Who Are We NOT? Isn’t It Time 4

Re-reading Exodus for 2023 continues with a look at Who We Are NOT in the Exodus and Passover story.

Isn’t It Time? Episode 4

Sources referenced are linked in a Sefaria Sheet.

Publisher’s info for Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington DC, cited also in Episode 2 and likely to come up again. DC Public Library has a few copies, check out other libraries. The piece cited here is “Representations of Change: Gentrification in the Media” by Katie Wells and Gabriella Modan. Full article available for download.

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary (Stein & Day, 1974) is not easy to find. But used copies do appear from time to time. More quotations are included in Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia.

Podcast Transcript

Biblical Joseph

In his book, Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, Dick Gregory — who was born in 1932 and died in 2017, his memory for a blessing — discusses the biblical Joseph. Gregory begins his commentary with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests.
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary. (Stein & Day, 1974), p.70

Gregory goes on to say that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “experienced all the ways society tries to deal with dreamers,” concluding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Note that MLK is introduced here without explicit reference to race; this passage portrays the leader as a dreamer who treaded in dangerous political territory. Today, as in 1974, readers of many backgrounds can relate to a system that tries to destroy dreams by attacking dreamers.

Then Gregory shifts to a more racially explicit perspective: “maybe Joseph was a Black cat.” He continues, regarding Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40):

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpreter of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.
America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
— Bible Tales, p.73

Many readers can relate to feelings of being ill-used. But here Gregory specifically references experience of Black people enslaved in the U.S. and their descendants. If this is not our direct experience, we must recognize what we know and what we don’t.

Thoughts and a Question to Consider:

Non-Black Jews might have experiences of oppression and carry generational trauma. We can learn from others. But that does not make us first-hand experts on topics like “America’s treatment of Black folks.”

Non-Jewish folks might have experiences of oppression, carry generational trauma, and can learn from Jews. But non-Jews are not first-hand experts on topics like “alarm bells that anti-Jewish conspiracy raise for me.”

How do we speak and write so as to distinguish shared, or universal, experiences from more particular ones?

NOTE: Given current events, in the State of Israel and the US today, it’s important to note that recognition of alarm bells, oppression and trauma must be separated from public policy…

Gentrification’s Agents

It is important to distinguish shared experiences from more universal ones when talking about the histories and possible futures of our communities. Having some ideas of who we are and who we are not is crucial for understanding our roles in gentrification, in particular.

Two scholars studied linguistic choices in journalism and public discourse around gentrification, and their research appears in the “Representations of Change: Gentrification in the Media” chapter of Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington DC. The authors — Gabriella Modan, associate professor of English at Ohio State, and Katie Wells, now a geographer at Georgetown University — argue that gentrification is often portrayed as “an autonomous force of nature,” akin to a hurricane, to which people can only respond, rather than shape.

Discussion of gentrification, they write, often centers around signifiers instead of actors:

bodies — youth, exercise preferences, food ways

built environment — “eating and drinking establishments, yoga studios…dog parks.”

culture — Chocolate City becoming vanilla swirl

“The focus on cultural markers of gentrification,” they write, “serves either to portray long-term Black residents in a deeply nostalgic light, or to characterize new wealthy and/or White residents as alien entities with incomprehensible ways.” (p.322-3)

In addition, agency is regularly disguised by use of passive voice and other semantic choices:

For example —

  • “the site will bring a grocery and retailers” — as though the place were the actor;
  • “population growth brought residents with more income and education” — as though resultant growth were the actor.

Modan and Wells stress two points that bring us back to the concept of who we are and who we are not.

First: “…personal choices of individuals to move into neighborhoods where they have more economic and/or symbolic capital than current residents do not adequately explain how gentrification happens.”

Second: “political and business players” — as well as cultural actors — have crucial roles in “creating, sustaining, and strengthening gentrification.” (p.321)

The authors believe that different linguistic choices can reframe how we understand the causes and effects of structural inequalities. With this in mind, we might profitably examine our own language, and language we encounter, to clarify our choices as individual economic actors and as political, business, and/or cultural actors….And, while God and Pharaoh are the biggest players in early chapters of Exodus, we would benefit from clarifying the roles of other agents at work in the story.

Subscribe at Rereading4Liberation.com or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

It’s Adar! Time to increase our joy by joining in reflection and action that builds for a better future.

This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?”


Published by vspatz

Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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