Thursday, April 05, 2007


A tale of two peoples

Two peoples are taking note this week of their releases from slavery.

My family is Jewish, and this week, with Passover, they, and Jews the world over, are commemorating the exodus from Egypt, thousands of years ago. It's an eight-day festival, but most know it primarily by the two ritual meals, the seders, on the first and second nights (this Monday and Tuesday). The table is filled with symbols, symbols of tears and bitterness, of toil, of rebirth and the sweetness of freedom. The ritual explains the symbols and tells the story, from the biblical book of Exodus, of the slavery and oppression, of the intercession by God, of the ten plagues that finally convinced the Egyptian Pharaoh to release the Jews, of their flight, their years in the wilderness, their receipt of the Ten Commandments.

And it's all told with a detachment that comes from the passage of thousands of years. It's told in a mixture of fact and legend while reclining over wine and an abundant meal, with laughter and song and a hide-and-seek game for the children... but designed so the children will remember the story and pass it on, and so it will never be forgotten.

African-Americans also look at their time in slavery as we all remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, this week in 1968. For those Americans the memory is more recent: slavery ended in the United States less than 150 years ago, and black Americans from my generation were the first not to have first-hand accounts of life as slaves. Wounds that new don't afford the luxury of rumination over wine and feasting. There's no detachment there. And this story, too, will never be forgotten.

Yesterday, on the anniversary of Dr King's death, NPR told us about Kara Walker, a black artist who, working in cut-out silhouettes, has created a show of sometimes disturbing images that make us all think about how it was 150 years ago and more.

Her show, “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love”, is on display now in Minneapolis. It's going to Paris after that, and then New York City and Los Angeles. This won't be Ms Walker's first time showing in New York: here's a review of her 2006 show at the Met. This new show will be at the Whitney Museum from 11 Oct to 3 Feb, and I plan to see it there.

1 comment:

Polly Poppins said...

Only recently, I was given the opportunity to read a publicity copy of "That Mean Old Yesterday," a memoir by Stacey Patton.

Patton, a 29-year-old historian and survivor of a brutal childhood, links the hands-on and in-your-face style of childrearing associated with the black community to Jim Crow and slavery. She presents overwhelming evidence for her conclusions.

I would say it is coincidence that your description echoes what I read in Patton's book but the truth is that ever since I read the first chapter, I have had "That Mean Old Yesterday" on the brain.

I got my hands on this book by chance (it won't even be on the market until September), and it wasn't something I would have chosen for myself, but it changed the way I understand race, family, and community.

I know I sound like I'm hawking this book, and maybe I am, but I don't have a dog in this race. I just got my mind changed about what I thought I knew. And now I feel the compulsion to tell other people.

I know I have a naive tendency toward idealism, but I believe that if this book gets the right attention, it could do some serious good and cause a cultural shift. The last time I felt that way was the first time I read Howard Zinn.