Freedom can be fragile.
Sometime after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, former slave Henry Adams had asked his boss for permission to take a trip to Shreveport, Louisiana. “You’d better take a pass,” Henry’s boss told him.
In years past, slaves had been legally forbidden to go roaming about the country with a permission slip from their masters. But Henry wasn’t a slave. It was his right, as an American to travel where he pleased, when he pleased. “I will see whether I am free by going without a pass,” Henry said to his boss and was on his way.
Along the way, Henry was stopped by four of white men that asked who he belonged to. When Henry replied he had no master, two of the men attacked him with sticks and threatened to kill him (they said they’d been killing every ‘Negro’ they came across that claimed to be free).
But one of the men recognized Henry and interceded for him. So they let him go. Henry said that he’d seen about a dozen black people lynched on his journey to Shreveport and back.
When he arrived back home, his boss was nowhere to be found. He asked the boss’ wife for his whereabouts. She was indignant. She huffed:
The boss! You should say ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ — and shall or leave! We will not have no nigger here on our place who cannot say ‘mistress’ and ‘master.’ You all are not free yet and will not be until Congress sits, and you shall call every white lady ‘missus’ and every white man ‘master.’
Henry’s testimony would go on to describe how little had changed for black Americans in the days that followed slavery. He recounted how employers would continue to behave like ‘masters’: beating their workers nearly to death at times. He recalled white men trying to kill black people that tried to move away from the oppressive conditions of the south.
His testimony also points to the resilience of evil.
Up to this point, Pharaoh had tried to negotiate with God.
“Your people can worship God,” he told Moses, “but stay in Goshen.”
“Go, but only take the men.”
“Go, but leave your livestock.”
He proposed a little reform here and there: to appease the Hebrews with a little freedom, while keeping them as Egypt’s free labor force.
After all, setting the Israelites free would have disrupted the economy. It also would have upset those who benefitted from the slave system, and affected his approval rating.
He had hoped that God and he could agree on some sort of arrangement that would satisfy both parties.
That is important to note: even the freedom the king offered to give was not driven by a true interest in freedom. Pharaoh was just desperate for the plagues to stop, and was using liberty as a bargaining chip.
God knew that the system the kings built in this story could never yield justice for the Hebrews. The system the Pharoahs built was created to oppress one group and privilege another. Therefore, the system did not need tweaking but needed to be done away with.
Every time Pharaoh said “Go, but…” he demonstrated his attachment to that system, showing that he could not be trusted to free the Hebrews.
So it’s no surprise that on the morning the Hebrews went walking out of Egypt Pharaoh and the officials grip their faces saying, “What have we done?” The king readied his chariot and led his army out in hot pursuit of the Hebrews (Exodus 14:1–9).
That is typical of oppression: it doesn’t ever end overnight.
U.S. History tells the same story.
After slavery, unemployment was made illegal in many states, which served as a pretense for imprisoning many black people and subjecting them to forced labor.
“Go, But…” in America
The thirteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been said to abolish the practice of slavery in this country, but it actually just changes the provisions. There’s a loophole in it that allows slavery as a punishment for crime. Just enough reform to appease the oppressed, while keeping the option for slavery on the table.
Just two years after American slaves were freed, southern legislatures had established “black codes” that prohibited blacks from starting businesses or owning land, but also made unemployment illegal.
So, black people found “jobs” that were pretty much the same thing they were doing as slaves: picking cotton on someone else’s land. And if they failed to find a “job” picking cotton they’d be imprisoned, then leased to a plantation owner to — you guessed it — pick cotton. They had been given a semblance of freedom, but remained America’s cheap (and, in many cases, free) labor force.
As Henry Adams’ testimony shows, slavery hadn’t really ended, but had evolved to black into codes, which evolved into Jim Crow, which evolved into the War on Drugs and mass incarceration today (which disproportionately affects black people). Because oppression doesn’t end with one royal decree, one executive decision, or one more amendment to the Constitution.
How is it that Pharaoh and his forces keep on coming back to re-enslave so easily?
As you can see above, it was once literally illegal for black people to prosper in this country. And that is only one example of how the blueprint for this society was designed to privilege some and disadvantage others.
Minor reforms and tweaks have been made for racial justice, many times as part of some effort tangental to black freedom: ending a war, stopping riots, calming protests, gaining political advantage. But sweeping and thorough measures to correct racial injustice, for the sake of justice, have yet to be sustained.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoes that much, as he reflects on the victories of the Civil Rights Movement in 1967 interview:
For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society…
That was apparently God’s feeling about Egypt in the Exodus story.
No More “Go, But…”
The Exodus event itself is a radical political statement.
It says that God decided that the Hebrew’s suffering could not be solved by anything that the Egyptian government could offer. The system did not need to be tweaked or reformed. It needed to be done away with altogether.
Because those that governed in Egypt in this story were not ultimately interested in justice, any reforms to the system would stop short of eradicating injustice. Injustice would simply continue to evolve. That is why God sent the ghetto children walking through the waters of the Red Sea.
God knew that empires will more often say “Go, but…” to the oppressed — trying to negotiate some perfect balance of symbolic freedom and sustained inequality. God knew that many people, whether the powerful or the disinherited, have difficulty imagining any social arrangement without inequality. God knew that the resilience of evil demanded a radical solution.
So God opted out of the oppression cycle altogether.
But this is not a story about the end of all systems of government. On the other side of the Red Sea, God would give the ghetto children legislation and social policy (Exodus 20:1–21). God would give them economic principles (Leviticus 25) and cultural practices (Leviticus 23). God would give them instructions for worship (Leviticus 1).
The Exodus event is often spoken of as a sort of baptism. That’s a good analogy, but not just in some metaphysical sense. It is symbolic of a kind of social death and re-creation as much as anything else. The old way of empire is drowned in the waters of the Red Sea, and God’s people emerge to become a new society that practices YHWH’s politics of freedom, hospitality, and justice.
The Exodus event presents one of God’s most radical responses to injustice. God would not be satisfied with reforming the institutions of Egypt in this story — a little change here, a little change there. God decided something entirely different needed to be built. The Exodus was the inaugural event of the new thing God decided to do.
Should We Be Radicals Too?
The simple narrative of racial progress that many Americans believe in is wrong. Racial oppression never simply ended: not with the Emancipation Proclamation, not with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It doesn’t work that way. We must reckon with the fact that evil is simply more resilient than that. Until we do, our responses will continue to be inadequate.
In the Exodus story, God's response to an unjust system is abolition, not reformation. It’s a radical response. And if we are to be God’s people, that means that at times we must be radicals too.
In order to make meaningful progress in pursuing racial justice, we must be willing to reimagine everything about our society.
In a society where racism is a part of the blueprint, we must be willing to consider solutions that may call for a different type of social structure altogether.
We must be willing to re-imagine everything: a world where we can imagine community safety without state violence, and methods for justice that preserve human rights, and economic systems that are not designed with oppression and exploitation as essential features.
We’ve tried reforming the existing institutions of our society — a little change here, a little change there — and we are lamenting many of the same injustices that of our ancestors. We need to at least consider that the whole thing may need a radical transformation.
Please feel free to share this article. Want to make sure you don’t miss an entry in this series? Get the latest delivered directly to your inbox by clicking here.
- Adams, Henry. “Henry Adams’ Testimony Before Congress.” CommonLit, Public Domain, www.commonlit.org/texts/henry-adams-testimony-before-congress
For Further Exploration:
Thank you to Paul T. Corrigan for sending these follow-up links