Black Alabama, I Won’t Forget

White America likes to forget Black people are here, and have been here since the founding. Last night Democratic candidate Doug Jones, best known for prosecuting the KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, won secessionist Jeff Session’s old Senate seat over Republican Roy Moore, a child molestor who said America was last great during slavery. White Alabamians voted for the child molester who wanted to bring back slavery. Black Alabamians voted for the former prosecutor who didn’t. 

There are over a million Black citizens of Alabama, something most portrayals of that state completely obscures. Despite immense voter suppression efforts, they turned out in force to vote and demand better for themselves, and in the process save us from ourselves. Black voter turnout was higher in Alabama for this special election than the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama the first Black presidential candidate was up for a vote. 

I’m from the South, so I know most depictions are inaccurate. Hollywood writers don’t know the difference between a redneck, a hick, and a good ol’ boy, and they think “Southern” is a single accent. They also think only the historical South had any Black folks – during slavery or Jim Crow. A lot of that is the same white obsession with Black subservience: white folks out West might think the Confederacy was tacky, but they sure do love casting Black people as slaves and maids. White America forgets Black America, or it gets nostalgic for the antebellum. 

New York and Chicago writers visiting the South on assignment for newspapers and magazines to write about the hopes and heartaches, racism and regrets of white Trump voters rarely mention the Black populations in these impoverished towns; if they do it’s often in passing, as a statistic. Even neo Nazis (from Seattle) get in depth profiles in the New York Times which humanize and individualize them far more than press on Black Americans, from any region. What they get is pitying poverty porn, compassion-less condemnation, or simply nothing at all. 

The Midwest is not a land of only white corn and pig farmers; Ferguson and St. Louis are there. It’s the most segregated part of the country, with the most police shootings resulting in fatalities. There are Black people in the Midwest and there have been. It’s just unrecognized by white America, which thinks of that region like a John Deere ad. I think Black America is surprised Doug Jones won last night because they know voter suppression, and they know how many extra voters it takes to overcome that corruption. But I think white America is shocked because the ones from out the South didn’t know there still were or ever were a million Black Alabamians. 

We need to not forget, and hold other white folks in our circles accountable not to forget. Not just this vote, or last November’s vote. Not all the good things we get from Black people, I fear that plays right into every wrong dynamic. We need to remember that Black people are America, to retrain our minds to include Black people in our mental concept of “everyday Americans”, to look around the rooms we’re in and ask ourselves ” Why aren’t there any Black people here? How is this exclusive or uninviting or inaccessible, and what can we do to change?” Black Alabama just gave the entire United States a viable, incredibly narrow potential path to flipping the Senate in 2018. That would not have been possible without them. The ramifications of last night’s vote may have altered the course of history for the better. Let’s show some gratitude and common decency. 

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Charles and Gig

Charles Manson died this week, at last. He was an older and more shriveled version of the same hateful racist he’d always been, the swastika tattoo on his forehead wrinkled with decades. Fan boys and apologists are quick to point out he didn’t personally stab and dismember the nine murder victims of the Manson Family. As if that made him innocent in their deaths. Although they aren’t the same, my mind has linked my grandmother with Charles so strongly that when I heard of his demise I instantly wondered, Did she die too? Because there are ways they are the same. 

They were born the same year. They both led cults. They persuaded their followers to acts which produced a far greater body count than the number they directly killed on their own. And the first time I learned Manson’s total was “only” nine, my genuine first response was an unholy guffaw and “My grandma’s killed more people than that!”

My grandma didn’t murder anyone. She left sponges in surgical patients as a nurse. She ran into and over a disabled pedestrian as a driver. She oversaw dangerous home births and didn’t transfer to the hospital when things got dicey as a spiritual midwife. She advocated for “a complete withdrawal from the Satanic medical system” in her books as a cult author. And killed more people than Charles Manson in the process, all with the outward demeanor of Little Old Lady – short and round and nonthreatening in every way. 

It’s been a difficult week.  

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 95

Muslim Spain was comprised of distinct eras and groups. The Almoravid period started with Yusuf ibn Tashfin’s military success against King Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile at Seville in 1091 CE. Although most English-language material produced about the Almoravids discusses their time in Spain and legacy there, the Muslims Berbers spent far more time in northwestern Africa, particularly the p western Sahara and Maghreb. Between 1053 and 1059 they dominated the trade routes and passes of the Atlas Mountains. In 1057 the Almoravid founder Abdullah ibn Yasin was killed in battle with the Berghouata confederation, which included the last Jewish Berber tribes. 

Abu Bakr ibn Umar and his cousin Yusuf ibn Tashfin conquered the commercial city of Aghmat in Morocco, and defeated the emir in battle. His widow Zaynab an-Nafzawiyyah inherited his trading fortune – a vast underground cave of gold, silver, and precious gems – becoming one of the wealthiest women of the medieval world. Prior to their marriage she had been a concubine of another tribal leader. The 12th century text Kitab al-Istibsar says “In her time there was none more beautiful nor intelligent nor witty…” Zaynab reportedly had the power to refuse marriage offers and rejected any suitor who did not have the ambition to rule a great empire. She finally selected Abu Bakr and married him in September 1068. He had the designs for the city of Marrakesh drawn up as a gift to her, paid for with her fortune. 

In 1070, a series of revolts broke out in the Saharan Almoravid territories. Abu Bakr appointed his cousin Yusuf as viceroy to manage affairs at home while he led troops to settle things on the borders of civilization. He also made the exceptional decision to divorce Zaynab and have Yusuf marry her in his stead (after the standard three months of legal separation to ensure no pregnancy.) Zaynab divorced Abu Bakr in January, 1071 and married his cousin that May. Yusuf named Zaynab his Queen, which was not an automatic title for the wife of an Islamic king. It denoted respect and her greater influence in state affairs. In fact, Zaynab was so shrewd and her military strategies so successful on the battlefield she earned the sobriquet “The Magician”. Yusuf continued the construction of Marrakesh for his wife Zaynab. 

The Saharan situation had settled by 1072, and Abu Bakr let it be known he was coming home to resume is place. Zaynab reasoned that Abu Bakr could be persuaded to continue the current arrangement, and recommended Yusuf approach him with a combination of firm tone and lavish gifts. It worked; Abu Bakr stayed on the peripheries of the empire, in the desert as he desired but well accommodated. Yusuf and Zaynab kept the palace, the throne, and each other. The Muslim power couple had two known sons, al-Mu’izz Billah and Fadl. Zaynab’s high status set the trend for all Muslim women in the Almoravid empire. Education of girls was nearly as common as education of boys. According to oral histories of Moroccan women passed down until today, at least two women were known to be doctors in the Almoravid period. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 94

Abdullah ibn Yasin was a Sunni Maliki scholar of the Berber Jazulah tribe. In 1040 CE he founded a new religious movement called the Almoravids, based on “encouraging good, forbidding evil, and abolishing un-Islamic taxes.” By partnering with Muslim men of noble (Umayyad) birth and military skill, Abdullah was able to spread his new fervent brand of faith first in Senegal, then the Maghreb, and eventually Spain. Abdullah died in Morocco in 1059, and was succeeded by the cousins Abu Bakr ibn Umar (politically) and Yusuf ibn Tashfin (spiritually and military). Yusuf was a highly competent general, commanding one of the world’s greatest armies with 2,000 black horsemen (who severely intimidated European chroniclers); 6,000 shock troops from Senegal on white Arabian mounts; camels; and 15,000 foot soldiers. The Moroccan Berber Almoravids conquered Fez (1075), Tangier (1079), Tiemcen (1080), Algiers and Ténès (1082), and Oran and Ceuta (1083). North Africa from the Atlantic almost to Egypt was theirs. Umar and Tashfin cofounded the city of Marrakesh as the base of their Morrocon, Almoravid empire.

Al-Andalus had declined from the Golden Age of religious tolerance and a strong central government to finance civic art and architecture projects. After a thirty years regency under a well liked, charismatic imam the country had refused their relatively unknown caliph in favor of local allegiances. The ethnic makeup of Al-Andalus had changed over the last decades, as more Berbers moved north from Africa, often in response to Iberian cries for military aid under Christian attack. In the taifa kingdoms eras, Spain had gone from being mostly Hispano-Muslim to mostly Berber in a single generation, and each region insisted on electing someone from their own district as imam. The Christian kings played the the taifa kings off of each other, gaining territory and gold in the Muslim civil war. None played the game so well as the King of Lèon and Castille Alfonso VI. 

Alfonso’s father Ferdinand I had divided his vast Spanish March territory among his children, bequeathing small kingdoms to his sons and the patronage and incomes of all the monasteries in the land to his unmarried daughters. Alfonso warred with his brothers, and signed peace treaties brokered by his sisters. The Christian countries made vassals of the taifa kingdoms, so that each paid protection money called parias. The wealth and treasures of the Muslim world rapidly migrated north in a few short years, as tributes of ivory and woven carpets joined stacks of dinars and numos de auro (coins of gold) in payments. A system started under Ferdinand was expanded the most by Alfonso. This was essentially a protection racket, and forced the Muslim kingdoms to impose taxes on their people much higher than permitted by Qur’anic law. 

Intra Muslim tensions may have been high – high enough for a fitna and taifa sepatation – but those were nothing compared with the threat of Christian annihilation. That was what the last sovereign taifa king decided, the king of Seville Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad. Al-Mu’tamid held vast territories but the tax burden to Lèon depleted his treasury and he could not support his kingdom’s needs despite very high taxes. He decided to stop paying the parias, knowing it would invoke a military response from Alfonso VI. Al-Mu’tamid wanted to bring in the Almoravids as allies. His son Rashid urged caution, thinking they might want to stay once they got to Spain. 

“I have no desire to be branded by my descendants as the man who delivered Al-Andalus as prey to the infidels. I am loath to have my name cursed in every Muslim pulpit. And, for my part, I would rather be a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.”

– Caliph Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad of Seville, 1091


Rashid was right, of course. Al-Mu’tamid was forced to flee Spain within the year. The Almoravids stopped Alfonso at Seville, and stopped the progression of the Reconquista on several fronts over the next decade. Tashfin expanded the Almoravid empire into Al-Andalus. The focus of this Islamic movement was primarily on Muslims, Muslim behaviors, and Muslim taxes, so Hispano-Jews were not directly targeted by discriminatory laws or policies that we know of. The all-Jewish community of Lucena was required to pay a tribute of 10,000 dinars. This consequence of conquest or minority status was not exceptional or all that different from the parias the Muslims had been paying, or the extra taxes Jews paid in Christian kingdoms. 

Murabitun is another word for Almoravid. This map shows the empire at its largest.

Further ReadingGreer, Margaret R., Walter D. Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan. Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires. University of Chicago Press, 2008. 

Legardère, Vincent. Les Almoravides: Le djihâd andalou (1106-1143). Editions L’Harmattan, 1999. Translated from French. 

Conrad, David C. Empires of Middle West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Infobase Publishing, 2009. 

New World Encyclopedia – Almohad Dynasty

New World Encyclopedia – Almoravid Dynasty

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 93

A grimoire including demonic summoning rituals. Attributed variously to Popes Honorius I and III. And people say history is dull.

Pope Honorius ordered the Archbishop of Toledo to enforce the “Badge of Shame” issued by Spanish authorities in 1218 CE over Jews in Christian Spain. But the Jewish people rebelled, and threatened to take their services and property with them to Muslim controlled Spain, then known as Al Andalusia. The pope and Spanish secular authorities were forced to rescind the enforcement of Shame for a time. The Iberian peninsula and Spanish March countries made sporadic attempts at enforcing sumptuary laws for Jews. The Kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre passed restrictions in 1228 and 1234, respectively. Portugal waited until 1325. In Barcelona in 1397, the consort Queen Maria required all Jews to wear light green with a Jewish badge in the shape of yellow circle with a red bullseye on their chests. Visitors to the city who were caught without the required costume would be stripped, whipped, and fined. 

No sumptuary laws were imposed in Germany until the second half of the 13th century, more than 100 years after the 4th Lateran Council of 1215. Rather than a badge, the high pointed hat Jewish scholars wore to denote wisdom became required rather than voluntary. Looking back at history, European antisemitism is clear and obvious, and ever-present. But the burnings, forced baptisms, expulsions, and accusations of ritual murder were spread out across the continent and British Isle over centuries. When that anti Jewish hatred was particularly intense, some Jews converted or simply professed a conversion to spare their lives while others fled to safer lands. 

Muslim Spain had been a relative refuge for early medieval Jews. The caliphate of Al-Andalus was inherited by Hisham II, who was still a boy, in 976 CE. The true power behind the throne was Al-Mansur ibn Abi Aamir, also written as Almanzor. He kept Hisham and his brother out of the way so that he could run the show, and for 24 years he expanded the boundaries of Al-Andalus to their maximum extent. But upon Almanzor’s death in 1002, the Arab and Berber nobles and generals of the country had no loyalty or deference to the Umayyad family or Caliph Hisham II. As contemporary chronicler Abdullah ibn Buluggin described: 

“When the ‘Amirid dynasty’ [of Al-Mansur] came to an end and the people were left without an imam [leader], every military commander rose up in his own town and entrenched himself behind the walls of his own fortress, having first secured his own position, created hois own army and amassed his own resources. These persons vied with one another for worldly power, and each sought to subdue the other.” 

Al-Andalus broke apart into taifa, warring emirates. Meanwhile in contemporary world events, Pope Urban II had launched Christian Crusaders towards Jerusalem in 1095 with his speech at the Council of Clermont, urging Christian men to reclaim the Holy Land because “God wills it!” Another Christian land reclamation project against Muslims had been focused in the Iberian peninsula since the days of Charlemagne (742-814), the Reconquista of Spanish lands. In the taifa of Cordoba the Berber king and rebels both hired Christian mercenaries to fight for them. The heightened Christian zeal encouraged mercenaries to fight further to the south in Muslim lands they’d previously not visited. Jews generally fought on the side of their Muslim rulers and majority population, rather than the super religiously amped up Christian invaders, for reasons which I hope would be obvious at this point in the series, honestly. 

The taifa kings dwindled from 30 at the dawn of the 11th century to 8 by its close as the strong conquered the weak. But these conquests came at tremendous cost. Mercenaries had been replaced by the Christian nations of the Spanish March, and with each victory over a taifa they took land and spoils, growing Christian territory in the peninsula. Once those March nations had paid duties to Al-Andalus; now taifa kings paid them. In war with each other the Muslim emirs were spending well beyond their means, and bankrupting their tiny kingdoms. To curb the growing Christian influence in Spain, some of the taifa kings in the mid 11th century invited a new, purist brand of Islam Almoravid and its powerful leader, Abdullah ibn Yasin.


Further Reading 

Nirenberg, David. Race and the Middle Ages, Chapter 4: The Case for Spain and Its Jews. University of Chicago, 2007. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 92 

Pope Innocent III died July 16th, 1216 CE. He was succeeded by Pope Honorius III, who was crowned with the papal tiara two days later. Three months after that, on October 18th, 1216, the English King John, who had been at such strife with Innocent for most of his reign, wrote on his death bed making Honorius guardian of his only son Henry. John also made England a vassal of the papacy, in worried hope of his dynasty’s future. Child King Henry III was the Pope’s ward. This was not an uncommon arrangement. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had been the ward of Pope Innocent III once orphaned in 1198; Honorius was his tutor during that period. Although there was an eighteen year age gap between the men, Frederick and Henry were close confidants. In Frederick II’s Crusade letter, he addressed Henry III as his “well-beloved friend” in the flowery prose of the day. 

In Henry’s minority reign the barons didn’t enforce sumptuary laws such as the tabula Jewish badge. However, in 1227 Henry declared himself an adult at 19, two full years ahead of schedule, and without asking or informing his regents first. He further declared all charters were cancelled and must be reapplied for, a way of securing new funds and oaths of fealty. Part of marking himself as an adult king was in showing a greater affection for the papacy, and closer adherence to papal desires. Henry enforced Lateran Council restrictions on Jewish money lending, and in 1253 he ordered the tabula be worn by Jewish men and women over age twelve in a prominent, visible position.

Frederick II did not enforce sumptuary laws in lands of the Holy Roman Empire in his lifetime. He had been King of Sicily since the age of 2, and thought of himself as Sicilian first. In Sicily he required Jews to wear blue badges in the shape of the Greek letter tau and for the men to grow their beards starting in 1221. Other Italian city-states also imposed sumptuary laws. The oldest record of a Jewish badge being enforced in Rome and the Papal States dates to 1257. Jewish men were ordered to wear a yellow circular badge on their chests, while Jewesses were commanded to wear two blue stripes on their veils. In 1360 Roman laws added a coarse red cloak for all Jewish men except physicians, and an apron of the same rough fabric for Jewish women. 

Similar sumptuary laws distinguished “harlots” (the papal term for a sex worker) from “virtuous women”. In Avignon, France both prostitutes and Jews were forbidden from touching food at market; anything they came into contact with they had to buy, on the logic they had profaned it. By the mid 13th century, both social minorities provided medieval Europe with necessary yet resented services: loans and sex were each sins in the eyes of the Church. Teenagers and young adults in the low country valley region of Switzerland, France, and Germany would get drunk in abbayes de jeunesse, abbeys of misrule. On carnival days they would hold their villages ransom and thrash Jews and harlots until a payment was given, all in great festive spirit. The Church’s insistence that prostitutes and Jews be marked with badges made them targets for celebratory violence. 

Rabbis passed a few sumptuary laws themselves. For one thing, they wanted to limit the jealousy of Gentiles and the ostentation of Jewish women for reasons of contemporary gender boundaries. Rabbis placed limits on the height of hair pieces, the depth of necklines, and the fineness of fabrics. Men and women were limited to no more than two silver rings per hand. Another set of related laws were passed relating to Jewish clothing and funeral rites. Not all Jews of the medieval age were wealthy, and in fact a wealth disparity was beginning to grow in the community. This had resulted in a disparity in funeral practices, with the poorest shrouding the faces of their dead but the wealthiest not, because the bodies of the poor showed the ravages of death sooner. To recreate equality among them, the rabbis updated the funeral laws so that the wealthiest Jews should follow the customs that the poorest had to. 


Further Reading 

Mundill, Robin R. England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Google Books

Jones, Sarah Rees, and Sethina Watson, eds. Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Boydell and Brewer, Ltd., 2013. Google Books

Lewis, Matthew. Henry III: The Son of Magna Carta. Amberley Publishing Limited, 2016. 

Church, Stephen. Henry III (Penguin Monarchs): A Simple and God-Fearing King. Penguin Books UK, 2017.

Roth, Norman. “Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages.” My Jewish LearningAccessed 7th November 2017. 

Jewish Encyclopedia – Costume

Jewish Encyclopedia – Sumptuary Laws

Jewish Virtual Library – Jewish Badge  

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 91

Medieval Jewish people in a variety of fashions, via Jewish Encyclopedia

Medieval Jews were minorities in all the lands they lived in, in the Muslim East and Christian West. They generally wore clothing similar to local styles, with long layered dresses and robes favored in northern Europe and Takchita and Jebba preferred in the Maghreb. Wealthy Jews dressed well, in silks and furs popular among the upper class Christians or Muslims around them. Silver and gold jewelry were worn by men and women. Jewesses would dye their hair and use wigs sometimes. In other words, Jewish people were as prone to be fashionable as anyone else. This was a problem for the Catholic Church, which was dedicated to the proposition that Jews were created subservient to Gentiles. 

In 1215 CE, the Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church ordered, in canon 68, that Christian rulers should pass laws making Jews and Saracens (Muslims) visibly distinct from Christians in their clothing. Apparently too many mixed faith romantic liaisons were going on; the Church concluded the Christians involved must have been ignorant of their heathen partners’ faith and that badges for non-Christians were necessary to warn unsuspecting believers away from bad matches. They undoubtedly got this idea from the Muslim ghiyar (distinction) laws sometimes imposed on Jews and Christians under the Pact of Umar. “We order that [Jews and Saracens] of both sexes, in all Christian lands and at all times shall be publicly differentiated from the rest of the population by the quality of their garment…”

The introduction and implementation of these garment laws was by no means uniform. In southern France it was first ordered Jews must wear a badge in the shape of a rotunda or wheel (1217), then the order was rescinded, then reissued (1219), reiterated at many church councils (Narbonne 1227, Rouen 1231, Arles 1234, Béziers 1246, Albi 1254, etc.), then expanded to all of France (1269). The wheel was sometimes imposed on children from age seven and sometimes starting at age thirteen. In certain districts it was yellow while in others it was red and white. King Philip the Fair (1285-1314) taxed Jews annual fees on the wheel shaped badges, which he claimed as Crown property. 

In England things were complicated. Stephen Langton was elected the Archbishop of Canterbury against the wishes of English King John in 1206. King John had been able to keep the Archbishop out of the country during the 3-way contest for the Holy Roman Empire, but once that had settled with Frederick II as winner in 1218, Langton came to Oxford with a series of anti-Jewish reforms. He wanted to ban all synagogue construction, require Jews to be quiet in synagogue so they could not be overheard outside, outlaw the mocking of Christianity, and oh yes, institute a Jewish badge. This one was a tabula, shaped like two stone tablets, representing the Law of Moses or Ten Commandments. As archbishop Langton had the power to pass these laws. 

But as of October 19th, 1216, John was no longer king. He’d been forced to sign the Magna Carta, the Great Charter, to end the First Barons’ War – an uprising by his own high nobility. That document was filled with mundane (therefore historically interesting) details but the crucial, juicy, dripping with history detail was clause 61, known as the security clause. 

“We give and grant to the barons the following security: The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted to them by this charter. If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any articles of the peace or of this security,  and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning  from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon.” 

Take a moment to consider A) how angry King John had made the barons that they had come up with this plan, and B) how out of options he had to be to sign it. Imagine your president or prime minister or king agreeing to this. The observing barons found reason to declare war on his person (but not England) before the ink was dry. Jews were often casualties of the First Barons’ War, and victims of looting and theft. John died in the civil war and his 9-year-old son Henry was crowned amid vows of limited royal power. During Henry’s minority his advisors largely ignored papal dictates to be jerks to Jews, because it was in their own financial interest. Langton’s Oxford decrees of 1218 weren’t strictly imposed: Jews could buy exemption for themselves and their community, so they wouldn’t have to wear the badge. 

Further Reading 

Mundill, Robin R. England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Google Books

Jones, Sarah Rees, and Sethina Watson, eds. Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Boydell and Brewer, Ltd., 2013. Google Books

Roth, Norman. “Jewish Clothing in the Middle Ages.” My Jewish LearningAccessed 7th November 2017. 

Jewish Encyclopedia – Costume

Jewish Encyclopedia – Sumptuary Laws

Jewish Virtual Library – Jewish Badge