Can you teach me the Torah of the Baltimore Uprising while I'm standing on one foot?
Of course: it's very short and simple. — HARLEM by Langston Hughes (1951) What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore – And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
I grew up in Baltimore. I lived in the same house there from 1933 to 1954, before I left for graduate school.
All those years, the neighborhood was utterly white (and heavily Jewish). During the McCarthy years, my home-town heroes were our neighborhood's (Jewish) representatives on the Baltimore City Council -- the only Council-members to vote against imposing a loyalty oath on civil servants.
My high school was all-white and all-male. The police force was all-white and all-male.The only time I remember seeing more than two or three Blacks in the same place at the same time was at a Paul Robeson concert in a public park not far from my home.
That pattern had deep roots in Baltimore's history. Another of my home-town heroes is Rabbi David Einhorn, who during the 1850s dared in Baltimore -- a slave-holding city! --to call for the abolition of slavery. His congregants threatened to kill him and forced him to leave the city.
One of my first political acts took place in 1950 at my high school. Just three yeas ago, I got to tell the story to an assembly of its students. For the six-minute speech in which I told the story, see the video on this website at--
My parents continued living in the same house till after my mother died in 1985. By then the neighborhood, which continued to be neighborly, was 99.9% Black. During the transition, my parents worked hard to help their new neighbors register to vote.
When the tragic TV show "The Wire" unveiled the arrogant corruption of those who ruled Baltimore and the despairing corruption of those over whom they ruled, I cried.
Some of the Baltimore Uprising exploded about ten blocks from where I grew up.
I mourn for Freddie Gray. I mourn my shattered city, left too many centuries to fester like a raisin in the sun.
AND — I began by ironically referring to Rabbi Hillel’s teaching that the “whole Torah” can be taught while standing on one foot, for it is simply “What is abhorrent to you, do not do to your neighbor.” His teaching ended, "Go and study!” So I share some beginnings toward our study:
For the last several years, The Shalom Center and I have been working chiefly on activist responses to the climate crisis. Are there any connections between the climate crisis and the Baltimore Uprising?
The same urge to dominate and subjugate is what animates the Carbon Pharaohs’ making of our air and oceans into trash dumps for CO2 and methane — a dumping that damages first and worst the poor around the world — and what animates the imposition of poverty, the robbery of jobs, the mind-destroying miseducation, the massive incarceration, and ultimately the murder by police of America’s “trash” — the Black, Hispanic, and poor-white communities.
There is not “social justice” on the one hand and “climate crisis" on the other, but a single eco-social justice that we must pursue.
Our Mother Earth responds to being choked with fiery carbon till she and YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, choke, with our own versions of the ancient Plagues: floods, super-typhoons, sea-levels rising, earthquakes, droughts.
And some of us human earthlings respond to being robbed of food and jobs, of being choked into asthma by coal dust and into cancer by chemicals and into smothering by police chokeholds— with rage and violence.
So at the “top” of our society’s structure of pyramidal power and at the “bottom” of subjugation and despair, the patterns of arrogance toward Earth and human earthlings are the same.
We can, we should, learn to respond to Pharaohs with grit and perseverance and — by creating steadfast nonviolent resistance to their power — with the compassion that the Pharaohs do not carry when thy act against us. I am joyful that this kind of resistance has animated most of the Baltimore protests. As for the far fewer violent outbursts, let us keep always in mind where they began. For as Langston Hughes was teaching: The dream deferred, the raisin left broiling in the sun, can explode.