Ta-Nehisi has been saying some interesting things about relations between black men and women, and I thought I was hearing echoes of arguments from inside the Jewish community. So we had the following conversation (because we're both so into black-Jewish dialogue):
Jeffrey Goldberg: Why do people go outside their groups to look for mates? What drives it?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I think most men I know, to some extent, have this thing with what's exotic. When I was kid in West Baltimore, we prized the black girls who lived out in Baltimore County - they were white girls before there were any white girls. They were supposed to be more refined and more classy. Once I came to New York, a lot of the dudes here had this thing about Asian girls - they were just the new exotic "other." At the same time, nationalism has become such a powerful, and yet subtle, force in the lives of young black people that that sort of exoticism was kind of frowned on. This was especially true when it came to black men and white women. It wasn't seen simply as you hooking up with someone different, but an almost wholesale rejection of your history, culture, and way of being. Like a rejection of the idea that black people are, as Ice Cube used to say, an endangered species. Marrying black was just an extension of the whole "buy black" thing. The idea was to keep resources in the community.
JG: Remember Allison Portchnik from "Annie Hall"? You probably weren't even alive when Woody Allen made "Annie Hall" (a.k.a "It Had to be Jew" and "Me and My Goy"), but Alison Portchnik was Alvy Singer's first wife, the one he describes so famously as "New York Jewish, left-wing, liberal intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, socialist summer camps. The father with the Ben Shahn drawings." She responds by saying, "I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype."
Let me tell you, as someone who went to socialist Zionist summer camp in the Catskills, and whose parents would have bought Ben Shahn drawings if they could have afforded them, that, like Alvy Singer, I found girls like these more than insufficiently exotic. In fact, I didn't really date any Jews until I moved to Israel, where Jews are pretty much unavoidable. (We didn't "date," per se, at our socialist Zionist summer camp, though there was a lot of Bolshevik sex.) In double-fact, I didn't really date very many white girls at all, until I met Mrs. Goldblog. (You know the old saying, "Once you go black, you end up marrying a Jewish girl from Providence, Rhode Island.")
The more time I spent in Israel, the more I came to believe that dating "in" was the responsible thing to do, from a future-of-my-people perspective. But weirdly, and maybe you could analyze this for me, Dr. Coates, I didn't get pissed off at Jewish women who dated out, only Jewish men. In retrospect, I guess I felt sorry for the Jewish women who intermarried, because I sensed that they tried, and failed, to convince Jewish men that they weren't, in fact, their mothers, that they were intelligent and sexy and all the rest. Jewish men who go outside, I think - and this is not everyone, obviously - are looking beyond the tribe not because they really think they're going to end up marrying their mothers if they find a Jewish woman, but because they're scared of Jewish women, especially the intense sort my friends and I all seemed to marry. ("Intense" is a compliment, by the way, because intense keeps things interesting.) They're scared that these women will see right through them, among other things.
There are upsides, of course, to marrying out - all those new and exciting genes, for one thing, and the opportunity to bring someone new into the fold. And you allude, of course, to the ultimate promise of real integration. Anyway, it's complicated, and I'm getting the sense you believe, as I do, that blacks and Jews have a lot more in common than lactose intolerance and hard-to-manage hair.
Now, I think that long-term relationships are really, really hard, and should not be subject to ideology. It just seems like, in my experience, relationships rise and fall over dumb practical shit. A lot of black folks worry about disappearing. Not disappearing, I think, in the manner that Jews worry. But like, that we'll basically slaughter each other and those of us that are left will go to jail. So when you have the chance to build a stable black family, the idea is you've got to do it.
JG: You know, nowadays, in liberal Jewish circles, it's considered a little odiferous to mention that you'd rather have people stay in than go out. I can't imagine it's the same in liberal black circles, but is it? Do you get pushback when you talk about the importance of this kind of solidarity?
TC: It depends what circles. In New York, you can't really say that. In Atlanta you can. In D.C. you probably can. In L.A., I bet you can't. The thing is the higher you go up - at least in New York - for whatever reason shit gets more integrated. In Atlanta and D.C., there are worlds filled with high-level people and all of them are black, and interracial marriage is rare. It is just not the case here. Even in Harlem.
JG: It's funny how quickly things turn - a generation ago in the Jewish community, especially in New York, it was just assumed that you'd marry in, and people who didn't do so were looked at as outliers - not Malcolm Gladwell outliers, outliers like "Why'd you do that?" outliers. I remember meeting a couple of kids in school who were the products of intermarriages, and, particularly in my ethnically-charged New York environment, they seemed to be sort of homeless. But now it's rude, in many circles, to even advocate for in-marriage. And by the way, just so you understand, I'm not for in-marriage - if that's what you call it - because I'm prejudiced against everyone but Jews. (Actually, there's a lot of Jews who think I am especially prejudiced against Jews - you should read my mail). This has nothing to do with outsiders; this is only about self-preservation. We've been around for a long time, and my suspicion is that there's a reason for this. I'm not diving into theology here, but I have this feeling that peoples don't survive the way the Jews have survived for nothing. That said, intermarriage has in some ways revitalized the Jewish community - converts, everyone knows, make the best Jews. And the byproducts of intermarriage - well, all I have to say is Scarlet Johannson. (You didn't know, did you?) Black-Jewish marriage, of course, has brought us Joshua Redman, Lisa Bonet, Lenny Kravitz, Slash, and Sophie Okenedo. As Adam Sandler would say, not too shabby. I know a lot of Jews who say that if Jews are going to marry out, they might as well marry African-Americans. I know this sounds strange (it certainly would have sounded crazy to my grandmother) but at least when you marry an African-American, you're getting someone who already understands Passover.
TC: Well yeah, your point about in-marriage is, I think, where there is a similarity. I'm sure there is some degree of prejudice working on black women who suck their teeth at black dudes with white women - but it's more than that. It's the sense, I guess bluntly put, someone has chosen individualism over community. But here's something else - your point about being "scared" of Jewish women also rings true. There is, in the black mind, this stereotype that black dudes can somehow get away with more dealing with white women. I think that sort of mythology comes out of dealings with a certain sector of liberal, "understanding" whites - as opposed to, say, Bay Ridge whites. And now we're getting deep, because I don't even know if that's what black folks think about when they think about the archetypal white person. I'm rambling. The point is that there is this broad sense that, with so much hype about the fall of the black family, you have some sort of responsibility to build a successful black family. And then there's just the whole "be proud of who you are" thing. Man, that works in perverse ways - like whenever I see an Asian couple in New York, I sort of smile to myself. Yes, I know. Dead. Wrong. But I can't help how I feel!