Egypt: Let MY People Go

02/04/2011 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since January 25, the words of the old spiritual "Go Down Moses" have haunted me. When I was first taught this song I sang it remembering my ancestors who escaped the chains and dehumanizing cruelty of slavery centuries ago. Yet, over the last several days, as I and the rest of the world have turned our eyes to the amazing demonstrations that have grown into a full fledged Egyptian revolution, I have sung those lyrics as a type of prayer for the Egyptian people.

"Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell ol' Pharaoh, to let my people go."

Yet, each time I come upon the end of that brief refrain, "Let my people go," I am challenged by the question, "Are these my people?"

I suppose the question betrays an interesting aspect of humanity. Our affection and natural care are most readily saved for those we closely associate with or have something in common with. Because of distance and a lack of familiarity, we may feel excused from caring or being concerned because, well, they're not our people. One of the great challenges of life is loving those whom we are not expected to love. So again, am I supposed to love the Egyptians? Are these my people?

In addition to the question of the interconnectedness of humanity, this question presents me as an African-American with an interesting diasporic challenge. One of the questions that many of my Black friends and colleagues have been wrestling with is "Are Egyptians Africans?" And if so, should one who feels a type of Pan-African connection with, for example, Ghana, Ethiopia, or South Africa, also feel the same affection or loyalty to Egypt or a nation like Libya? It seems that Egypt is portrayed as a Middle Eastern nation more consistently than it is portrayed as an African nation. Perhaps this can be attributed to the shared language of Arabic (though many Sub-Saharan individuals speak Arabic and not everyone from the Middle East speaks the language). Or maybe it could be the shared practice of Islam (though there are some Egyptians who are not Muslim and there are certainly many other Africans who are). Perhaps there are other reasons.

Still, to me Egypt is a part of my heritage. For all my life, during Black History Month, I was not only exposed to African-American women and men who have been history makers, but I was told about African leaders, African writers, African artists, and African civilizations, including Egypt. I will never forget looking at pictures of Egyptian kings and queens with pride. Egypt is a part of my -- though perhaps distant -- heritage.

But is that enough to make the millions of men and women demonstrating in Cairo and Alexandria for change -- my people? Is all of that enough to make me actually... care? And what about those of us who have no ties to Egypt or Africa? Why should we invest any care beyond the normal intellectual interest in current events? Why should we consider Egyptians to be our people?

Every few months it seems that there is another major event somewhere around the globe that draws the attention of our news media. Whether it is an earthquake, a tsunami, genocide being exposed to the world, a fast spreading outbreak of a disease, the threat of war between two nations, or something else newsworthy, we are presented with this challenge:

Why should we care about this distant group of people and what they are going through when it has no perceived direct connection to our lives?

On February 1st, the day that Mubarak announced that he would not be seeking reelection as President of Egypt, the day that also happens to be the first day of Black History Month, I began to really care about what was going on in Egypt. They became my people.

One of my students at the university -- a wonderfully bright international student who was born and raised in Egypt -- asked if we could talk after class. Ironically, in class we were discussing "privilege" and how the ability to not care or be aware of the plight of certain groups of people is indeed a certain type of privilege.

When I walked into the room where we were meeting, she sat in the dark staring at the screen of her laptop watching live video footage of the protests back home. As I got closer I saw tears streaming down her face.

After I turned on the lights and sat down, we kept the live video feed open while we spoke -- both of us gazing back and forth between the face in front of us and the innumerable crowd of faces on the computer. She spoke of her desire to be there peacefully demonstrating, adding her voice to the calls for change. She spoke of her longing to be with her brother and her mother, who's sacrificed and worked so hard for her family as a single parent. She educated me about the frustration that many in Egypt feel as they try to navigate their daily lives while living in poverty.

The frown betraying her sadness, shifted to a look of resolve as she testified to the painful disparity between the rich and the poor, the disheartening political corruption, and the lack of potential for change with the current leadership in the country.

"I want to be there" she said.

I responded by telling her that she was there. Her heart was there waving an Egyptian flag, chanting for change in her homeland. That she could be there with them even if she was not physically present. That even from afar, they are her people.

And then something strange happened. I was crying too. I thought at first that my tears stemmed from my sympathy for my student. But when I looked at the computer screen, I didn't see a foreign nation that happened to be headlining U.S. news reports, I saw fellow humans. I saw my people.

The transition from interesting current event to a people group that I now stand in solidarity with was not the result of my remembering that Egypt is in Africa. It resulted from my feeling my student's anguish, her hope and her love for her country -- and love is contagious. I saw her and her people not as something different than myself, but rather as humans. And I am human too. A change in Egypt is a change for me here in the states as well.

This is a challenge for those of us who do not have loved ones on the ground, or those of us who know little of Egyptian history, little of their current economic situation, or political climate. Our challenge is to care anyway. To recognize that even though we are not Egyptian, we are connected to the millions of people hoping for a new day in that ancient land. That just because we did not suffer in the earthquake, tsunami, genocide, or wars, that others around the world have -- that doesn't mean that our future is not tied up with those who did.
The people that you see on the screen are in so many ways, you and I. They also want a better future for their children. They've also fallen in love. They also want to be successful in life, try new things, enjoy the beauty of art, travel and meet new people. They too are family people, single parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents. They are human just like you and me.

That is reason enough to care. And yet, perhaps more compelling is the fact that their future is integrally connected to ours. What happens in any part of the world affects everyone else around the planet, whether we see it or not. While we may not be able to control or even influence how things play out, what we can control is our hearts and whether we care or not. And that does make a difference.

Now as I sing the words "Let my people go," I will sing them loud enough to join my voice with those in the streets of Egypt. You may not know much about the political situation over there, or much about Egyptian culture or history. What you can know is that our future is connected to theirs and from that knowledge you and I can care and sing.