Michael Twitty, a two-time James Beard award winner, published author, spoke at Goucher College on the evening of April 17. An all-around impressive guy, he was wearing an electric blue shirt emblazoned with orange stars of David, so he was hard to miss.
Twitty, an energetic speaker with an easy smile, was born a storyteller. He was energized by the laughter and excitement of the crowd. He’s a quick wit too, constantly spitting out spur-of-the-moment jokes and “throwing shade” back at rowdy audience members.
But don’t let his manner and energy fool you. Twitty was there to talk about something serious. He wanted to talk about identity.
Goucher Hillel, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and the Center for Race, Equity & Identity cosponsored Twitty’s appearance as part of a larger initiative to forge connections across identities of race and religion. Previously, an interfaith group including Jewish and African American students took a weekend trip to DC to visit the Holocaust Museum and the African American History Museum and to engage in conversations about identity, race, and cultural experience. Michael Twitty’s speech, a follow up to the trip, was a further exploration of identity on the Goucher campus for the trip members and additional students who attended the talk.
“Everyone is intersectional. Intersectional does not mean being the Madagascan, lesbian, dwarf rabbi of your dreams,” Twitty told the crowd. “Everybody since the beginning of history has had multiple identities, has had layers of identity…and if you are not intersectional, you’re trying really hard not to be an American, because that’s what the possibility of this place is.”
On his own journey, Twitty said he has encountered many people who challenge or reject his identities as a black, gay, Jewish man. In one instance, a potential publisher of his book, “The Cooking Gene,” asked Twitty to play down his Jewish identity in the book and in life.
“And one publisher, one very well-known publisher said, ‘Yeah, this is all great, but that Jewish stuff, ehh.’ And it wasn’t someone who wasn’t Jewish themselves but the whole idea was ‘we just want you to be our black author,’” Twitty said.
When he pushed back against the impositions of the publisher, “The lead publisher said, with a nervous laugh, ‘Well America’s not ready for you,’” Twitty recalled.
“And those same people were there at the James Beard award, when I won twice,” Twitty said, snapping his fingers and shaking his head. “So we don’t need gatekeepers to tell us as people who are niche or small or minority that we exist. You just need to assert your existence and not let someone else define it. That’s what power is. That’s where power starts: self-definition.”
Twitty also touched upon the uncomfortable divide that can arise between white Jews and Jews of color. While Jews of color have existed and practiced all around the world for millennia, he said many modern white Jews don’t necessarily recognize Jews of color as part of the Jewish community.
“My favorite thing is this. Walk into a shul on Friday or Saturday and you say ‘Shabbat Shalom’ and someone says ‘thanks.’ What? Thanks? What does that mean? What it means is that they don’t accept you. You’re not one of them. They don’t perceive you as one of them.”
Further, Twitty said, he’s often in the defensive position, needing to prove his Jewishness to others.
“When I’ve gone to Israel, you know what I carry with me at all times? My conversion certificate. Like a damn runaway slave,” he said.
As the evening came to a close, Twitty brought food back into the mix.
“Food for me is a really important thing,” he said. “It’s a way of teaching people about who we are, where we come from, what we have in common, what we need to resolve.”