There’s a small crowd gathered in the church. They’re all black people, like me.
The place is a run-down corner kinda outfit. The bricks are weathered, but they were never particularly nice. It’s like they were recycled from some other building that got burned down. There’s a cement cross plastered onto the side of the building and a few square windows have been knocked out and replaced with arched ones. But the job is iffy, at best. It didn’t make the place look any nicer. But it did succeed in making it look loved.
Whatever else its faults, people care about this place and that’s got to count for somethin’.
The crowd is gathered inside the church. Men, woman and children. Families. Every one there is part of family. I don’t need to tell you the statistics for you to know how rare that is. I don’t want to tell you the statistics. They take people and they make them into numbers, and they rob them of their humanity. But families are rare. They were rare generations ago, and now they’re incredibly rare. Neighborhoods like this have mothers and daughters and sons. But husbands and fathers? There ain’t so many of those around.
But not in this church. In this church, it’s all families. And it’s the genesis of something better.
There’s a huge piece of fabric covering the back of the church. Like a giant black drop cloth. And behind it is something I’ve been working on for fifteen years now. Fifteen years since I got the Call and set to work on a singular piece of art. I’m no artist though. I don’t have years of training or experience. I just got the Call and I knew what I needed to do.
It’s strange. All these folks are here to see what I’ve done. But I’ve never seen it myself. I’ve never looked at it, not as a whole. It just kinda flowed out of me. And I’m about to see it too, with eyes just as fresh as theirs. And I don’t truly know what it’s going to look like. I know the Lord G-d has seen it, but I don’t know whether the church is gonna let it stay here. It might be too ugly even for this beat-up old place.
But I got the Call and so I did what I had to do and now, it is waiting to be revealed.
My name is Emily Jackson. I’m 58 years old and this is the second time in my life that I’ve been Called into the service of the Lord.
I was sixteen when I got pregnant for the first time. I wish I could tell you who the father was, but I was a busy girl in those days. I often didn’t even know the men’s names. It was 1976, everybody was busy. It was the very early days of hip-hop and DJs spinning records. I remember there was a movie that was popular in my neighborhood; it was called Velvet Smooth. It wasn’t a good movie, but it had a black woman who was a Private Eye and who didn’t take anythin’ from anybody. And that’s why I liked it.
And a lot of men liked me.
Whoever the father was, I’m sure he called it love. And can tell you his type. He was strong, he was tall, he talked tough. He was tough. And he had a face like it was cut out of solid ebony. And he had a proud afro. Those were the kind of men I liked. And I loved the power and pride they made me feel. They made me feel like I was the Private Eye in Velvet Smooth and I could make the world around me dance to my tune.
But my whole world was just a fantasy. I gave birth to a daughter, that first time I got pregnant. I named her Clarice. And while I tried to pretend her arrival hadn’t changed anything, it had. I had responsibilities. I didn’t live up to them, not right away. But they began to gnaw at me, slowly eating away at what I thought was power and freedom.
My mom was involved in raising my daughter. And I could see, with pride, the bond they formed. My daughter had her mother and her grandmother. We weren’t anything special, but she had a bit of history to hold on to.
I had my second when I was 19. I wasn’t sure who the father was then, either. People were preaching, begging young black fathers to stay with their women, but it wasn’t sticking. I understood those men. They had real power and freedom. And the feeling of being responsible wasn’t reward enough for dealing with a screaming child and a nagging wife. Heck, all I had to do was commit to being responsible for a few minutes and I wouldn’t have had those screaming children in the first place. But I couldn’t manage that, so how could I demand a lifetime of responsibility from a man who could just walk away? I couldn’t and so I didn’t.
I named my son Michael. After the angel.
Michael was three, and living with his grandmother, when I was Called for the first time. Of course, I didn’t know it at first. I was just sitting there, on our beat-up old couch in that dimly lit apartment when I looked into little Michael’s eyes and I saw something was missing. He was missing something his sister had. He was missing something he should have had.
But I had no idea what it was. I thought about that, that look in his eyes, for days afterwards. And then, finally, I thought maybe I knew what it was. Clarice had a mother and grandmother. She had a history. But little Michael did not.
I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I told Michael he had a father. I told him the man’s name was Michael Butler and that Michael was really a Michael Jr. I saw his eyes brighten just a bit after that. And before long, he was asking questions about his father. And I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I told him more. I spun out a story about a proud black man, a cop, killed in the line of duty. I told him he’d been killed on North 37th street, just a few blocks away. Michael Jr. loved listening to those stories. And so did I. I began to fall for that man; the angel who had given me my son.
I went to the Library not long after and I began to study Black History. Seriously study Black History. More questions were coming, and Michael Jr. needed answers. I learned about our past. Not just the racism, but the culture and the music and, of course, the slavery. That slavery was always leaning on us, holding us down. And I went back further and learned about Africa and the places our people had been taken from. I saw photos of those people, the remnants of our tribes. This wasn’t the era of DNA testing or the Internet. I saw what the Igbo and the Yoruba and the Kongo looked like. And I began to see those faces in my neighborhood. I knew there was no such thing as tribal purity, but I could imagine a line of fathers stretching back to these ancient places and these proud tribes.
Michael Jr. kept asking questions, just like I hoped he would. And I began to unwrap more and more of his history. The strange thing was, I felt like it was all true, like I’d been inspired by a story told to me from on high. I told him about his ancestor who had been a musician in Harlem. He hadn’t been hugely successful, but by all reports he moved those who heard what he had to sing. I told him about the musician’s grandfather, a man who spent his life as a sharecropper in Mississippi. His son had seen the horrors of that servitude and had fled to work in the burgeoning industries of the North. The early days had been hard and his sharecropping father, who had barely enough to eat, scrounged together enough money to send the occasional Western Union to his son – just to guarantee he wouldn’t come back. I told him about the slaves. The generations of slaves. I told him they were proud. That I knew was a lie. Slaves have no pride. They have no pride because they live only in the present; the past can’t help them and they have no control of the future.
As I told Michael that his forebears had been proud, I realized then that that was what we needed to repair. My son needed a past, a proud past. He needed not a generic black past borrowed from Roots, but a personal past. He needed it so he could be part of a personal future. As the stories continued, I realized my son, Michael Jr., had a past. It might not have been true in some scientifically demonstrable way. But I believed it like it had been dictated to me by G-d himself. And my boy, in his own way, was born again. He wasn’t born again like a Christian child, emerging fresh from the waters without the baggage of his past sins – although he was that too. No, he was born again like an African child emerging with a history and the pride of his tribe and his people.
Michael Jr. wasn’t physically strong. But he was strong. He didn’t have the wounded, short-term, bravado of black pride. That pride was born of inferiority felt in one’s bones. I know it still. No, Michael Jr. was truly strong, deep inside. And so, when he was thirteen, I threw a little party for him. He declared his name and he declared his history. He took on, in some formal sense, the stories of his past.
People came to that party. Lots of mothers and daughters and sons. And they saw something they hadn’t seen before. And before long, they came to me. They asked me to look into their son’s histories. And, one by one, we discovered a past for these boys. Their lineages just came to us. We found them a thread they could tie themselves to. We found them a source of power and a wellspring of freedom.
I had no idea if any of this was going to truly repair the ills of my people. But I saw a change in those boys, those that took to their new pasts. And I hoped things might work out a little better in my community.
My own sign that things were working out came not from my son Michael, but from Clarice. She married one of those born-again boys. As she put it, she saw real power in them – not just the shallow show of it that the tough guys in the neighborhood flashed. She saw real power in responsibility. She had her first child at 24 and I became a grandmother at 40; an unusually respectable age. Best of all, I didn’t raise my grandchild. Clarice and her husband did.
Not everybody worked out, of course. Sometimes the stories didn’t take. They connect to the boys they were meant for. And sometimes boys were just facing so much hardship than even a history couldn’t make them good.
Michael Jr. was 21, fresh from graduating college, when he came to visit me in our little neighborhood. One of the ‘here and now’ boys, as I began to call the failures, came up to him on the street. By all accounts, the boy was mad. I suspect he was more than a little jealous too. And right then and there, on the way to visit his mother, Michael Jr. was shot and killed.
He died on North 37th street, just down the block from where another killer had taken his angel of a father.
It was June, 2003.
On that very day, I locked myself into my little apartment. I remember crying for days. And then, in the depths of my despair, I was Called for the second time. I went out that day and I bought some yarn. People asked me what I was goin’ to do with it and I didn’t rightly know what to tell them. I just bought all the yarn I could afford and then some more. And I went back to my apartment and I began to weave. I took those pieces of yarn and I wove them together. When one string ran out, I tied it to another. The bonds weren’t perfect. But they were what I could manage.
As the days past, I just kept weaving. I didn’t go out to buy food. Clarice got worried and her husband started bringing me meals. And he saw what I was doing. And a call went out, throughout the neighborhood. And more and more families sent their mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons. And they brought me meals. And they brought me yarn. And I kept weaving. I didn’t know what I was weaving. But I kept going. I tore out what didn’t feel right – what didn’t feel true. And I kept going. I kept weaving, for fifteen years. People around me had children and grandchildren. Time didn’t stop for anybody else. But it stopped for me, the day Michael Jr. died.
And that entire time, I never really looked at what I’d been doing.
Today, in that beat-up old church in Mantua, West Philly, my tapestry is hanging on their back wall. It’s been covered with a drop cloth. It was covered the entire time they brought it from my tiny apartment. And today, my community has gathered to see it unveiled. All around me are mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. They’re gathered to see what I’ve created.
With a flourish, the drop cloth is removed. And I, just like everybody else in the room, just stare at what hang’s before us. I don’t know how to describe what I’m seeing. Not in any way that would make sense. There are rivers of color rushing from here to there and back again. But I know that’s not what anybody is seeing. That’s not what I’m seeing. No, what I’m seeing is strands of thread, strands of life, connecting the past and the future. I’m seeing a patchwork history and a patchwork future, laid out in color and texture. I’m seeing my people, with their unknowable past and their murky future, cast up upon the wall for all to see.
I’m seeing the past, the present and future brought to life in the present. And as I stand there, I know ten years from now and twenty years from now and a hundred years from now, that this tapestry will carry on my work and my message. I know it will give us the history that has been taken from our people.
I have created a tapestry of my people; and a memorial to my son.
And in this place, this House of the Lord, G-d himself will smile upon us all.
I was struck by the gifts of the Princes in the Torah reading of Naso (Bamidbar Chapter 7). They bring silver bowls and silver ‘dashers’ – meant for tossing things. The silver bowls are made out of simple silver, 130 shekels of it. The dashers are made of 70 shekel of the ‘shekel hakodesh,’ the holy silver. Both silver vessels are filled with fine flour mingled with oil.
There is a third unusual gift, a ‘palm’ (as in from a hand) of gold, filled with incense.
Each of these elements fits into a wider symbolic pattern. As I see it, gold represents the divine and silver the reflection of the divine. The holy silver represents the divine spark within mankind. The flour represents hard work, the oil purification, the incense emotion and the hand action.
But it is not easy to bring these things together into a cohesive message, much less understand why each Prince brings the same offering.
To try to unlock this mystery, I looked at the weights. The number 70 shows up all over the place. I needed to find someplace it followed the same theme as an occurrence of the number 130. And I found something: Adam was 130 when he had Shait (Seth). It was Seth who carried on the legacy of connection to the divine. And Terach was 70 when he had Avraham, Nachor and Haran, the first of whom engendered the Jewish people.
As I looked further, I realized that the slaves emerging from Egypt would have a very poor understanding of their history. The genealogy presented at the beginning of Shemot highlights this – only the genealogy of Reuven and Levi survives past a few generations. And only Levi’s survives to the time of the Exodus. Given this, how would the people know what tribes they belonged to?
For me, the answer comes Bamidbar Chapter 1, Verse 18. There, a most unusual word is used. It can be literally translated as ‘they birthed themselves.’ Just as Emily Jackson knew her son’s history, so too did the generation who emerged from the slavery of Egypt.
A further hint behind the meaning of the silver dishes comes in the preparation for the Prince’s gifts. The Laws of Sotah are about documenting the parentage of future generations. It is about establishing, in the face of jealousy and in a very public way, the legitimacy of children. It is about ensuring that the recently established threads to the past will survive into the future. Sotah doesn’t even need to deliver truth to accomplish that goal – which is why it is so incredibly theatrical.
So, what of the silver vessels? The thread of those who would connect to G-d was started with the birth of Seth – the son of Adam whose descendants had a relationship with G-d. And the thread of the Jewish people – the people of a Holy people who would dash His altar with our offerings – was started with the birth of Avraham to Terach. Through work and purity, flour and oil, both threads are maintained.
The Princes are delivering gifts, one from each tribe, that speak to the threads that connect their people to the origins of Homo Divinus – those who relate to G-d. They all bring the same gift because, despite being from different tribes, they all share this proud past.
On the other side of the equation there is the 10 shekel gold hand, filled with incense. It represents the actions of G-d, so often delivered in 10s, that are driven by His emotional connections to mankind.
With their gifts, the Princes are acknowledging that the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) represents the centerpiece of human history. It represents, for all generations past and all generations to come, the uniting of time-bound man and the timeless G-d in the portal of Holiness so often called the Tent of Meeting.
It is this concept, brought into the present, that the story of Emily Jackson, is meant to convey.
It is this concept, the importance of being part of a thread through time, that I’d like to discuss below…
This week’s story took me quite a while to write. It wasn’t the writing itself, it was the inspiration that I had to hunt for. But it finally came to me this morning. I apologize if I offend anybody through ethnic misrepresentation – once I had this idea in me, I couldn’t write anything else… As always, the story is fictional and I’ve only mentioned that at the bottom because I want the reader to be invested in it.
The story is dedicated to Francis Bartkunsky, the mother of Nat Techelet (a woman in my community and a close friend of my wife’s). I got the news of Francis’ passing while writing the story.
May her memory be a legacy and may she be forever woven into the tapestry of our people.