Writing in a Time of Peril 3.26.2020

The US CDC reported 54,453 total (confirmed and presumptive) COVID-19 cases (10,270 new) and 737 deaths (193 new) nationwide on March 25. The Johns Hopkins CSSE dashboard is reporting 69,246 US cases and 1,046 deaths as of noon EDT on March 26. 85, 991 and 1,271 deaths representing 534 new deaths as of 9:00 pm EST 3.26.20 20.

Most African Americans of Christian heritage were taught selected stories from the Bible. My Sunday school was no different. One series of stories taught was from Exodus. The enslavement of the Israelites. The edict to kill all Israelite infants. Moses in the bulrushes. Moses found and adopted into the royal family. Moses fled into the desert. God spoke directly to Moses and charged him with liberating the Israelites. 

The story of people living in cruelest slavery and being liberated echoed the experiences as our elders during American slavery. In most African American churches, we sang the story. 

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d 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

–Traditional Negro Spiritual 

To force Ramses to free the Israelites, God visited 10 plagues on Egypt. He turned the Nile into blood, sent swarms of frogs, and infestations of lice, pestilence, and boils. He  rained fire and ice and, finally, full darkness upon the land. When Ramses didn’t relent, God communicated his intent to kill all of the first born sons of Egypt. He also gave Israelites strict instructions. Stay indoors after placing the blood of young lambs or goats on their doors. It was in that way that God would know what households to visit with death. Only after that last terrible threat was understood, did Ramses relent and let the Israelites go. Moses gathered the Israelites and they fled. But, Ramses changed  his mind and chased after the Israelites with his mighty army. The Israelites found themselves trapped by the Red Sea. Pharos army was almost upon them when, God parted the sea and allowed the Israelites to pass. When Pharaoh’s Army pursued them onto the sea bed, Pharaoh’s army drowned. Most African American churches sang this event into song as well.

Oh Mary Don’t You Weep 

Moses stood on the Red Sea shore
Smotin’ the water with a two by four,
Pharaoh’s Army got drownded,
Oh Mary don’t you weep.

Oh Mary don’t you weep, don’t you moan 

Oh Mary don’t you weep, don’t you moan,
Pharaoh’s Army got drownded,
Oh Mary don’t you weep.

The Lord told Moses what to do
To lead those Hebrew children through,

Oh Mary don’t you weep, don’t you moan 
Oh Mary don’t you weep, don’t you moan,
Pharaoh’s Army got drownded,
Oh Mary don’t you weep.

–Traditional Pre–Civil War Negro Spiritual

Even though, I no longer attend church services other than weddings, baptisms, funerals, and family gatherings, this story and these songs have been falling with me into sleep and awakening me two morning in a row. Now, please understand, I have just rendered to you my Sunday school memories of the stories of Exodus. I don’t vouch for strict scripture accuracy. That said, while I didn’t question it as a child or as an young adult, I find it  very disturbing that Pharaohs and God killed whole generations of children for whatever reason. 

We are being given guidance and required, by some state and local governments, and public health official, to prepare for and live through an apocalyptic virus that we do not have immunity, treatments, and vaccines for. I try to grasp the enormity of Covid–19 by combining what I remember of and what my elders told me about slavery, our liberation, The Recontruction Era, WWI, The Red Summer, the 1919 Influenza Pandemic, the Great Depression, and WWII. I seed my dreams to ask my elders how they survived privation, separation, and the deaths of so many, while doing their part to care for themselves, their neighbors, and their country. 

The Passover story resonates with me, because the Israelites were told how to survive true existential events and how to celebrate their survival when those threats passed. 

African American had a song for our  survival celebrations.

How I got over,
how I got over,
my soul looks back and wonders
how I got over.

_ Clara Ward 1950

All this is to say, I’ve been searching for prospective, for wisdom, for reassurance, and for survival skills and tools for what is already here and still coming. 

And, I’m looking out my window and observing clear–blue skies, a few pencil-thin-wispy clouds, blue birds and sparrows scratching for and finding grubs, my neighbors taking walks and waving as I sit and write in our study that faces our street. I’m going down my to-do list of selfcare: meditate, eat well, rest well, get exercise, connect, connect, connect, stay home, except for the pharmacy & the grocery & then only with mask and gloves & when there a very few people about. Watch less TV, but stay informed. Laugh a lot. Channel fear and rage into expression, action and art. 

I put on Liz Wright’s, Fellowship album. I listen to the whole album, but I repeat, “Presence of the Lord,” whenever it comes on. 

I continue to chronicle these times.

© Andrea Canaan, MSW, MFA



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