Ronnie Lee refused to eat pork. “Swine,” he said, “was unclean.”
My oldest cousin was never a religious person. In fact, the only time I recall Ronnie Lee sitting in a church pew was for various family funerals and weddings, where he often arrived dressed to the nines in high-shined Stacy Adams and a silk-brimmed, fedora hat festooned with a peacock feather, as if he was going to a Player’s Club ball. He came hobbling into Auntie Gerald’s house once, days after someone plastered his backside with a hail of buck shots in a botched robbery, looking for a hot plate and a warm bed. We never knew who the true victim was because Ronnie Lee was occasionally the one doing the robbing. Between the women, drugs and stints in prison, he managed to sire 11 or 12 children by last count.
Undereducated and prone to conspiracy theories, he’d rant from the front porch about “staged” moon landings and the scourge of Reagan-era trickle-down economics. He was correct about Reagan, but he believed that Jews controlled everything from the World Bank to the Great Ethiopian Famine. For him, Jew was a verb that meant negotiating a price, defrauding a customer, or taking out high-interest predatory loans. “They have too much power,” he’d complain. “We are Israel’s lost tribes.”
He was so drunk so frequently over the years that a judge in Georgia ordered him to turn over the license plates to his truck. His mama, my auntie, adored him even if she thought his worldview, was nonsense. “Get that noise out of here, Ronnie Lee,” she’d say.
Ronnie Lee was that crazy uncle who deserved to suffer, if not be pitied. He died a few years ago with his children by his side after refusing COVID-19 vaccinations. But the antisemitism he harbored throughout his adult life persists.
As the Brooklyn Nets suspended him and Nike severed ties with NBA star Kyrie Irving in recent days, I wondered if I should throw out the brand-new pair of high-tops I bought for my granddaughter. I couldn’t get over how similar the Australian-born, first-round draft pick’s proselytizing was to Ronnie Lee’s. Kanye West is another. The artist now known as Ye, a self-proclaimed free-thinking genius, has compared himself and the financial shambles he is facing to George Floyd and Emmett Till. After apologizing for blaming fentanyl for Floyd’s death, West said he knew what it was like to have someone’s foot on his neck. In an Instagram post, he referred to his widespread condemnation and fall from grace as a “digital lynching,” comparing it to his “social credit score” being ruined. In his casket, the chart-topping rapper, producer, fashion designer, and now former billionaire included a photograph of a grossly disfigured Til, a 14-year-old who was lynched in 1955.
The American Jewish Committee commissioned Dr. Kenneth Clark, a Black sociologist, to present his research on the impact of segregation on Black children to the Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.
In collaboration with Booker T. Washington, philanthropist Julius Rosenwald helped establish over 5,000 schools for Black children and contributed funds to approximately 20 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Rosenwald hoped to raise generations of free-thinking young men and women who would chart our destinies and grow wealth for centuries to come. He knew that getting a good education was essential to getting there.
The Rosenwald-Washington model has persisted over the years, with Black and Jewish leaders joining forces to fight for social justice. In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League’s Black-Jewish Alliance in Philadelphia was formed to combat racism and antisemitism. In 1982, Atlanta’s Black/Jewish Coalition banded together to advocate for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
The rise of Black nationalism in the 1960s fueled antisemitism in Black communities. They accomplished it from the inside out. Black nationalism, in addition to its empowering messages of self-sufficiency, broke with nonviolent Kingian theologies and attempted to sever the social compact between Black and Jewish people. For the separatists, their own influence was partially dependent upon their ability to shutter the relationship, to push Jewish people out of Black spaces and reject those organizations that welcomed them.