Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacyhttp://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy
Jews and African Americans: Siblings in Oppression?
Introduction: "Let My People Go"
- Distribute the lyrics for "Let My People Go" to your students. Then play the Youtube clip of Paul Robeson singing the song (just listening to the audio). Your students can follow along as they listen to the song. Note: the version in this lesson plan includes only two verses. You can find other versions online and in Haggadot, which include additional verses. Some versions used in churches include a line "And let us all in Christ be free."
- After your class has listened to "Let My People Go," you may want to sing it as a group. Then discuss the song using some or all of the following questions:
- How many of you are familiar with this song?
- While many of us associate this song with Passover, the song "Let My People Go" (or "Go Down Moses") actually originated as an African American spiritual, sung by black slaves as they worked in the fields. Some historians believe that songs like "Let My People Go" operated on a political level as well a spiritual level, using the story of slavery in Egypt as a way to reflect on their own slavery. Ask students: Describe how you think the words might have been understood by the slaves who originated the song, and why the story of the Israelite slaves in particular might have spoken to them.
- Explain: For many Jews at this time Egyptian bondage became a symbol of the history of persecution that Jews and African American shared. This identification was part of the foundation of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement. In today's lesson, we're going to use "Let My People Go" to stand in for this shared cultural reference for Jews and African Americans. (If this is the first time you are discussing the history of Jews and the Civil Rights Movement with your class, you may want to go deeper into the relationship between Jewish social justice activism and Jewish history of oppression. See Unit 1 Lesson 2.)
- Does knowing the origins of this song change the way you think about what it means to sing it at a Passover seder? How does the song's history as a church spiritual impact your understanding of its role at the seder?
- "Let My People Go" was sung at the 1969 Freedom Seder, and in the years since then, it has become a popular addition to many seders and Haggadot. If time allows, play the portion of the 1969 Freedom Seder video that shows "Let My People Go" being sung. Ask students: How was hearing "Let My People Go" sung at this Freedom Seder similar and different to hearing Paul Robeson, yourselves, and/or your own families/friends sing the song?
- What do you think it has meant to Jews to add this song to their seders? How do you think African Americans might have felt about this use of the song in a Jewish context?
- What might be the benefits to Jews and/or African Americans of making this connection between their histories of oppression? What might be the limitations to this connection? What might cause tension or resentment?
- Think back to the seders you've attended: What other themes, readings, foods, can you think of that have been added to seders today? What purpose do these changes serve? How are they similar to or different from the addition of "Let My People Go"?
- Divide your class into groups of 3-4 students and distribute a copy of Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression?Document Study: Siblings in Oppression? to each student.
- Give your students time to read each of the two documents out loud in their groups and discuss the related questions.
- Each group should then go over the analysis questions found on the last page of the Document Study and be prepared to share their responses with the class.
- Bring your class back together. Have the groups share their ideas and thoughts in response to the analysis questions. (Be sure to print out an extra copy of these questions for yourself, so you can read them aloud.) Refer back to the documents as needed to help your class with the analysis.
Wrap-Up: Additions to your own seder
- Depending on time and your setting, this activity could also be assigned as homework.
- Using what they've learned in class about Jewish/African American identification and its limitations, have your students create something that could be incorporated into their own seder. You may offer your students a choice of the following assignments, or you may choose for them:
- An introduction or commentary to "Let My People Go" that could be included in the seder when the song is sung.
- New verses for "Let My People Go" that reflect the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A reading for one or two people that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A poem that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A new version of the four questions that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- A new version of the four children that reflects the history of Jewish/African American identification.
- You may want to provide your students with samples of different haggadot so that they can get some ideas for their written assignment.
- If you are teaching this lesson prior to Passover, assignments can be taken home and incorporated into your students' seders.
If you are teaching this lesson after Passover, assignments can be incorporated into a bulletin board or booklet for students to share with their families.
You may use some readings from the 1969 Passover Seder and some readings written by your students to develop a model seder for a different class or grade.
For further exploration of Jewish identification with African Americans, consider reading to the class the excerpt below from The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South by Eli Evans. (This may fit best prior to doing the Document Study.) Evans grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and in his chapter "The Maids and Black Jesus," Evans reflects on going to black rural churches in the South when he was a teenager. He describes not being bothered by the hymns and spirituals of black churches because they often told stories from the Old Testament, and also describes feeling a connection to African Americans because of his sense of their shared persecution.
"…[I would] listen to an old black preacher sing his sermon—about Moses leading the children of Israel out of slavery, of Joshua and the battle of Jericho, or of Daniel in the lion's den. Negroes…made [the stories in the Old Testament] come alive…To me, Negroes and Jews were joined in a union of persecution and hate; we were both children of history, both celebrating a people in slavery and a yearning for deliverance…
Negroes believed in my hero Moses with more passion than I did, and that drew me to them."*
*Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Reprinted University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p. 261.