Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” Speaks to the Present Times

Just finished reading Charles Johnson’s 1990 novel, Middle Passage, and I’m wishing it had been considered mandatory high school reading for me.

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Well, by 1990 I was already in college, but in my fantasy I wish to have read this novel in my high school English class my junior or senior year. First of all, it would have prevented me from graduating high school without knowing what the term “The Middle Passage” meant re slavery – something I’m ashamed to acknowledge. (I didn’t learn the term until I was in my 20s.) 

The novel won the National Book Award, and the NYT Book Review blurb on the back of my paperback edition states, “A novel in the honorable tradition of Billy Budd and Moby Dick . . . heroic in proportion . . . fiction that hooks into the mind.” I agree with all of that (though I’ve never read Moby Dick and don’t plan to).

A bit over 200 pages, Johnson’s novel is told in first person in the form of a series of 8 journal (or ship’s log) entries over the course of the summer of 1830. Our narrator and anti-hero is Rutherford Calhoun, a 20-something freed former slave living (and committed to little more than partying) in New Orleans. Rutherford was born into slavery and he and his brother were the slaves of a man named Reverend Peleg Chandler, whom Rutherford says was morally against slavery and thus arranged for the manumission of his slaves just before his death (why is it that so many of the white men we hear about who had slaves but opposed slavery only granted their slaves freedom upon their death – I mean, if they really found slavery morally repugnant… right?)

In any case, our narrator describes Chandler this way:

“A Biblical scholar, he endlessly preached Old Testament virtues to me, and to this very day I remember his tedious disquisitions on Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme. He’d wanted me to become a Negro preacher, perhaps even a black saint like the South American priest Martin de Porres – or, for that matter, my brother Jackson.”

We later learn of the many ways in which Rutherford resents his brother Jackson, who was constantly being praised by the Reverend/Master while Rutherford was being admonished.

Continue reading “Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” Speaks to the Present Times”

D’var Torah – Re’eh (5770 / 2010)

D’var Torah – Parashat Re’eh  5770

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR

Shabbat shalom.  This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, and in it we continue to listen to Moses’s final review of the laws and statutes that the Israelites are to observe as part of their covenant with the One who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, the Eternal One.  Moses goes over many different topics in Re’eh, and tomorrow morning Ethan, our bar mitzvah, will focus on an area having to do with kashrut, the laws governing how we make eating food a holy act. In another part of this parashah, however, Moses gives an overview of the rituals involved in the celebration of the great festivals of the people of Israel.  The three pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, get special attention. Tomorrow morning, when Ethan chants the maftir, or last few verses of the portion, he’ll be chanting words that describe some of the things we’re supposed to do on Sukkot. Listen to what the text says:

After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths, chag ha-sukkot, for seven days.  You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your communities.  You shall hold a festival for the Eternal you God seven days, in the place that the Eternal will choose; for the Eternal your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.

You might have noticed the emphasis on happiness and joy in this passage.  There’s a key word that recurs in the Torah’s discussion of sukkot, and that word is sameach, or grammatical variations on it.  Sameach is the word for happiness or joy, and in fact one of the various names for the holiday of Sukkot is Zman Simchateynu, or “Season of our Joy.”  In the passage I just quoted above, the Hebrew root sameach comes up twice.  We hear it first with the words “you shall rejoice in your festival” – v’samachta is the Hebrew for “you shall rejoice.”  Then, towards the end of the passage, it says “ you shall have nothing but joy.”  The Hebrew reads, v’hayitta ach sameach.

Eric Mendelsohn, a past President of Congregation Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, writes the following:

The grandchildren of the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, building on his commentary, note that the word “Simcha” … – “Be happy !” occurs three times in the description of Sukkot (and with the extra command “Ach Sameach” – “[really] be happy”, it is almost like a parents’ reminder — “Have a good time and by the way, have a good time.”) On the other hand, [even though this Torah portion also describes the other 2 great pilgrimage festivals, the word]  “Simcha” is mentioned only once for Shavuot, and not at all with regard to Pesach.

In a d’var Torah he gave at his synagogue, he asks why this might be.  Here’s some of what he writes:

The agricultural basis of these holidays provides a simple explanation. Passover is the time of lambing and the sign of spring, but there is great apprehension about the crops to come. The winter wheat is in but the barley and vegetables will take seven more weeks. At Shavuot – the barley is in and one can breathe somewhat easier. But Sukkot is the grand Thanksgiving feast, at which rich and poor alike are assured enough sustenance. Judaism teaches that one has the right to enjoy the material benefits of this world and we are enjoined to rejoice in having them.

The Rabbinic linking of the three festivals to history also provides a reason for the differing amounts of required happiness. At Pesach – Egyptian soldiers have been drowned; we cannot rejoice when others are suffering. At Shavuot we can be happy that we have received Torah, but there was the incident of the Golden Calf which mutes our joy. But Sukkot celebrates the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle of the desert). It provides the wholeness of having a spiritual center that moves with one — and that is cause for unbounded joy. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Re’eh (5770 / 2010)”