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, the 14th St. Y, and Two River Theatre, to name a few. Kendell’s broader interest in ethnic diversity among Jews led him to team up with spoken-word artist, Vanessa Hidary, to produce Kaleidoscope, a monologue showcase that foregrounds the stories of Jews of Color, and Jews from Sephardic and Mizrachi backgrounds. He will be serving as the LABA Rabbinic Intern for the 2020-2021 year.