I have mixed feelings about Passover; being black and Jewish, its celebration has always had something of a double meaning for me. It is, without a doubt, my favorite holiday, because it gets at the essential core of the Jewish conception of justice. "Once, we were slaves in Egypt," we remind ourselves--with the knowledge that others are still slaves and that, as Jews, we have an obligation toward those who are still oppressed. But my experience of Passover has changed from attending too many black-Jewish summits where white Jews try to rationalize the lingering effects of American slavery by saying, "We were once slaves too!" This rationalization, as opposed to simply being reminded of our obligation toward justice, feels hollow. We remember once a year that we were once slaves, but black people are reminded we were slaves every time we see a box of rice or maple syrup. Jews were slaves thousands of years ago -- on my mother's side, we were slaves a mere 160 years ago. For Jews, America was the place we fled to, for black folks, America was Egypt.
Nevertheless, there is an unmistakable point of contact here for Jews, who were once slaves in Egypt, and black folks, who were once slaves here. There is a reason why the voice I hear saying "Let my people go" is that of Paul Robeson, why black folks looked to the story of the Exodus for inspiration and a hope for deliverance during slavery and Jim Crow, and why Harriet Tubman was called "the Moses of her people."
This year's Passover is then infused with additional meaning, being marked by the first African-American president of the United States, who will be hosting the first ever Seder at the White House. It is as if, rather than being delivered from Egypt, we Jews were forced to stay, and a mere 160 years later, a Jew became Pharaoh.