Monday, February 1, 2010

more translating Phillis Wheatley

below, an excerpt from the section "Joseph Novella in Genesis 37-50:  Selling Brother Joseph" in the chapter "Genesis," by Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora

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Today the people of Africa -- having murdered or sold into slavery their strongest folks -- are riddled with disease and sunk in spiritual and physical confusion. . . .  Why did they sell us?  And why do we still love them?  ([Alice] Walker [The Color Purple] 1982: [page] 139)

     .... Jacob/Israel's favoritism here, as in the instance with his wives and the enslaved women (Genesis 30), undermines the integrity of his family.  These details add tension to the story that culminates with Joseph's brothers -- the children of Leah, the hated wife, and Bilhah and Zilpah, the raped enslaved women -- capturing him, restraining him in a pit, and then selling him to Mideanite traders....  Because of its description of Joseph's plight, which paralleled many of their own ordeals, this story became typological for many enslaved people, including Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Albert Gronniosaw, and Venture Smith ([Phillip] Richards 2000: [page 221]).
     Nettie's words above to her sister about the Africana people among whom she was to minister provide a glimpse into the mind of Joseph.  These are likely his own unasked questions as he would have pondered his own plight and struggled to make sense of his own brothers' disdain that led them to sell him into slavery.  Why did they sell him?  Why does he still love them?
     These questions unasked in the text lurk beneath the surface only to recur at the end of the narrative.  Once Joseph has overcome the manifold obstacles he face -- slavery, sexual harassment, imprisonment  --  he rises to penultimate authority in Pharoah's administration in 41:39-44.  It is then that he encounters his brothers who sold him into the hell of his early life in Egypt.  His response to his brothers is guarded....
     Nettie's question is inescapable:  "Why does [he] still love them?"  Though this question is never addressed, the response to Nettie's initial question perhaps provides the answer to both queries:  "Why did they sell [me]?"  This question seems to demand the response of jealously [sic] or hatred or hard-heartedness:  instead, Joseph offers a theologically potent response, "for God sent me before you to preserve life."  This response seems wholly unsatisfying from a human perspective.  Yet Joseph is not alone in finding a theological motivation for human suffering.  Indeed, this is that same response Second Isaiah gives for the suffering of Judah during the Exile (Isa. 53:10).  This is the same response Jesus offers as he prepares fr his passion (Matt. 26:39).  The suffering was accepted because it was seen as a means to further the will of the Lord.
     Though wholly unacceptable to me in relation to the North Atlantic slave trade, this seemingly irrational response is not uncommon in Africana circles either.  From the moment in the latter part of the eighteenth century when Phillis Wheatley penned
TWAS mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
African Americans have sought to reconcile their enslavement with a vision of a benevolent deity. ([Phillis] Wheatley, ["On Being Brought from Africa to America." In Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave, Dedicated to the Friends of the Africans] 1834: [page] 42).

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