This episode continues our focus on who is telling a story and why, beginning with a look at multiple paths INTO Mitzrayim and consideration of an imaginary “Realtors of Pitom.”
Episode 12, Isn’t It Time
The last episode of Isn’t It Time? turned our focus to who is telling a story and why. This episode continues this theme, beginning with a look at multiple paths INTO Mitzrayim.
Two roads to Mitzrayim are explicitly outlined in the first verses of Exodus:
Now these are the names of the sons of Yisrael, who came into Mitzrayim with Jacob…Exodus 1:1-5
…and Joseph was in Mitzrayim already —
The path of Mitzrayim-ites, presumably in the land for many generations, is never made explicit.
Joseph’s path involves ups and downs (which he and the narrator understand as divine plan): arrival in Mitzrayim as property, “success” in service to a palace household, years in prison, and finally Pharaoh’s exalted second in command. In this last position, he engineers a national economic shift — brilliant strategy for managing a deepening famine and/or a huge land- and resource-grab for the crown. Through all these ups and downs, however, Pharaoh is never down….until Exodus 13.
At the start of Exodus we are told that after Joseph dies, the king who didn’t know him initiates a path bringing the Yisrael-ites to Pharaoh’s store-cities, Ramses and Pitom (Ex 1:11). What might we find, some decades down that path?
Imagine for a moment, a realtor selling high-end dwellings in the city of Pitom, where enslaved people were forced to build. Then take a look at the DC-area public television program, “If You Lived Here,” launched during the pandemic (2021). The first episodes of this series are case studies in residential displacement, gentrification through erasing existing local commerce, and consequences of promoting density as a purported solution for increased affordable housing.
Episode 1, “H Street Corridor,” is, in fact, an inadvertent illustration of everything Brandi Thompson Summers writes in her 2019 book, Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City:
As she wrote then: “blackness has become a prized and lucrative aesthetic that often leaves out D.C.’s Black residents.”
If you’re near DC, BTW, check out professor Summers’ upcoming appearances at Sankofa and at George Washington University. On April 15, she’ll be at Sankofa Books in conversation with Derek Musgrove — whose book, Chocolate City, was mentioned in the last episode of Isn’t It Time.
Wherever you are, read her book and/or check out her 2020 talk at DC Public Library (video and more below).
Back to Pitom
Returning to the Pitom analogy for another moment: A tale of housing already for sale is one story, with an obvious starting place, as in “If You Lived Here.” However, some additional questions to consider
- Who convinced potential residents that the area was “hip”?
- How do long-time residents and formerly-enslaved people fit into the story of the new, hip Pitom?
- What kind of stories about the not-so-hip, old Pitom helped pave the way for the new?
- How long did developers let properties sit, waiting for the day they could cash in, instead of contributing to the vibrancy of Pitom all along?
Returning to DC
Consider the numbers: 80,000 Black residents (net) lost in twenty years, the percentage of Black residents dropping by half in fifty years.
Do we view this as “just” a result of market forces? Or, as explored in Isn’t It Time Episode 4, do we look at gentrification as a set of choices by active agents, rather than some kind of inevitable force beyond everyone’s control?
Multipath Wanderer and Passover
Further to this theme of looking at ourselves and others as agents, rather than victims or objects, in our telling of biblical and historical tales, I offer some thoughts on the “Arami Oved Avi” section of the Passover telling, sometimes called the “First Fruits Declaration.”
“Arami oved avi” –– often translated as either “My father was a wandering Aramean” or “An Aramean sought to destroy my father” — appears in Deuteronomy 26 and launches one part of the Maggid, the “telling,” section of the Passover haggadah. Here’s a whole sheet of sources on the relevant passage.
Here are a few lines from a new translation I created this year, a kind of interpretation, mostly for myself:
Multipath Wanderer was my ancestor.
I come with a heritage of loss and wandering — both in the living and in the telling: Arami is at once a line of travelers, people who crossed over or came from beyond, and an ambiguous “back home,” celebrated in the leaving (a kind of “good riddance”), yet remembered fondly in nostalgia for kin and connection. This ancestor was “oved” — “lost” or “wandering,” possibly “vanished” or “perished.” Moreover, the tale itself is confused and wandering, with parts that have vanished or become twisted.
…I arrive to make this declaration, bringing complex heritage, gratitude and hope, and awareness that we have Liberation work yet to accomplish. I declare that we — with divine help, however understood — are the ones with a voice to cry and a strong hand and outstretched arm with which to respond. It’s us we’re waiting for.
— V. Spatz, Passover 5783, full piece at Sefaria
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This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?” Peace
Black in Place
More on Black in Place. NOTE: buying through We Luv Books’ Bookshop directs 30% of proceeds to support literacy in DC. April 15 in-person event at Sankofa Books.
See also “Selling Authenticity and Swampoodle” from last year’s Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia studies.
A 2020 DC Public Library program: “A Right to the City: A Conversation with Brandi Summers”