Esther, Ethnic-Betrayal, and African-Americans
Throughout African-American history, there have been some African-Americans who have lived in higher positions in the social order than the vast majority. During the time of slavery, the “House Negroes” typically experienced better access to resources than the “Field Negroes.” This caused people like Malcolm X to describe the African-Americans who had access to more resources than the vast majority of African-Americans, but did not seem to leverage their influence for the improvement of the broader community as “House Negroes.”
This animosity originates with the sinful abomination of slavery and the specific usage of “slaves” by their “masters.” On a large plantation, the vast majority of slaves did not live in the house, but were field workers. Furthermore, because of the relative privileges that the “house negroes” enjoyed, they typically had more to lose from resisting their “masters” than the “field hands.” Therefore, “masters” capitalized on this reluctance to resist by using the house slaves to keep an eye on the field slaves. Many planned escapes of African-American slaves were sabotaged because a “privileged slave” warned the “masters.”
In the history of African-American Philosophy, a disdain developed towards those who refused to take advantage of their relative privilege to help the broader community. This contempt is magnified when a person’s actions seem to support the oppression of Black people rather than resist it. As African-Americans have gained some progress in their quest for freedom, the divide between those who have obtained positions of influence in the society, and the broader community, who are still largely under-represented in the decision-making of our nation still remains.
This prompts the question: As members of a historically disenfranchised and oppressed people, what is the responsibility of African-Americans when they gain positions of influence or power? Is it right for the broader community to expect some allegiance to the African-American community for freedom? I believe the story of Esther gives us insight into this question.
Esther the Advocate
The story describes how God blessed Esther with beauty, and sovereignly made room for a vacancy in the influential position of Queen (Es. 2:3-9, 15-17). Esther eventually became the Queen, and enjoyed the privileges of royalty and power, even though she was a Jew. Meanwhile, her uncle Mordecai was among the broader community of Jews and was eventually commanded to bow to an anti-Semite named Haman. His refusal to bow gave rise to Haman’s hatred of Jewish people and caused him to leverage his position of power to influence the King to carry out a plan to destroy the Jews (Es. 3:1-15).
A law was formed to support Haman’s purpose to exterminate the Jews. Mordecai, recognizing the strategic position of his fellow Jew and niece Esther, demanded she leverage her position of power to plead the cause of her people to the King (Es. 4:7-8). Initially she refused to take on her responsibility by citing the danger that the endeavor would present to her (Es. 4:9-11). Mordecai then rebukes her for valuing her safety and comfort over the opportunity to help them due to her position (Es. 4:12-14). Finally, Esther decides to help, and tactfully uses her position to advocate for her people by approaching the King on their behalf (Es. 4:15-16, 5:1-7:6).
Lessons from Esther
Esther makes an interesting statement when she appeals to the King for the Jewish community: “For how can I endure to see the calamity which will befall my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” (Es. 8:6) Esther communicates the absurdity of being in a position of influence, and not being willing to advocate for her people. I would like to draw some implications in light of her story:
1) Esther did not hold to politics of respectability. The story implies Esther could have responded that Mordecai should have bowed down to Haman in order to avoid the danger he put him and the rest of his people in. But we do not see this discussion in the text. She recognizes the more imminent concern was to disrupt the plans of the oppressor in power to ensure that justice would be done.
2) Mordecai expected Esther to use her position of power to advocate for her people. He commanded Esther to go to the King on her people’s behalf, and rebuked her initial reluctance.
3) Mordecai points out God gives us positions of influence to ensure justice is carried out. He tells Esther God had placed her in a position for “a time like this” to be an advocate for her people (Es. 4:14).
4) The story of Esther seems to assume we are to advocate what is right, no matter the cost. Esther was facing death for approaching the King without being summoned (Es. 4:11), but Mordecai expected her to fight for the oppressed, even in spite of the risk.
Esther and the African-American Community
The story of Esther reveals some key truths relevant to the tension between relatively privileged African-Americans and the broader Black community. First, I think it gives a critique to “the politics of respectability.” Some African-Americans assert in order to alleviate racial-profiling and injustices, Blacks should act in such a way that is consistent with the broader culture (ex. Dress, Hairstyles, Language, Culture). However, Esther shows us people do not have to act a certain way to earn the right for dignity, respect, and justice; these things are inherent within their possession of the Imago Dei. This is why Esther did not send a message to Mordecai criticizing him for not bowing to Haman.
Consequently, African-Americans should not be required to “bow the knee” to White cultural norms and/or White supremacy in order to earn the right to be treated fairly. Secondly, African-Americans are right to expect the members of their Ethnic-group who have positions of power to advocate for the concerns that affect the broader Black community. Some African-Americans out of frustration use certain language (Uncle Tom, House Nigger) to describe the individuals who seem to betray them, because of their unwillingness to advocate for what they perceive as legitimate issues relevant to the African-American community.
I think the story of Esther shows the legitimacy to expect those within your ethnic family to advocate for the broader group who are enduring oppression. Thirdly, the story of Esther reveals that God sovereignly allows some people from Ethnically oppressed groups to obtain influence for the purpose of leveraging their power on the oppressed’s behalf (See Joseph: Genesis ch. 37-50; Moses: Exodus).
I believe that African-Americans who hold positions of influence have been put there by God for the expressed purpose of being a voice for the oppressed people from his or her Ethnic group. Lastly, Esther shows us that African-Americans cannot excuse themselves from the responsibility to advocate for their broader ethnic group because they may suffer for it. I have seen some African-Americans who seem to value their position of prestige and privilege so much that they are unwilling to risk losing it by advocating for things that may upset those who give them these privileges.
I am not judging the motives of all African-Americans, but it seems that many feel how Esther felt initially because of the weight of the risk to upset the establishment. I pray more African-Americans with positions of power and influence, when they consider who they vote for, when they consider policy changes, and when they are confronted with the cries of their ethnic community that they will repeat the sentiment of Esther when she bravely and empathetically said: “How can I endure to see the calamity which will endure my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred” (Es. 8:6)?