I was delighted by the current Netflix movie You People, in which Lauren London and Jonah Hill play a black/Jewish couple trying to deal with the fact that her father and his mother are Eddie Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus respectively, which would be hard for any comic actor to survive. The film swaggers and stumbles rather courageously and very amusingly into a wasp's nest of cultural conflicts.
You People has received mixed reviews, and on social media London's role has been particularly excoriated; she previously dated the rappers Lil Wayne and Nipsey Hussle, and Black Twitter seemed to think that Hill was a pasty and implausible follow-up. On the other hand, in the film, her character marries Hill's character. London, as far as I know, isn't marrying Hill.
The history of Black/Jewish relations and relationships is a classic American mess, a rich and contested terrain, which Iwon’t be able to set to rest here. But I want to qualify one of the criticisms: that the film's central relationship was unrealistic in virtue of the identities of the people involved. My criticism of the film is that even though it shows many of the difficulties that might arise, it tacks on a superficial happy ending. But Lauren London's own mother is Black and her father is Jewish (not that it's impossible to be both), so the whole thing (except the ending) probably seems quite possible to her. It does to me.
In 1943 in Chicago, my grandfather Murray (or Meyer) Gitlin, a Jewish novelist, married Thyra Edwards, a Black activist. Edwards' astonishing life had taken her from poverty as the granddaughter of slaves in segregated Dallas (b. 1897) to world travel and eminent achievement in several different lines. She helped organize a domestic workers union. She traveled the world as a socialist lecturer and tour guide, leading groups through Europe, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, and parts of Africa. She was a teacher, social worker, writer.
Thyra Edwards fought against American racism her whole life. In the 1930s, she wrote for Black newspapers, delivering dispatches from around the world to the Amsterdam News in Harlem and the Chicago Defender, among others. She was close to the novelist Richard Wright (who interviewed her for the Daily Worker in the 1930s), W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and many other Black artists and leaders of the period. According to her biographer, she "almost certainly" had an ongoing affair in the 1930s with A. Philip Randolph, leader of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
I've just found a cache of her papers at my mother's house. Any brief sketch leaves out most of this unbelievable life. She drove an ambulance for the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. A year after marrying Murray, working as a reporter, she confronted Free French leader Charles de Gaulle at a press conference in DC about the future of France's colonial possessions in Africa. By the end of her life, she was under constant FBI surveillance. Also, she looked strikingly like Lauren London.
I'm not sure how her people may have regarded the marriage to my grandfather in 1943, but it's possible that someone was shaking his head and going "A. Philip Randolph [a la Nipsey Hussle] to Murray Gitlin [a la Jonah Hill]: it just doesn't make any sense." Perhaps not, but it's true. And it makes some sense too.
Murray Gitlin was an American Jewish writer, born 1901. Perhaps Hill's podcasts are the contemporary version of Gitlin's short stories of the 1930s. His first wife (my mother's mother Hilda) was the daughter of Herman Bernstein, a conservative Zionist who was also Herbert Hoover's official biographer and later ambassador to Albania. But Murray and Hilda rebelled against their parents, and were the sort of radicals who rejected the institution of marriage as a bourgeois plot. They’d split by the mid-1930s.
I think that Murray and Thyra met when they were both living in a Settlement House in Chicago, working in anti-racist and socialist organizing. Eventually, they lived in an apartment near Washington Square in New York that my mother remembers as a hub of the Black arts scene.
After the Second World War, Murray and Thyra moved to Italy to help Jewish refugees, if necessary by enabling them to emigrate illegally to what was becoming the state of Israel. Thyra's writings and speeches at this time define her position as "anti-fascism and anti-racism." She constantly connects European anti-Semitism to American anti-Black racism as the same sort of thing. She worked as a Communist, but also as a Zionist, and dedicated what turned out to be the last years of her life fighting for Jewish rights.
That's despite the fact that she was ignored, cut off, and ridiculed by most of Murray's family, such as my great-Uncle Bernie, who ran a sporting goods store in Hartford. They refused, my mother says, to come to the wedding celebration in New York (though my dear Aunt Anya showed up and she and Thyra became close friends).
I'm less sure about how her family felt, but her father is portrayed in family lore rather like Murphy's character: an implacable Black identitarian. And what were people like Richard Wright saying? She must’ve lost some friends. When they got together they certainly what they were in for.
While working in Italy, Thyra was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mother Joyce, who's 97 and with whom I've been talking about Thyra Edwards for weeks now, loved her stepmother. According to Joyce, the family couldn't find decent medical care for a Black woman in New York City in 1953. She remembers a dormitory-like situation in which a dozen or more black women were dying on cots in a large room in Brooklyn, with no professional medical care. She's told me that story my whole life; now this traumatic image infests my head too.
What that could’ve been like for my grandfather is hard to fathom. It seems to me now that Murray Gitlin and Thelma Edwards were very brave people.
From their relationship and work in Italy, my grandfather derived his best novel: The Embarkation. And at Thyra's funeral, my mother tells me, Thyra's "best friend," the great jazz pianist Hazel Scott, played a new composition and accompanied world superstar Paul Robeson as he sang a hymn. Langston Hughes (who was among her closest friends) and Gwendolyn Brooks read poems they’d written for her. That I was born five years too late to attend still fills me with sad yearning.
But this isn't about me. It's about Lauren London and Jonah Hill, or at least their characters. And I say to them: you crazy kids just keep right on trying. Someone will figure out this Black/Jewish thing eventually.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell