Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 14, 2008

The Original Slave Narrative

I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of slavery; and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you … Judges 6: 8b-9a

On my only trip to Egypt, in the early nineties, I went to the Egyptian Museum to see the terrific archaeological artifacts on display there. (I even got to see King Tut’s treasures without standing in line or paying a separate fee!) One of the more intriguing moments of that trip, however, involved an African-American family who were there at the same time, as I momentarily caught a glimpse of the world through their eyes.

While looking at one of the ancient paintings, I overheard the father say to his family something to the effect of: “Look at that hair and that face. Ain’t nobody gonna tell me that’s not an African face.” The mother nodded her head, but there was little response beyond that. But there was understanding all around: it was something to be proud of, a possible connection to these noble, powerful people from the northeastern corner of the “Dark Continent”.

For me, standing several feet away and minding my own business, it was an eye-opening moment as well.

Not being Jewish, or black, I can never understand racism or slavery in the way that most people who have that ancestry understand it. Not that I can’t speak out against it. It’s just that when it comes to the pain, shame and multi-generational issues of identity associated with slavery or anti-Semitism, I’m on the outside looking in. I have no subjective experience to add to my historical knowledge.

I also caught a glimpse of those identity issues by watching a documentary series on PBS last night. African American Lives 2, co-produced and hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard, takes the genealogical and historical research impulse of Alex Haley’s Roots to the next level. By adding genetics to other proven methods of historical research, Gates goes on a journey of identity and takes nine other African Americans, both prominent and ordinary, on journeys of their own. Actor Don Cheadle, for example (co-producer and star of Hotel Rwanda), is visibly moved to find out that some of his people came from Cameroon. It is like the Red Sea parts, as if Cheadle is momentarily and powerfully delivered back to the rich soil of his ancestors, out of the complications and frustrations of life as a black man in this “alien” land where he was born.

I have experienced bondage and deliverance as well, in the theological sense of being delivered from sin through Jesus. It’s a similar experience, but it’s not the same. It may not even be useful to compare pain, or to equate the experience of the ancient Hebrew people to that of African Americans. But I can at least be grateful that they led the way. They are my Simon of Cyrene. When I take up the cross that I have been given to bear today, I have that great cloud of witnesses, the slaves of the past, empathizing with me, carrrying it with me, bearing me up. That gives me a bit more strength. If my spiritual forefathers went through so much more and survived, then I can certainly handle this little struggle here.


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