Carolivia Herron: Finding Answers in Judaism District Author-educator Celebrates Dual Identities
When she was 3 years old, Carolivia Herron witnessed the death of her baby brother – at the hand of a relative, she maintains, although no crime was ever reported. Although she says this terrible thing was “the event of my life,” she also says, “It “kick-started my career. … I wrote my first poem at age 4 to try to get a handle on it.” And her subsequent quest to grasp the problem of evil led to her puzzling many adults. “Not many adults realized that I read the Bible straight through around age 6 or 7,” Herron, 58, says, recalling that her early reading skills were fostered by her father, Oscar, “a brilliant man … with only a high school education,” who used to read Greek classic literature to her as a child. She read both the Christian and Hebrew bibles. “I found most troubling the story of Abraham and Isaac,” recalls the District resident and author. “Why would God ask anyone to kill his own son?”
Questioning her Baptist Sunday school teachers, she did not get answers that satisfied her. As she grew older, she developed a great curiosity to meet a Jew, she says, having never known any growing up in Northeast’s Mayfair Mansions neighborhood. At 10, she finally met one – a Jewish grocer in the neighborhood. “The other neighborhood children did not like him,” Herron says, but she went right up to him and asked, “Have you met Moses?” Her forthright curiosity led to a special relationship between herself and the grocer, whom she describes as the first white person who did not scare her. In fact, she adds, she did not even think of him as white.
In the 1960s, as schools nationwide integrated, Herron met more Jews in junior high and high school when her family moved farther uptown to what had been a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Herron credits a Jewish school chum for sensitizing her about issues of “otherness” among Jews when he clued her in on how uncomfortable many of the Jewish students were when they heard their new black schoolmates sing Christmas carols. After she went to college at D.C.’s predominantly black Howard University, Herron says she became completely “disenchanted” with her Baptist faith. Still, when protesting students shut the District university down, Herron went on to Eastern Baptist College in Wayne, Pa., to earn a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Remaining in Pennsylvania, she later earned two master’s degrees in the field of literature and a doctorate in literary theory from the University of Pennsylvania in 1985.
A few years later, Herron took up Judaic studies while a visiting scholar at Massachusetts’ Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge and at Newton’s Hebrew College. Around this time, she had an epiphany while attending Baptist church services. “I don’t belong to this congregation,” she found herself thinking. So Herron began studying Judaism under a rabbi to prepare for conversion, completing the process with a bat mitzvah ceremony at Harvard Hillel a year later, in 1994. Now a member of the District’s Conservative Tifereth Israel Congregation, Herron says she has found in Judaism more satisfying answers to the questions she has struggled with throughout her life, such as the problem of evil. She says she feels in sync with the notion that people – not God – do evil because of their free will. “And I love the concept of God-wrestling,” she says. Instead of meekly accepting God’s will, “God wants us to fight with him,” Herron says with a certain amount of glee.
Her synagogue activities include serving on its social action committee and welcoming new congregation members who are Jews of color. That reiterates the message of the “Jewish-Africana” listserv – an online discussion group she created more than a decade ago that “Jews come in all colors.” Initially, says Herron, the listserv – with the motto, “We’re 100 percent both,” black and Jewish – attracted “mostly scholars and mostly African Americans” of Jewish descent from intermarried families. Any conflicts over identity or Jewish-black relations, she says, “have come from outside the group,” not within it, where its members accept one another in a welcoming online ambiance dedicated to understanding both cultures. Yet, in its early days, she recalls, “A lot of people joined, not always with the best intentions.”
Some gained access to the group in order to harass members and spread messages of intolerance. These people were never Jews, Herron adds, but sometimes ranted about Christianity. Today, says Herron, its members come from across the country, blacks, whites and “even a few Israelis.” Dedicated to exploring diversity in Judaism, Herron last month led a class in “Jewish-Africana Midrash” at the Philadelphia-based National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute in Rindge, N.H. She returned home in time to take part in Tifereth Israel’s Tisha B’Av services, where she sang a Sephardic version of North African trop, Torah chant, from Morocco, which she taught herself from a CD.
Herron’s musical interests are not confined to trop. Last year, she created a libretto for the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, a work titled Journies of Phillis Wheatley. Next Tuesday, Herron is set to teach a creative Jewish writing workshop at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, through the Jewish Study Center. She also is preparing to teach classic literature this fall at Montgomery College, at its Takoma Park and Rockville campuses. Meanwhile, Herron also does duty on the board for Jews United for Justice, running its text study program, and just became the fiction editor for Bridges, a Jewish feminist journal based out of Indiana University. The author has sometimes focused her writings’ themes on celebrating diversity, rather than fearing “otherness,” a lesson she learned from the Jewish grocer and Jewish students she met as a youngster. Her first, once-controversial, now popular 1997 children’s book, Nappy Hair, was a joyful paean to a black child’s naturally unruly, nappy (kinky) hair. (She based the girl character with the nappy hair on herself.)
Her first novel for adults, Thereafter Johnnie, published six years earlier, treated the theme more somberly. In the futuristic novel, the downfall of a black middle-class family in a dying city – Washington, D.C. – showed how the failure to deal with “otherness” leads to “moral decay and destruction,” Herron explains. A new fictionalized autobiography she is working on may shed some light, perhaps, on Herron’s own epic family history. That history, which she first learned at her great-grandmother’s knee – which she had supposed was a “fairy tale” when she first heard it, but has since researched – includes a great-great-great-great-grandmother named Sarah Bat Asher, who was apparently Jewish. That ancestor, from a Mediterranean country, had been abducted by Barbary Coast pirates, escaped, made her way to America in 1805, and settled into the Georgia Sea Islands. Her progeny married into the free blacks, the Geechee people, who lived there.
The story, Herron says, led her to conclude that her ancestors had not been slaves, as she had supposed growing up. She believes it also explains why her Methodist grandmother lit Shabbat-like candles on Friday nights, even though her grandmother herself did not have a firm explanation for why she carried on the custom. Herron explains that although religious customs of the slaves were systematically stamped out by their owners, religious freedom persevered among free blacks like the Geechees and their cultural cousins, the Gullahs of the Carolina islands. In this way, some Jewish practices seem to have trickled down through her family tree. Herron plans to title her forthcoming book Peacesong, a rough translation of the author’s own first name. “Carol is a song,” she says. “Olivia refers to the olive branch of peace.”