My Rabbi came up to me after services in September, a week before the high holidays, to ask if I would be willing to do one of the readings for Yom Kippur afternoon. I think they’d run out of volunteers to take part in the services, so he threw up his hands and asked me.
He brought me to the synagogue library, where he had lined up all of the poems on the table, in the order in which they would be read during the Yom Kippur afternoon services. He had a piece in mind for me, a poem by Marge Piercy that looked very long. He said I could read the Marge Piercy, or really, I could choose whichever one I wanted. I started to read through a couple of the other pieces and he laughed at me, because I’d read all of them a few times over when I helped with the proofreading a few weeks earlier, but, my memory’s not so good.
I glanced across the table and saw the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece and just grabbed it, because that was the one, of everything I’d read, that echoed for me. I felt the same way with that piece as I’d felt when I asked if I could adopt Butterfly, and the woman at the shelter said yes. You mean, you don’t have to save her for someone more worthy?!
After I’d made my choice, the rabbi told me that it would be part of something called the “Martyrology.” I’d never heard of a Martyrology before, and he described it, or at least this iteration of it, as a focus on what it is like to be Black in America right now. A young (white) man from our synagogue came up with the idea, and he was bringing two friends to speak about their experiences, and congregants (including me) would read three poems, to echo their message, and fill out the ceremonial quality of the event.
The rabbi said it might be cheesy, but I stuck to my choice.
It took me about three seconds after leaving the library to realize what I’d just agreed to – reading in public, dressed up, in heels, at the podium, in front of a crowd (the whole sanctuary, plus the social hall behind it, was filled for that service by the way, and if I’d known that ahead of time there would have been vomiting).
At the same time, we had a weekly assignment in my Human Rights and Social Justice class (for social work school), to write a journal entry about the assignments and readings and anything else going on with us each week related to social justice. It was an opportunity to complain to our teacher, or consider new ideas, or confide internal conflicts or limitations or prejudices where no one else could read it.
My teacher was an African American man, with two young daughters, so when I knew I would be reading a piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, I wrote to him about my concerns, that I was usurping this story in some way, or misrepresenting it. I felt guilty in particular for taking this full-throated rant about race, and applying it to my own experiences, which are not about race at all. And I wanted permission to read it anyway, from a black man who could stand in for Ta-Nehisi Coates in a pinch. The teacher wrote back to me and told me to go for it, and be loud!
I read the two or three paragraphs to myself, and then to the dogs out loud, every day leading up to Yom Kippur, because I was terrified of reading in public, but also because reading it made me feel better. To write a book to your son, even if it is also a book to the world, is a way of saying – you matter. I would tell this story only to you. I have told this story only to you over and over again. I would spend years of my life talking to you and sharing with you even if no one else ever heard me, because this love between us deserves that level of effort and care and communication.
The words, and the fact that I could hear them out loud in my own voice, were soothing. They reached into corners of my mind and body that are usually ignored. When I read the line “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” I felt it deep in my bones. I don’t think this is necessarily how other people see me, but it is how I see myself: as subterranean. And I’ve taken the same comfort in the “struggle to understand” as Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken. I’m a writer because I need to be, because I have to struggle with how I see the world and myself every day.
The reality of the Martyrology was so much more powerful than I’d expected. First, the young man from the congregation spoke about how he’d grown up on Long Island, in a largely white town and largely white school and largely white synagogue, and it wasn’t until he went to the city for college that he met people whose experiences of the world were really different from his own. But it was the two speakers themselves, confronting us with the ways people like us have ignored them and mistreated them, which made the deepest impression on all of us. Everyone in the synagogue stood up and clapped when they were done, in the middle of the service, on Yom Kippur afternoon.
I was barely a blip in the program, but it meant a lot to me. Maybe people assumed I was just reading for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who for some reason could not make it to our Yom Kippur services on Long Island, but really, I was speaking or me, for the parts of me that have been ignored, mistreated, and pushed aside; the parts of me who rarely get to speak up in public, and be heard.
Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2015) Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau.