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On Being Pharaoh’s Daughter

Note: During our Advent retreat last weekend with Alan Storey, there was a discussion of the significance of Pharaoh's daughter as a symbol of resistance, which put us in mind of this article written by Shelley in 2014. Enjoy!

We have morning Mass twice a week in our neighborhood. Tuesday and Friday mornings a small group gathers in the chapel at the Passionist residence. There are usually a couple of Consolata sisters, several Passionist priests, and two or three lay folk (like me) who show up, file into the chapel, and pray the Mass together. Tuesdays tend to be “my day” to read. Lately we’ve been working our way through the Torah, revisiting the history of God and God’s people.

A couple of weeks ago we were with the Hebrews in Egypt as they languished under the rule of the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. That story is a great story of resistance – first the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, quietly refusing to put baby boys to death, and then Moses’ mother and sister hiding him away and floating him in the river in a small ark. A conspiracy of women to save the children’s lives – resistance to the empire of Egypt. Then, into the midst of this conspiracy, enters the daughter of Pharaoh, one of the enemy. She sends one of her women to pull in this odd-looking bundle, and in it she finds a baby.

This July one line of the reading leapt out at me: “On opening it (the basket) she looked, and lo, there was a baby boy, crying. She was moved with pity for him and said, “It is one of the Hebrews’ children.” (Ex.2:6) With that line, she has joined the resistance. Pharaoh’s daughter has made common cause with the Hebrews to save this child. She has taken a stand against her father’s edict, and thus against the empire.

When I read the stories of Israel, I identify with the Israelites, the oppressed people who were chosen by Yahweh. I’m indignant at their oppression, I root for them to escape, I agonize as they wander blindly in the wilderness – in my mind, I’m one of them. In reality, in my own place in life, I’m something else entirely: I am Pharaoh’s daughter. I don’t mean that I’m a child of great wealth, or that my family is powerful. I was the first of us to go to college, and I mostly worked my way through (as a maid and typist) with the help of student loans. My father topped out at GS 9; my mother probably not higher. Still, in this empire, I’m a daughter of a minor branch of Pharaoh’s house. I inhabited the white world as I grew up, and I didn’t know there was another world existing right beside it – until I read Richard Wright and James Baldwin, until the civil rights movement opened my eyes. Most of us in Pax Christi are children of Pharaoh in the same way I am.

The story of Pharaoh’s daughter is one of hope for us, because it means that we too can step away from our unjust privilege and join the resistance. The scripture doesn’t tell us if there was a cost to the Princess’ action – did she get in trouble? Was she ostracized? We know that Moses grew up in the palace and was educated as a prince, so we can probably assume that repercussions, if any, were light. Maybe she was seen as just an eccentric, a little off the norm, but harmless. Maybe the palace was so big that her actions were not noticed. Who knows? We do know that if Pharaoh thought this was too minor a matter to worry about, he miscalculated.

Our little circle read the story of Pharaoh’s daughter a few days after the Trayvon Martin decision was announced. “It is one of the Hebrew children,” I read, and then the princess colludes with the baby’s mother and sister to keep him safe and healthy, to give him a good start in life. The princess raised the question again for me: how can we resist the injustice that we move in almost without noticing it? We swim in racial injustice like fish swim in the sea, not knowing it’s there, because we are on the privileged side of the line.

If I go “over the mountain” into a fancy shopping center, no one follows me around in the stores; no one checks me out if I wait for a friend in the parking lot, or pulls me over if I drive down a neighborhood street. I do get some funny looks, with my Catholic Worker scruffiness, beat-up car and bumper stickers, but I don’t get stopped. (This is in itself some improvement for Alabama, where fifty years ago I might well have been stopped and brutalized for just those bumper stickers.) Teenage sons of my friends, though – they still get stopped, and it’s still dangerous. Not only teenagers – adults get stopped, checked, followed, suspected, on the basis of skin color. If I get tired of being “weird” I can get different clothing, drive a different car, and fit in. People of color don’t have that luxury.

Pax Christi is known for peace work and for resisting injustice abroad. We’ve been perhaps less excited about resisting racism at home. We may have thought we’d done enough, or that with a black President we’ve erased the problem. As the case of Trayvon Martin makes sadly clear, that’s not so. Racism is an intractable problem, and it’s ours. Voices for peace and justice may be a minority in the wider white society, but we are still part of the dominant group and knowingly or unknowingly we benefit from racism. (I’m thinking specifically in this essay of white racism toward black people, but it’s clear that if racism equals power plus prejudice, we wield this weapon against all people of color.)

People join Pax Christi because they have a passion for peace and for justice. We feel in our guts that what hurts part of the body hurts the whole body, and we want to heal the whole body – the church, the body politic, and our own psyches. We too suffer from racism because we become crooked in our minds and hearts. We allow meanness to grow, we build walls, we judge, and we cut ourselves off from God’s world and God’s people. On the political level, the powers that be, whoever they are, clearly profit from our distrust and hatred. If you look at the history of political and labor reform movements, especially in the South, you can see clearly how the powers divide movements by playing on our racism. The economic interests of blacks and poor whites may be the same, yet race has been used repeatedly to divide us and thus make justice for anyone impossible.

How can we modern-day daughters (and sons) of Pharaoh resist injustice? The first step, I think, is always to learn. Read, read lots of books: James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X – learn vicariously what people have endured and incidentally read some masterful writing. Read Slavery By Another Name, The Warmth of Other Suns, The New Jim Crow, The Dark End of the Street, Carry Me Home to understand a little of the more recent history. (See end of blog for references.) Read Vincent Harding, Lerone Bennett, W.E.B. Du Bois, to learn older history. And remember that all the history of black folks is in fact the history of the underside of white folks – the white power structure, and how it has maintained itself for our “benefit”, and how we have cooperated. (Shame is a beneficial emotion, when felt for real injustice and leading to repentance and action.)

Share what you read with your white friends. Tell them all about it until they’re tired of it! Then tell them again. Counter racist statements when you hear them. What if Mr. Zimmerman’s various anti-black slurs had been met with disapproval from his friends? What if people had said, “Hey, that’s demeaning, and it’s not true. I don’t want to hear my friends talk like that!” What if? White folks have to educate white folks – that’s not a new precept. It just hasn’t been widely done.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11 am on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America – a statement that’s still true. Segregation as a body of law has gone, but de facto segregation still exists. (Try reading Some of my Best Friends Are Black.) If we really mean what we say about healing ourselves, we need to meet people of color as friends, equals, learners. Such meetings can happen in lots of places – churches, if you choose carefully; social change groups; any kind of group – bridge clubs, book groups, prayer groups, and so on. The important thing is to choose a group of people who are diverse, preferably where you’re in the minority, and then do your best to listen and learn and contribute thoughtfully.

Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t seem to have formed a “Hebrew Allies” group – she just stepped up and did what she could in a crisis, and then followed through with years of commitment to Moses and his family. We can assume that she knew the issues and was making a stand on them. In the process she seems to have followed the Hebrew family’s lead in nurturing this child. She accepts the sister’s suggestion and allows his mother to nurse him, and when he is older and educated in Egyptian ways he still knows and visits his own people. The princess has not made him an Egyptian, nor does she try to control his course of action. Important lessons!

Ironically enough, the crown of all this effort could be a life in which race was not the focus of all our attention. We can eventually learn to swim in a different sea, to be sensitive to the nuances of racism and the different experiences of our friends, to feel racist comments in our own guts, and to sense racist structures with our own nerves. We’ll never be perfect at it, but we can make great strides and we can find a sense of joy and communion in becoming justice folks, instead of “Justus folks”.

And here are some books that have educated me recently:

  • Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Douglas Blackmon, Anchor Books, 2008

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of a Great Migration, Isabell Wilkerson, Random House, 2010

  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, The New Press, 2010

  • Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Movement, Diane McWhorter, Simon & Schuster/ Touchstone, 2001

  • At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Danielle L. McGuire, Vintage, 2011

  • Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, Tanner Colby, Viking/Penguin, 201

Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.

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