Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Let's Not Go There

Theoretically I was the Computer Literacy teacher. In reality, however, it was a cover for me teaching my students about life. Just ask any of the many students I taught over the course of my 19-year teaching career. Sure, some of them will mention learning certain keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word, or how to create a computer dating program that took into account the sexual orientations and gender identifications of the clients, but they’ll also talk about the things that weren’t really part of lesson plan for the day (although, I’ll have to say that we learned an awful lot from that computer dating program).

One of those lessons came the day that one of my students asked what afro-centrism was. It had absolutely nothing to do with that day’s lesson on spreadsheets; but Zach wanted to know, and as I looked around the classroom of mostly white faces, I decided to answer.

I explained that based on my experience growing up in the 70s, at the height of the Black Pride movement, afro-centrism was the idea that “we” black people invented everything and that “you” white people either stole it from us or took the credit for it. I explained with a bit of sarcasm that it was sort of like Soviet history, where in their official history books, you could see that they had claimed to invent things long before we had. It was sort of like that line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where Gorkon says, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”

I mean, I’m all for being proud of your people and what they’ve accomplished, but some things are just going a bit over the top. The particular manifestation of afro-centrism that I grew up with was one of them.

But wait, there’s more.

You see, one of the key points of the afro-centrism of the 1970s was that we were all descended from kings and queens in Egypt. Well…OK…yeah, Egypt is on the African continent, but regionally, most people consider it to be part of the Middle East. Also, most African Americans are descended from sub-Saharan Africans, not Egypians. Furthermore, if you asked any Egypians if they were related to us, they’d turn up their noses and say, “Yeah, right.” But we chose Egypt as our rallying point because it had one of the most advanced civilizations in the region with much to be proud of…the pyramids, the Sphinx, the ancient hieroglyphics. Who wouldn’t want to claim that as part of their heritage as an alternative to 250 years of bondage and another 100 of institutionalized mistreatment? But it was a false, or at least mistaken, heritage.

Besides, there was something else to consider.

As I looked around the room again, and at the one black student, and many Jewish students, in the room, I said:

But if we’re gonna say that we’re descended from Egyptians…and not just from regular everyday walking around Egyptians, but from kings and queens in Egypt, the people with power; then there’s a dirty little secret that we need to own up to.

We owned slaves.

And not only that, but we owned slaves that we treated so badly that God had to rescue them. Quite frankly, I don’t think we really want to go there.

Really. Think about it. The whole reason for the exodus is based on the idea that the Egyptians were horribly cruel to the Hebrew slaves, and that God raised up a leader in Moses to get them the heck outta there.

And as I said, all that wonderful culture aside, I don’t think I’d want to be taking responsibility for that.

However, whether it was “us” or someone else, the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt, and that’s why my…our…Jewish friends are celebrating Passover this week.

And to them I say, “Chag sameach!”

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