Jacob Lawrence painted and illustrated the great migration of the African-American population, from south of the Mason-Dixon line northward and eastward, in a noted series currently on exhibit in our nation’s capital. It covers a major chapter of the 20th century, from 1917 all the way to the early 1970s.
Half of the canvas pictures are from New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, not far from Harlem, whose renaissance included celebrations of Lawrence’s career. The rest of the pictures were already housed in the Phillips Collection, in Washington, which bills itself as “America’s first museum of modern art.”
I was fascinated to discover Lawrence’s work in oil, after some years ago admiring his sketches interpreting the Aesop’s Fables of my boyhood, brought from their source in ancient Athens to my 20th-century childhood bookcases. I also recently found out some intriguing information about the author of those fables, a slave without a proper name. He was an “Ethiope,” hence the similar-sounding “Aesop.”
And because his theme was always about how a lowly servant, or even the palace fool or jester, has things to teach the master, the furious authority figures threw him off a cliff!
This shocking history was told to me at a party in Jamestown, by a scholarly South African lady with a touch of that exotic immigrant accent.
Well, today there is a lively community of Ethiopians who made their way to the neighborhood where my daughter and her family dwell, in Silver Spring, Maryland, and where we recently paid a visit to confirm their promise to come to us for Passover. While there, I snapped a few shots of a statue based on the fable about the lion whose life is saved by a mouse – with all its implications about royalty, good will and the nature of friendship, rescue and benevolence. And I picked up a few Ethiopian gift cards on paper made from banana peels. And I treated my son-in-law to a fancy African coffee in a wee ceramic cup.
“I’m a miniaturist,” I said, or something to that effect.
I guess what I’m reporting is that while “the Exodus” has a particular meaning, “exodus” is a universal phenomenon. Maybe we in Providence, Rhode Island, are especially aware of this due to our magnificent legacy of Roger Williams, of the privacy of liberty, the freedom to find your own faith and your own friendships, rescues and benevolence – on our Benevolent Street or elsewhere.
There is a universal poetry about our Five Books of Moses, a facet in all its details. The open doors and windows, the symbolic foods, the fresh dishes and glasses, the extra sterling goblet for Elijah and for any unexpected guests at the table. The welcome for and to strangers, the pillows and the mysterious songs. (My favorite is the pet kid worth two zuzim, and its awful fate until the creator ends death itself!)
There is even poetry in the battle to be won by the youngest child in the dining room, with the responsibility and privilege of asking those weird questions in two languages. And there is poetry in the eldest at the table recounting seders from years gone by.
Time is also a road in our exodus: We travel from the seder of our grandparents and mother and father onward toward these sacred suppers of our children and grandchildren, and we can identify with all the characters spoken of in the Haggadah – maybe just in our inward thoughts, perhaps even without words spoken or written.
Moses came from the court, or from water, and then had a desert chapter in his personal exodus. He never does see the Promised Land.
There was a play, movie and later television version of “Green Pastures,” in which God takes his agent to a high hill from which he can envision the future. In Ethiopia, there is a fable that since everyone must die, Moses is specially prepared for that final act by a merciful ritual: He can lie comfortably in his grave and receive guests to bid them farewell and to make his wishes known. A privilege and honor conferred as a compliment and consolation.
So, I guess my theme is, play with all the metaphors in the story of Passover, and come up with your own intimate interpretation of the blessing of springtime and the hope for honor and, yes, victory, for our people and our concept of the Holy Land of Israel. All Americans, in one way or another, have made their journey to this Jerusalem of redemption, whether it’s to the little village of Galilee, Rhode Island, or north of the Mason-Dixon Line, or elsewhere on the continent. Happy Pesach!
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.