Fellow Forward contributor Menachem Wecker writes to ask:
“I monitor certain search items related to Judaism on social media, and recently I came across the expression ‘worked like a Hebrew slave’ for the first time. It looks like it might be more frequently used in the African-American community. I wonder what are your thoughts on it.”
Mr. Wecker may have encountered this expression in a remark made some two months ago by Tennessee Titans’ African-American defensive back Bernard Pollard, who told his radio interviewers that the Titans’ coach, Mike Munchak, was “working us like Hebrew slaves.”
The remark prompted nationally known sports writer Larry Brown to chide Pollard. “Slaves,” Brown wrote, “are forced to work against their will, unlike professional football players who give their consent and are well compensated to practice. It’s a sensitive subject…. Maybe Pollard needs to read the story of Passover to familiarize himself with the history of the matter before using it as a comparison in the future.”
Actually, the only insensitivity here was Brown’s. Comparing themselves to the Israelite slaves in Egypt was a staple of the religion of black Americans both before and after their emancipation from slavery and is undoubtedly the ultimate source of the expression used by Pollard.
Long before the Civil War, black preachers routinely likened the situation of black slaves to that of the biblical Hebrews, an identification that is at the heart of many Negro spirituals. Who doesn’t know “When Israel Was In Egypt’s Land,” with its first stanza: “When Israel was in Egypt’s Land, Let my people go; / Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go; / Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, / Tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go.” The song goes on to tell the story of crossing the Red Sea, culminating in the lines, “When they had reached the other shore, Let my people go; / They sang the song of triumph o’er, Let my people go….”
What fewer people know is that black spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” or the almost equally well-known “Wade in the Water,” were not just about an identification with the Hebrew slaves of the Bible; they were also coded allusions to fleeing Southern slavery for the North, and crossing the Red Sea — or alternately, the Jordan — stood, in them, for crossing the Ohio River, which formed the boundary in the Midwest between free states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and slave states like Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. The “Underground Railroad” that was followed by fleeing slaves crossed the Ohio in many places.