Joseph: Power and Deception

Joseph: Power and Deception

Parshat Miketz: Genesis 43:16 – 44:11


Howard Adelman

I will summarize the story, but in my version of the lineal order and without the flashbacks that so enhance the suspense. Miketz means “at the end,” for we are coming to the end of the story of Joseph. And we are coming to the end of one cycle of deception and trickery in the exploration of the exercise of power. Instead of starting with the story and then providing an interpretation, the re-telling of the tale follows the revelation of the emotions at work and their meaning as I insinuate and introduce what I believe is the underlying sense of the story.

This is a story of loss, not simply famine in the land, but of famine in one’s heart. For although Joseph is given a wife by the Pharaoh, there is an emptiness, a longing. His heart is impoverished and he yearns to be reunited with his father and his brothers. Perhaps it is the incurable feeling of a boy whose mother died at the birth of his younger brother. It is a story that depends on fear, relieving the predisposition to fear when a stranger comes to a strange land and then escalating that fear. Then relieving it once again only to take that fear to an even higher level and greater degree of intensity.

By gradually increasing the strength of the apparent causes for that fear, without ever revealing the true underlying cause, the drama of the story follows the natural course of any tale of terror and story of fear and trembling. The fact that it is induced by a brother who was once sold into slavery, but is now in a position of power, the fact that the brother who is now in a position of power plays with his brothers and their fears as they do not recognize who he is, adds to the irony and terror of the tale. Joseph behaves as at once imperial and impressive and at other times as exhibiting the greatest self-effacement – than in itself an irony – and modesty. This only exacerbates the feeling of total confusion.

Joseph appears to be gratuitously cruel and merciless in his behaviour towards his brothers, adding to their misery by his capacious and beneficial treatment of them. The fact that the maliciousness appears to be unprovoked, that it seemingly has no roots in their behaviour, makes their suffering all the more intense, especially when everything Joseph seems to do does not seem to be rooted in any inimical motives. The unrestrained and excessive painful treatment plays against the luxuriant excess to which they are otherwise treated. To suffer such wanton orders, both in the direction of profligacy alternating with denial, to be so mean and at the same time, playful with one’s kin from a reader’s perspective, but subjecting them to the most ineffable behaviour, made all the worse by its alterations with mercy from above, is to offer a tale of trouble and turbulence.

Joseph is now in charge. He makes the choices. He determines the action. He is the agent of power. His brothers become putty in his hand, deprived of any control over their own actions. The once precocious, precious and preeminent gleam in his father’s eye has come into his own. Yet Joseph’s actions do not seem to be motivated by spite or an accumulation of vitriol. His actions do not seem heinous, but, upon understanding, seem even more ignominious. He creates situations which justify his actions as if dictated by the objective truth, whereas, personally, he has always behaved towards his brothers with kindness. Of course, this exaggerates their confusion. Rather than vitiating the horror of Joseph’s treatment of his bothers, the sense of their discomfort and then dread is increasingly enhanced as the vicissitudes of fortune and misfortune shift back and forth.

Note that the only truth in the tale is the truth of dreams, the truth of prophecy. The everyday experience of the brothers is of deception when they do not even know they are being played as fools. Veracity is sacrificed for a higher plain of revelation. And the actions are carried out, not by the Pharaoh who will one day visit the same treatment on the Israelites when they try to escape Egypt four hundred years later, but by their own flesh and blood, who, if he has not usurped the authority of the Pharaoh, simply uses and abuses that authority and power for his own playing with the emotions of his brothers. This is really The Tempest, the stormy story of emotional storm emerging from a parched land.

Joseph’s behaviour is far more reckless than that of his brothers who first set out to kill him and then sold him into slavery. Their actions were direct and unabated. They no sooner decided what to do than they carried out their act of villainy. But if their actions were foolhardy and reckless, what of Joseph’s now? After all, why should the brothers be willing to sacrifice Benjamin possibly just to get Simeon back? They could all be taken hostage once they returned with Benjamin. As Joseph now acted in such an audacious and overbearing manner, as he acted in total disregard of his brothers’ emotional fluctuations, and indeed exacerbated them, as he had the effrontery to flout any risk of danger to them suggesting he felt absolute power over the situation, as he, as was his character when he was a boy who so irritated his older brothers, behaved indifferent to propriety and convention, indifferent to any sense of prudence that stood in such extreme contrast to how he behaved in saving for the common good in preventing starvation in a period of famine, Joseph’s impudence and arrogance, his showmanship and effrontery had only grown more extreme with his ascension of power as the overlord or vizier of Egypt. That expression was not an aberration but the expression of the full flowering of his personality.

So he behaved with a smile and a wink, with perfunctory orders while exuding charm and consideration as his brothers shrivelled before him. I realize the text says nothing of this, that it concentrates on laying out the bare facts of what took place, and that I have had to surmise what takes place in the hearts and minds of the main players. But, in that sense, this is precisely how a movie works, and this tale is more like a movie than any other selection in the Torah, a perfectly appropriate after his disappearance, response to a section that is about a dream world that is sometimes filled with nightmares. After his disappearance, Joseph re-appears on the scene as his brothers’ worst nightmare.

The concision of the narrative is so at odds with its emotional richness as each verse is suffused with one dramatic overlay after another so enriched by fluid and liquid colour that was once stitched into Joseph’s technicolour overcoat. Why is Joseph so unperturbed by how he treats his brothers, by the pain his father must feel when he has to send his final and most innocent son forth with his brothers to redeem Simeon? By keeping his motive in his treatment of them so recondite so that they are unable to plumb the meaning of their treatment, their confusion and disorientation mounts. How could a man of such power who, against all norms, stoops to eat with them, how could a man capable of such grandiose hospitality and apparent rectitude possibly be mistreating them? The situation is so literally queer, so unexpected, so unpredictable, that, given everything that has preceded, one cannot help but suspect that Joseph himself is queer, that his propensities are as repressed and hidden as his motives. That he is so punctilious and precise in everything he does just adds to the suspicion. Beneath that seemingly prosaic exterior there must be a promiscuous soul which the brothers cannot discern, but we, the readers, can.

As the story of Joseph continues, he is the effective vizier of Egypt having risen from a stripling of a boy sold off to slavery to become a master of the world’s then most powerful country. He had become the overlord of all of Egypt after both the Pharaoh’s butler and butcher told the Pharaoh of their experience with dream interpretation by a bondsman of the jailer, a Hebrew by the name of Joseph. And his prophecies about the meaning of their dreams had come true and they had both been let out of jail and returned to their positions.

Joseph is a puzzling character. Temperamentally abstemious – certainly with the wife of Porphyry – he is also a man who loves display and the grand dramatic gesture. While never seeming to be intoxicated with the power he has acquired, when he deals with his own brothers, he gets them drunk. Frivolity and excess are juxtaposed against his emotional restraint and control when he first encounters his cynosure, Benjamin, once again after a separation of so many years. His dishonest behaviour with his brothers may be totally reprehensible, but it pales into insignificance with the way they treated him. Joseph is now playing both his father, Jacob, and his uncle, Esau, combining blunt and even acerbic talk with dramatic over-the-top manipulation. This is far beyond the dissembling that any of the women in the Torah had previously practiced.

Is Joseph’s deceit of a very different order of magnitude than that of his brothers or the dissembling of his grandfather and grandmother, of his great-grandfather and great grandmother? For his trickery is not a singular ruse, but a novel in itself. Further, it combines all the intriguing qualities of various demonstrations of the “feminine ruse.”

So the Pharaoh called Joseph before him and told him of two dreams that his wisest advisers had not been able to unpack. It was the story of the seven fat cows which went down beside the river to be joined by seven thin and starving ones. In the second dream, there were seven rich and full stalks of grain beside seven withered stalks. In both dreams, the withered devoured the fat and healthy. Joseph said that they were both dreams about seven years of healthy crops and cattle to be followed by seven years of famine. The dream meant that during the seven fat years, food should be put away to be distributed during the lean years. Joseph told the Pharaoh to appoint an overlord to ensure the forced saving from the fat years. Convinced of Joseph’s brilliant discernment and how sagacious he was, the Pharaoh chose Joseph to be his overlord.

During the first lean year – Joseph would have been thirty-eight-years-old – ten Hebrew brothers came from the land of Canaan to buy grain from the Pharaoh’s grain stores, having been sent by their father to do so. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. He sold them the grain, but then stuffed the coins they paid back into their sacks without their knowing. His servants then accosted them just outside of town and then accused them, not only of theft, but of something far worse, of coming down from Canaan as spies. When they were brought back from the outskirts to Joseph’s house as supplicants, he ordered them to return to the land of their father and return with the youngest brother who was not with them. Joseph kept Simeon as surety for their return.

His half brothers, who sold him into slavery years earlier, return to redeem their brother. Did Joseph continue to keep his identity a secret lest his brothers come to believe that he was motivated in all he did by revenge and only interpret his behaviour as invidious? Simeon had been held hostage as assurance of their promised return. But they were all afraid. Something was not right. Why would a vizier of Egypt invite them to his personal home? Why had he sold them the grain they came for the first time, but stuffed their sacks with the very same coins that they had paid for that grain? Why had he accused them of spying? Why had they not been executed but asked to return with their youngest brother?

Jacob, their father, had sent waves and waves of gifts of sheep and goats to his estranged brother, Esau. Jacob had been very wary of Esau trying to fulfil the promise he made two decades earlier to kill him. The brothers were wary for a different reason; everything did not add up. They had not recognized their brother in his new position. If they had a hint that he was their brother, they would certainly be even more fearful, because they almost killed that brother but, instead, sold him into slavery. To get their money back for the grain they bought, to be invited to his personal home, then to be treated to a lavish banquet, wouldn’t you be suspicious? Would you not be quaking in your boots? Would you not be afraid that he would accuse you of theft and have all the brothers killed, especially now that they had returned with Benjamin as the vizier had ordered?  For, as we learn, this was the second time they had been caught and accused of theft.

The first time, they had been freed and Simeon held hostage. They had to return home as his emissaries. When the vizier had ordered that they could only redeem their brother if they returned with Benjamin, Reuben had pleaded with Joseph. We told you under duress that we had a father and a younger brother. We told you that the child left at home had been born when his father was old, that his only full brother had been killed, and that Jacob, their father, having lost his one son of his most beloved Rachel, would be devastated if they required that they return now with Benjamin. But Joseph was unmoved. Once again they pleaded. This would kill their father. Please do not ask this of us. Joseph was unrelenting and thoroughly unscrupulous.

Their father would greet them upon their return and he would be so distressed. For he had insisted that when they took Benjamin, if any harm befell him, his hair would turn totally grey and he would go to his grave in absolute sorrow. Judah offered himself up as a hostage instead of Benjamin. He did not want his father to die of a broken heart.

Nevertheless, they decamped and returned home. When they returned once again, Joseph greeted them at the door, assured them they did not need to be fearful since the God of their father had returned the money they had paid to them. Joseph’s servants washed their feet and fed their pack animals. These were not simply gestures fulfilling the commandment to welcome the stranger. However, instead of easing their worries, their trepidation escalated. They paid Joseph due homage.

When Joseph saw his younger full-blood brother, he could not contain himself. He was overcome with a paroxysm of emotion. However, he repressed his desire to hug his younger brother and ran off to his bedroom to weep lest his countenance betray him. After he had sequestered himself for awhile, once he had gotten his act together, he returned to the banquet self-possessed. But his brothers became even more disconcerted. This highest and mightiest Egyptian – for, of course, that is who they took him to be – this man who stood next to the Pharaoh’s throne in power, sat down with them to eat. A man of his aristocratic position eating with ordinary herdsmen, that was unheard of in itself. But an Egyptian eating with a Hebrew! Did not Egyptians regard that as an abomination?

But in spite of their rising fears, and perhaps because of those fears, they ate and drank, perhaps even more than usual, and made merry for this could be their last meal. Did they even notice that Joseph had plied Benjamin with five times the lavish food that they had piled onto their plates? If they had, and they must have noticed, that was even more cause for fear. So they said, we have returned with the money we found in our sacks. Further, we have returned with more money to buy more food.

But lo and behold, the same thing happened. When they left once again, their sacks were stuffed not only with grain. Both the money they had brought the first time and the money they had brought the second time had been placed back into their sacks.  But into Benjamin’s sack, a silver goblet was added. They knew nothing of this. Stupefied, they left the vizier’s house the next morning to return to the land of their father. But just outside the city, they were accosted by Joseph’s guards as Joseph had instructed them. The guards had sallied forth and accused them, as they feared all along, of not only stealing back the money they had paid, but the most precious piece of silver in the vizier’s household.

The brothers, of course, professed their total innocence. And as was the custom of such stories, they insisted that if anyone of them had been found with the governor’s silver, then he must surely be put to death. So Joseph’s servants went through the sacks, each in turn, from the eldest to the youngest. When they got to the last sack, what did they find? The silver goblet, of course. Of all the sacks to find such an object, to have it found in that of the youngest brother, the epitome of innocence, had to cause them real shock. I am sure that by the time the servants came to the sack of the youngest that they must have been fully relieved. For it was possible to imagine that one of the older brothers had done the dastardly deed. But never Benjamin!

All their mourning and rending their clothes did no good. They were now returned to Joseph’s house as prisoners and they feared the worst. Was this not a repetition of what had happened the first time when they had been caught outside the city with money in their sacks and ordered to return with Benjamin?  Genuflect all they could, they could not evade being remonstrated and castigated by Joseph for betraying his hospitality. They offered to be enslaved rather than be put to death. But Joseph appeared to be inclined to be lenient and would only keep Benjamin as his bondsman. The other brothers were ordered to go home and this third time, return with their father.  What were they to make of this behaviour, at once both so generous and so unexpected, and, at the same time, so unexpected?

Tune in again next week at the next episode in this series.

Rachel Dolezal and Racism Redux

Rachel Dolezal and Racism Redux


Howard Adelman

In response to my article on Rachel Dolezal and Racism, I received two important items in response. One by Cecil Foster is reprinted below and repeated as an attachment. The other goes to the heart of the issue of deception, the letter from the Executive Producer of KXLY News explaining their role in the affair. The letter of explanation can be found at:

Rather than clearing up the matter, the open letter indicates that the local media station approached the matter within two frames, that of somatic Blackness that I described, which is a matter of philosophical analysis and not just given facts, and suspicion that Rachel was dissembling about allegations of racial harassment. With regard to the first issue, the news outlet noted that, “we and other journalists heard rumblings that Dolezal was not being truthful about her race.” In other words, to be truthful is to publicly display that you are not genetically Black when your whole point and belief is that Blackness is NOT about race, but rather that race as a biological construct is a prime source of the problem. The issue for the news outlet was that the anonymous callers had no proof that Rachel was not biologically Black when a simple check of her records at Howard University would have established that she considered herself to be a genetically and biologically white woman when she had been a student and had not yet come to see that this way of categorizing the issue was part of the problem.

On the second matter of whether Rachel was lying or telling the truth to police about racial harassment complaints, the letter points to evidence that does not substantiate their suspicions, but that there was no proof of Rachel lying. So why is this part of the account except to provide additional ammunition on the main story line, that Rachel Dolezal was a dissembler.

On the first issue, the Executive Producer of News at the station wrote, “Humphrey [Jeff Humphrey, a senior reporter at the station] heard from a trusted source that there was more to Dolezal’s story. Specifically, that Dolezal had been lying about her race and misleading her employers, the city of Spokane, her students and the community.” In other words, the story focus became whether Rachel Dolezal was being open and honest about her race, even if she questioned the very framework of the question. It is clear that this News Media either did not wish to or was incapable of raising that issue about its own query.

That is when, so to speak, the “shit hit the fan.” “Humphrey reached out to her parents in Montana – on a phone number found through a simple search – and, they confirmed what the source had said: Dolezal is a white woman, born to white parents, with childhood photos and the birth certificate to prove it.” This simply confirmed that, contrary to the difficulty they claimed about ascertaining Rachel’s genetic roots, the answer could easily be found. What they did not do was ask why that was an important question and, even further, what was behind asking such a question. Then they might have confirmed that Rachel Dolezal believed that genetics was irrelevant to being Black and they could have written a much more interesting though more difficult to grasp story on that subject. The story that Rachel was simply a liar is far easier to convey. In my view and in my categories, if we are to reject the “one drop rule” and the premise of racism altogether, then depicting Rachel as a white woman is the source of the misrepresentation.

Now wait a minute, you might insist, are you saying she is not White? Yes. I am saying three things: 1) that she is certainly not White culturally; 2) she rejects being White as an aspiration; 3) the very premise of someone being genetically White is itself a fraud. It is the failure of the media outlet to question its own framework and premises that is far more important than whether Rachel Dolezal was trying either to disguise or to avoid the question of whether her parents were white.

Just read the triumphalist tone of the Executive Producer’s account of what took place. “As the world has now seen, Jeff confronted Dolezal and she stumbled, saying she didn’t ‘understand the question’ about whether or not she was black. She walked off the interview and we knew we had the next piece of our story.” How does one handle an interviewer who, stricken with mindblindness, refuses even to consider that his frame for asking his question may be misguided. Rachel was not and is not a philosopher, though she is very articulate. But she does stumble when trying to cut through the racial framing of one reporter after another. I am surprised, given how frustrating it must be for her, that she does not blow up and tell them how dogmatic and misguided they are. Instead, she retains her cool.

The Executive Producer then concluded, “At that point, it was shocking and confirmed our source’s information (and her parents’ information), but we needed to put it in context, prove why it mattered.” Did they ever establish why it was shocking, except to anyone steeply rooted in obsolete somatic racial stereotyping? No. Did the news station ever establish why it mattered, except to insist repeatedly that not openly owning up to one’s supposed genetic roots was deception. But what if you deeply believe that genetics is irrelevant to the issue? What if you get tired and frustrated that the reporters fail to open up to the fact that the way they ask the question is misguided and reinforces racism?

The account then goes on. “By the time we were ready to put Dolezal’s interview out to the world, Spokane Mayor David Condon issued a statement, saying the city was investigating Dolezal’s ethics in relation to the police oversight committee and we had a solid news hook.” Why was the news hook not an inquiry why Mayor Condon was investigating the issue in the first place? Had Rachel committed a crime? Was she even guilty of moral turpitude? She refused to engage in a discussion in terms of her identity based on racial stereotyping. I find that perfectly understandable, though it would not be a tactic I would personally choose.

“Our story – his interview – blew up. At once, this once-respected teacher, leader and advocate became a national punchline.” The fact that this Executive Producer was never able to conceive of a frame that rose above racial stereotyping is the real story. The fact that this was another case of using the media to create mass hysteria over something totally irrelevant to bring down someone whom the Executive Producer agrees was a respected teacher, leader and advocate, is the real story.

The mindblindness of KXLY News and most of the media coverage in the United States, including very highly regarded journalists, is the real story.

The account concludes as follows:

“So, why does it matter? Our community was misled. We trusted this voice to speak for those without a voice. We trusted her to teach our students. We stood by her when she said she and her family were targeted and afraid. We rallied alongside Dolezal and her family in front of city hall, with community members carrying signs of support. We’re a trusting community and she broke that trust.” But where did she break that trust? In her performance? In her refusal to accept the categories of racism fostered by the station’s own questions? And the fall out of the media failure is terrible, not only for Rachel, but for the community which will have learned little except to encourage people to be less trusting of what others say and not being able to ask questions about the presumptions behind their own questions. And it is very troubling for the role of journalists. “What did we, as journalists, learn from this? Trust your gut.In my interpretation, this means that you should surrender to the prejudices you carry with you in your mind and mental framework rather than learning how to analyze and question them. According to the Executive Producer, if you cannot trust your gut, you will never be able “to put news in context for the people you serve.”

That erroneous conviction is the story, and the Executive Producer missed it.

Now for Cecil Foster’s Response to My Essay on Rachel Dolezal

He first note I received was very brief:

“Thanks for sharing this interesting piece.  It is (by far) the most illuminating thing I’ve read about this case. It deserves a WIDE readership.  Has it been loaded onto any of the customary social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn)?  I’d like to forward/tweet it if possible.”
Cecil then sent a much longer and even better take on the story than I provided as follows:

Dear Howard,

I think you are justified in holding fast to your views on Rachel Dolezal. You might not be in the majority—and neither am I even among some black friends and academic contemporaries—but you are reasoned and justified. Of course being in my company might not be much of a consolation.

The two main events of the past week that caught our attention in a big way—Rachel Dolezal and the Mother Emanuel Church massacre/terrorism—are cut from the same cloth. Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Roof make us confront the meaning of an identity like black and blackness and what it means in the modern world.

1) Rachel Dolezal came into the black community, got to know it well, indeed, intimately. She willingly became a daughter of the community through marriage and produced for the community—not mixed race, transracial, postracial, half white, half black—but two black sons. She took on the mannerisms of black culture, spoke the lingo and even put a kink in her hair—and as every man of any colour or ethnicity knows, you don’t mess with a black woman and her hair. She joined the cause of the black community for social justice and took on a leadership role, ultimately heading up a local chapter of NAACP. When she had a choice of identity, she always said I am black. She lived black at a time when even some who were supposedly born black and never had to worry about this ascription were moving away from blackness. She fully embraced blackness. Like a modern woman joining a family through marriage or a profession of love, Dolezal became one with the community, took its name/identity, and out of her own body produced the fruits that would carry on the name and identity—not of her former affiliates—but of her preferred community and family. Her past might have been with others, and over that she had no say, but her future was/is with the black community. She sought to give the black community life from generation to generation and in a world of social justice.

Dylann Roof came into the black community. He was welcomed, as relatives of the slaughtered testified, with opened arms. He entered the inner sanctuary of blackness in America: the black church, choosing one of the most historic in the nation. He sat with those poring over the finer points of the community’s most holy text. They exposed him to their thinking and reasoning. He was taken into the heart of the faith that supposedly is the bedrock of black culture. They invited him to stay and share and to learn—to know and understand liturgical things that even many authentic members of the black community do not know or have forgotten. He was allowed to drink deep from this inner well. He endured it for almost an hour. He was distilled in the faith that was instilled in him. He was being initiated. The experience was so good, for he was treated so well by everyone, that he almost changed his mind from completing his “mission.” My belief is that they would have even offered him an altar-call, or would have invited him to come again for further preparation, so that eventually, when such a call came, he would accept and in the twinkling of an eye be transformed into a full member of the black church and community. They were all so nice to him, he said. But he pulled out his gun and slaughtered nine of them, hoping this would be the beginning of a reign of death on blackness. He did not transform—he remained a somatically white man with mythologically the most deadly of weapons “a black heart—evil.” That is the story of one type of the “other” who comes among the people (the initiated) in any known human, and sometimes, animal form, but who is only Evil. Only the heart makes the Other different from the people. In every black community there are stories about black-hearted men. Check out August Wilson’s play Joe Turner Come and Gone and those who stole the black men of the community. Remember the founders of the first black republic in the Americas. Those Haitians said based on the purity of their heart and their good works that the Poles and Germans among them, though somatically white, were black because they fought for the revolution and freedom from slavery for all. They said all slave owners—and some were black— regardless of somatic colour, were white. Roof wanted death for the black community. He was blackhearted. In this case it is clear who is black and who is white here.

2) Let us shift to an ethno-racial register where we try to make sense of this identity issue based on “hard facts” of genes and nature and biology rather than mythology. Perhaps Dolezal is teaching her parents—and by extension much of white America as historians as early as Van Woodward told them—that they aren’t what they think they are. So Dolezal’s parents outed her: they claimed the ancestry they gave her is a mixture of various eastern European bloods with some Native American added in. We know that for a long time much of Eastern, and even parts of Western Europe, were ethnically and racially black. In an Anglo-Saxon dominant world, which was the early North American formation, all but Anglo-Saxon Protestants were black. Indeed, the Hungarians, Italians and Irish—as well as the wandering Jew of any complexion—only recently escaped into whiteness from being black. If the KKK, Skinheads and the likes of Roof were to have their way, some of them would be kicked right out of whiteness pronto. But the parents say more—that there is a commingling of Caucasian and Native American. So after they were brought into whiteness as Caucasians there was degeneration: the Native American. Which means that somewhere in Dolezal’s past there would have been a “Half-breed,” and by the one-drop rule of Modernity, all “half-breeds” were black and so black that, as the unnatural product of superior and inferior races, the product had to be for evermore of the inferior identity. The family could, genetically, never be white/Caucasian again. Not only are Rachel and her sons black by Modernity’s miscegenation rules, but so are her parents. But that would not surprise us since the southern historians have long told us that technically almost all (southern in particular) whites in the U.S. are really black genetically.

3) This leads to the question of who is “authentically” black. And for some time we have acknowledged that there is no objective proof or that authenticity truths are not self-evident. So we moved to the solution of self-identification. You are who you tell me you are as only you can know yourself genuinely and I take your word for it until proven otherwise. Authenticity is proven analogously. We are all innocent until proven guilty—the guilt coming from our actions to portray the black heart within; or our innocence is proven by our personality of producing actions that could only flow analogous from a pure heart. Dolezal says she is black. What is the evidence against her to prove otherwise: that she “deceptively” acted to further blackness acting as if she were black and that she was so good at it that she darn well fooled everyone for so long. Why analogously her action would make us believe that she is what she said she was!!! Go figure. Roof identified as a white racist intent on destroying black people. He had the opportunity to change and walk away: he chose to be authentic to his whiteness. His actions confirmed the person he self-identified as truly Dylann Roof. No doubt here—he said he was what his actions proved; she said she was what her actions proved.

Modern society treasures, and is organized around, the ideal of freedom, especially freedom of choice. Ultimately, we are who we choose to be. Choice is at the heart of self-determination and particularly progressive freedom. As a modern being I can choose not to die the person I was born. I can change, and change as many times as I want, while searching for the ideal me. A truly free modern man/woman is a self-made. As creatures of a culture of freedom Dolezal and Roof made choices; they made themselves: Dolezal’s to be black and kind hearted; Roof to be white and blackhearted.

Finally,  black/blackness are in the end mere identities—empty signifiers. We are constantly emptying out old content and putting in new. Gay no longer simply means happy, and neither does fairy, or slut have negative connotations. The transgendered are who they know they are in their head regardless of how they look, smell, taste or appear to us. Barack Hussein Obama, the child of white and black parents, might never be black enough because he never lived in the projects and did not live the deep social inequalities of that lifestyle; nobly in his ancestry, he never lived on the “real” plantation. But then for those saying Obama is not black enough, neither are West Indians, even though their ancestors were on the plantations, for they have English, French, Spanish and other European mannerisms that make them less than American. Modernity is constantly killing off the old signified and refilling with new to give new meaning, or to argue a perspective. So is the case of black/blackness.

To my reasoning Dolezal is black even if she is not African-American. But then again, someone like me is deemed unquestionably black even though I am not African-American. African-American is a totally different social construction from black and perhaps that is the problem here: that too many people are conflating the two terms and thereby mishearing Dolezal when she says she is black.

Cecil Foster, PhD

Professor and Interim Chair

Department of Transnational Studies

732 Clemens Hall

SUNY at Buffalo


New York 14260

United States

Tel: (716) 645-2082 & 716-645-0786

Fax: (716) 645-5976


Recent books:

Victimization by the Merciful

Victimization by the Merciful


Howard Adelman

The hardest challenge by far for any international humanitarian aid organization is the responsibility for treating those whom the NGO wants to help as agents in their own right with feelings and thoughts. They – the abductees in this case – not the humanitarians, have been the main determinants of their own survival. In the horrors perpetrated on the abducted children by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the victims have not just been abducted and abused and enslaved; they have not just been forcibly removed from their family and friends. And they have not just been indoctrinated into becoming part of a killing machine. They are survivors. And they had to negotiate and devise ways to survive.

For there is an unbridgeable contradiction between the need of an international humanitarian aid organization in order to raise funds for their cause, the necessity, on the one hand, to portray themselves as the indispensable and sine qua non without whom the victims could not survive and escape from their victimization, and the need to portray those they are helping simply as hapless victims. Yet those abductees have done for themselves far more than any outside agency can bring to the task, for it is they who have survived. It is they who had to scheme and plan and calculate how to get through each day. The NGOs must realize and recognize the relatively minor added value an aid organization brings to the situation. But if that organization does not portray itself as indispensable, as the sine qua non without which the victims will remain hapless and helpless, why would anyone donate funds to the organization?

Look first at the situation the young boys and girls found themselves in as soon as they were abducted. They were suddenly cast into a totally alien environment. Instead of the security of home, instead of the support of family and friends, they have been thrust among total strangers. If they were abducted with another friend or family member, which most are, they must almost immediately learn to hide that fact just when they most need the support of another. For if they do not immediately learn to hide and disguise the fact that they know another, if they do not quickly master the art of dissembling and misrepresenting what they really know, they pose the greatest danger to both themselves and their friends and relatives.

If they reveal that another abductee is a close friend or family member, if they do not almost immediately learn to hide their relationships, if they slip and the abductors realize that another member of the abducted group is a close friend or family member, then they will have to learn the hardest way of all the first lesson that the abductors must and do teach the abductees – that they are all alone, that they are totally dependent on the LRA for their survival. At the same time, they must retain the sense that they must rely on themselves for survival. Further, if they fail to learn that lesson, if they reveal what must remain hidden at precisely the time when the abductees most need another for support, then, at best, they will be separated and find themselves further alone, or else one of the two will be killed, or, worst of all, they will be “asked” to murder the other as the first act in their initiation in the new laws of the jungle.

Further, if they have already been raised and taught that the jungle is an alien place haunted by malevolent spirits, if they have already been acculturated into the magic and superstitious beliefs about this alien and threatening environment, then the task is all the harder and their fears are much greater. So the abductor has the task of isolating and alienating the abductee from his or her home environment. The abductee is then most in need of security of home and hearth. It is the first and most formidable challenge facing an abductee to negotiate this most fundamental and most difficult initial hurdle.

Assuming these very young boys and girls learn that lesson – and they have to learn it in order to survive – they then have to quickly master the “rules” of their new rulers and masters. And those rules are best absorbed if they are totally incorporated into one’s mind and heart. And the first and foremost rule is that they must be heartless, heartless in their treatment of others and, most importantly, heartless in their treatment of themselves. They must first betray the very essence of their being as a human. Yet if they surrender their essential humanity, they are totally lost and simply become one of the walking dead. They must learn to be schizophrenics.

They must retain their ability to master and manipulate a situation which will, at one and the same time, allow them to survive and, on the other hand, allow them to survive as humans. It is an absolutely impossible task. One comes only at the expense of the other. But if the expenditure is too great, then they are lost. So how do they learn to successfully manage and manipulate the situation in which they find themselves? This is a challenge thrown at those almost least equipped to overcome the difficulties – young teenagers and children below ten.

Look at the tasks that face them. They cannot have a mentor who openly teaches them the tricks of the trade. They must pick up those lessons by osmosis and acute observation. Where just hours and days before, they were primarily taken care of by others, they suddenly must fend for themselves. They must acquire the necessary skills to survive in a polity not committed to their survival and in a natural environment that they have been taught is filled with malevolent spirits. They must learn to interpret the everyday, not as friendly and supportive, but as alien, which they have already been taught. For those religious precepts are the only basic framework which they have inherited, to become masters of their own situation lest that new situation overwhelms them and drowns out their spirits.

All this must be accomplished within an environment of constraint and fear. Which beliefs are reinforced by what is happening to them? Which beliefs – such as beliefs in helping another – must be discarded, or, at the very least, repressed, in order to survive? So they must develop the outlook and the skills using whatever inherited resources at hand to control whatever small degree of freedom of action they can possibly squeeze out of a situation. And they can only do so by driving their most deep-seated beliefs even deeper into the underground of their own souls. They must develop not only the tools of survival, but the tools of hidden resistance as well. They must learn the most fundamental lesson of all, the one that the abductors are most determined to exorcise, that they are the masters of their own souls, that they are not passive victims but are agents of their own destiny.

But it is much worse. They are forced to become complicit in committing atrocities. Not only atrocities against a purported enemy, not only atrocities against their fellow abductees, but atrocities against their very sense of what it is to be a decent human being. The challenge of survival has been compounded by an almost impossible task in a situation in which they have been deprived of the most basic security and the emotional and intellectual supports to meet such a challenge.

Then imagine their escape. Imagine their return. Imagine the task they have of both learning to forget and re-learning who they once were and are no longer. And imagine facing that task in a context in which those dedicated to helping you, by the very nature of the support those agencies need to muster, also view you as a hapless victim rather than the agent of your own survival. Now in this most benevolent environment, the skills of deception and disguise acquired in the jungle are reinforced rather than discarded.

However, in this case, they are not just victims. They have been perpetrators. Not one can escape that label. They must deal with their own shame and guilt without full acceptance of that fact by those trying to help them. For, at the same time as humanitarian NGOs are pressured by their own circumstances to portray those they are dedicated to helping as victims in need of help and not agents who have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to survive, the former abductees must be complicit in reinforcing an image of themselves as innocent victims and not agents of the most atrocious crimes.

So they are doubly deprived of agency – as agents of their own survival and as agents complicit in denying the survival of others. In the choice of whether to kill or be killed, they were forced to choose to be killers in order to be agents who survive. To the extent an NGO recognizes and publicizes this latter essential phenomenon, to that extent do those agencies undermine their own efforts in fundraising. After all, who wants to give money to support those guilty of heinous crimes? The very act of charity then will almost certainly induce an initial feeling that, in doing so, one is complicit in the crime itself.

So the former abductees must, of necessity, rely on the very same tools of deception and misrepresentation that they were taught in the jungle. They must, in the case of female abductees, now become complicit in portraying themselves as rape victims and sex slaves in the hands of their abductors rather than as active explorers of the world of sex, never mind as porters, cooks, and even enthusiastic participants in attacks, abductions and slaughters. They must participate in the construction of an identity so essential to the agency dedicated to helping them. Once complicit in murder, it is far easier to be complicit in reinforcing the basic lie necessary to the very essence of humanitarian aid, the lie of their pure victimhood.

Once relatively powerless as abductees, they must again be portrayed as powerless by their ostensible saviours. Once subject to the imperious barking commands of their overlords, they now must submit to the soothing care of those who would bring them help rather than fill them with fear. But it is care accepted at great cost – they must be cast in a movie once again of themselves as merely victims and, thus, be doubly victimized as they seek survival, not in an atmosphere of extreme repression and oppression, but in an atmosphere of loving care. Having been indoctrinated to spit on pity for others as well as for themselves, they must now repress that deep and hard-won lesson.

Having returned from a moral order that was harsh, brutal and usually short, they have come back to a context in which they are similarly subjected to the whims and fantasies, not now of their tormentors, but to the bleeding hearts who offer them help and assistance. And they must hide the fact now that they have acquired at a very deep level a disdain for sympathy and empathy. It is hardly the best environment conducive to facing the depth and extent of their own spiritual contamination. Once again, the rules of the game, however well-intentioned and benign this time, are being set by others. And this is almost more difficult, for, at the very least, the bad guys were clearly identifiable previously. Now, to survive as an agent responsible for one’s own being and destiny, one must again master the art of becoming internal strangers, but this time in an atmosphere where one’s masters have come to the situation, not with whips and guns, but with a helping and supposedly loving hand, but a hand resistant to grasping the horror that has penetrated your own soul.

Finally, in defining the Acholi conflict as a humanitarian rather than a political crisis, international human rights and humanitarian organizations undercut and help hide the reality that behind the moral conflict there is a deeper political one, one between the Acholi and the Ugandan government in Kampala. And these humanitarian agencies are in league with that government. Thus, their ostensible friends are cast into the camp of enemies. Instead of facing a command structure simply of evil, they now have to face one in which good lies in bed with evil. The alien other has a much stronger hand than the simple evil of a Joseph Cony. It is even more difficult to resist and survive as an individual responsible for oneself in such an ostensibly benevolent atmosphere.

Is it any surprise that re-integration is so difficult for abductees?

Tomorrow: Justice Without Mercy: The Paradox of the International Criminal Court