Rashi and Barak Obama
A few months ago, I heard an interview on the radio with Douglas A. Blackmon, the author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In this book, Blackmon describes what was essentially the reenslavement of blacks after the Civil War in many areas of the South, with the help and collusion of many people and companies in the Northern states.
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.
When I read one of Rashi’s comments on this week’s parashah, I couldn’t help but think how historic this week’s events have been. On Genesis 12:11, which describes Abraham asking Sarai to try and pretend that she is his sister, Rashi says the following.
ופשוטו של מקרא הנה נא הגיע השעה שיש לדאוג על יפיך, ידעתי זה ימים רבים כי יפת מראה את, ועכשיו אנו באים בין אנשים שחורים ומכוערים, אחיהם של כושים, ולא הורגלו באשה יפה.
The simple meaning of the verse is: Behold, now the time has arrived when we must be concerned about your beauty. I have known already for a long time that you are of fair appearance, but now we are coming among black and ugly people, the brothers of the Cushites, and they are not accustomed to a beautiful woman. (here)
Abraham Melamed in his book The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture: A History of the Other wrote,
In their commentaries on Genesis 12:11, most medieval commentators echo the wonder of the Midrashic authors as to why Abraham should become aware of Sarah’s beauty precisely in the context of their journey into Egypt.
While Bereshit Rabbah does not so much as mention blacks (cushim), simply describing the Egyptians as ‘ugly and black’, Rashi identifies them explicitly as ‘brothers of the blacks’. Nahmanides adheres to Rashi’s commentary without even mentioning the Midrashic source. While David Kimhi does not identify the Egyptians as true blacks, or even specifically as having dark skin, he gives full prominence to the usual stereotypes of the ugly, lustful inhabitants of the south…
A change has come, we were alive to see it.