Reviewed by Rabbi Mayer Schiller.
This is a long overdue book, with an urgent, heartfelt (one is tempted to say beautiful) message which in all probability will go sadly unheeded. It is a work which details the whole sorry decline of New York City, of its slide into bankruptcy, poverty, crime, anarchy and alienation. Written by a liberal it is refreshingly unique in that it takes into serious account the legitimate fears and sense of increasing disenfranchisement of the city’s ever-shrinking White population, while also describing the history of racism and suffering endured by its Blacks.
Sleeper’s lasting message, if he is to have one, is that a major role in Black pain is now being played by that community’s own leaders’ unwillingness to function as moral teachers expecting their people to exhibit virtue. The Closest of Strangers sees signs of lingering White racism, but it also condemns many Black spokesmen engaged in “self indulgent demagoguery, supported blindly at nearly every turn by the white left, indulged by guilt”.
The tragedy of Black New York is in many ways the tragedy of Black people everywhere throughout Europe and North America. It is also a tragedy that for the time being we are all, Black and White, linked to. In America the African was brought in chains as a slave. In Europe he was invited in with little thought of what that might mean for all involved. The former was a monstrous moral abomination, the latter was thoughtless cruelty. Sleeper describes a mural on a wall of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s slave theatre which depicts a young, barefoot Black man crying :
I don’t know who I am. I lost my name. My tribal language. My homeland. African wealth. I have nothing! (p.208)
This is not merely a picture. It is the description of an objective reality. Largely it is a reality created by the White man. Accordingly, today, it must be borne, as to an extent, his burden. Yes, for as Sleeper favourably quotes a Black writer :
The collective memory of an oppressed people is not only a treasure but a trap. This is the unfairly difficult dilemma of the newly emancipated and the newly enfranchised; an honourable life is not possible if they remember too little, and a normal life not possible if they remember too much. (p.209)
It is true that the White man must accept a certain degree of responsibility for the Black man’s plight. It is, however, at least equally true that it is up to the Black leadership to teach their people that a life of meaning and happiness lies not in never ending rage, but in a life of goodness or – to use a religious phrase – the Good Life. As Sleeper puts it, it is up to :
ordinary men and women (of the Black Community), living in whatever remnants of family and community they can find, to act responsibly in conventional terms and to enforce responsibility upon one another. They really have no choice but to help one another stay in school or find a steady job; refrain from parenting children they are unwilling or unable to raise; honour the community and obey the law. And they have to raise up new leaders who can help them do this, since no one else can. (p.39)
Sleeper takes a giant step by adding that “it is time for the rest of us to demand it, too.” This is seemingly prudent and moral advice, as is in the author’s closing proviso :
but, for whites, fair warning: as we make such demands upon our black neighbours, the closest of strangers, we also obligate ourselves…. We have to be certain that we are offering to all those ‘with a mind to work’ our hands and our hearts. (p.316)
This is surely an agenda born of good conscience, worthy of both Black and White support. Author Sleeper has done a fine job. Yet, as a New Yorker born and bred, I feel I have a right – perhaps an obligation – to add two footnotes to his observations. Firstly, the Black (and indeed the White Community) will be incapable of advocating and pursuing the Good as long as an insipid, liberal relativism remains the philosophical law of the land, translated via the mass media into an orgy of decadence for one and all.
Recently a Rabbinical friend of mine was in the morgue of a major New York City hospital where he had the chance to meet a Black Protestant Minister. Surrounded by the many bodies of young Black males he asked the minister : “They’re all so young. What a tragedy! Why?” To which the minister replied, “Yes, our young people…. We’ve lost them to drugs and crime. A whole generation gone. They have no God. We can’t do anything with them.”
“But don’t they want to live?” Sadly shaking his head, the Minister whispered : “Without God they may want to live, but they just don’t know how to live.”
Personally, I’ve often wondered where the Black man would be today if he had been liberated into an earlier America, into an America whose religion, families, schools, courts etc. had not been rendered impotent and irrelevant by the secular left. Black people emerged into a White America which had long since replaced meaning with ‘fun’ and character with ‘profit’. If Blacks are to restore order and meaning to their lives they must not only bypass the dead-end rage of their aimless militants, but they must step beyond the value-free absurdities of relativism. It is a point which Sleeper fails to discuss.
Finally, Sleeper is a bit confused about what race actually is. To him it seems at times to be essentially meaningless, something that has produced hatred in the past and will hopefully be overlooked in the future. Alternatively, though, especially when discussing Black people, he writes as if racial history, memory, culture etc. is a vitally important ingredient in one’s identity. Now, whether genetic or cultural, it would seem that the group experience of a person is part and parcel of who he is. The way we laugh and cry, our gestures, songs, manners, remembrance, dress — is us. What makes a human being is his individual character played out in a certain context, be it ethnic, cultural, religious and, undoubtedly, racial.
It is far from clear whether the ultimate happiness of mankind lies in the breaking down of those barriers which allow us to live primarily with our own kind. We are at ease among those who share our apprehension and experience of the world. Liberalism is unwilling, and given its theoretical roots probably unable, to understand this fact.
Sleeper writes as if White people and their nations, culture and religions are not collectively capable of providing a sense of place, comfort and meaning. This is the second missing link in his thesis. Indeed, let us have an end to bigotry. Let us further have conversation and communication full of mutual respect, empathy and true listening among all races. But let all men, Black and White, live and play and sing and study and worship among their own if they so desire.
To Sleeper’s call for Black pride coupled with Black character I add my own call for White character and goodness. I don’t presume to know the exact perameters of a disentanglement that would allow all men to live in peace in their own world while reaching out to and caring for the worlds of others. It is in that general direction, though, that our efforts should proceed.
Rabbi Schiller is an instructor of Talmud in New York City.