Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday that recounts the story of Exodus, begins tonight. During this time it's instructive to note that until recently African Americans and Jews had a rather close relationship. Or at least their leadership organizations did. Popular wisdom at the time said their bond was based on a shared history of slavery and of being oppressed.
But there were other more specific similarities: For instance, the equivalent of pogroms in America where whites would burn down black sections of a town, and gruesome experiments reminiscent of the ones conducted in WWII concentration camps. Harriet Washington, in her book, Medical Apartheid, wrote that in the 1960s and 70s Mississippian, Orlando J. Andy, a neurosurgeon, cut out portions of the brains of African-American boys to see how it would affect them.
The most resonate similarity to my mind, however, is the statelessness of American blacks and, until recently, Jews. Jews had been without a physical homeland for centuries until 1948, with the founding of Israel.
Even with the recent advent of DNA testing, which enables black Americans to trace our ancestry to specific ethnic groups in Africa, we have no handed down traditions of that culture, so the connection to our distant forebears is tenuous. And the average black American has not had the benefit of a DNA test. Ask him where his African forebears come from, and the likely answer is, "I don't know."
This is where Passover comes in, with its Haggadah, the guide to the ritual of the observance, and a recounting of the story of the flight of enslaved Jews out of Egypt. Jonathan Safran Foer, an author and editor of New American Haggadah, notes in an essay in the New York Times that the story of Exodus must be "wrestled with," which I take to mean one must struggle with giving the journey meaning. Mr. Foer quotes the Haggadah: "In every generation a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out of Egypt."
Clearly black people are not yet out of Egypt. The recently passed New York state law allowing DNA samples to be taken when a person is convicted of most misdemeanors, the "stop and frisk" policy of the New York City police department, the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing strip searches of people arrested for even most minor infractions all have or will disproportionately affect black people. We must wrestle with that.
What I remember most from the Passover Seders I was invited to as a teenager was the phrase near the end of the ceremony, "Next year in Jerusalem." That phrase inspired me during the many years it took to get my first book published, and it reminds me of how black people have kept the faith despite the loss of our African civilizations, and throughout our ups and downs in this country -- from slavery to reconstruction to post-reconstruction, from the civil rights era to where we now seem headed.
In my book, Black Pearls, I quote the civil rights and children's advocate, Marian Wright Edelman:
We never lost hope... because we had adults who gave us a sense of a future -- and black folk had an extra lot of problems, and we were taught that we could struggle and change them.
So, let our action for today be to affirm our individual and communal African-American power to seize and create opportunities for a better life.