When will Holder let his people go? Sing it Robeson!

While I hadn't weighed in on the subject as I perhaps should have, Michelle Malkin's post about Eric Holder's now-infamous "my people" remark inspired me to get off my duff:

My fellow Americans, who are "your people"? I ask because U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, used the phrase "my people" in congressional testimony this week. It was an unmistakably color-coded and exclusionary reference intended to deflect criticism of the Obama Justice Department's selective enforcement policies. It backfired.

In pandering to skin-deep identity politics and exacerbating race-consciousness, Holder has given the rest of us a golden opportunity to stand up, identify "our people" and show the liberal poseurs what post-racialism really looks like.

I couldn't agree more with her central premise that "our people" are Americans.

For starters, that whole "we the people" thing does mean all of us who live here in the United States.

But to be honest, I have never used "my people" to describe myself along with my fellow citizens. It has too much of an identity politics ring for comfort, and I am probably too much of an individualist to be comfortable with it. Besides, if I started saying "my people" in conversation, most people would not know what I was talking about, and I would expect to be asked. Then I would have to explain that I was using the phrase in retaliation for what Eric "My People" Holder said, and maybe they'd get it, maybe not.

I have long associated the phrase with the Paul Robeson song, "Let My People Go."

The song which has the phrase is actually "Go Down Moses," which is a Negro Spiritual (I guess I am allowed to say that as long as I provide a proper link).

In the song "Israel" represents the African-American slaves while "Egypt" and "Pharaoh" represent the slavemaster.

Going "down" to Egypt is derived from the Biblical origin, where Egypt is consistently perceived as being "below" other lands, with going to Egypt being "down" [1] while going away from Egypt is "up".[2] In the context of American slavery, this ancient sense of "down" converged with the concept of "down the river" (the Mississippi), where slaves' conditions were notoriously worse, a situation which left the idiom "sell [someone] down the river" in present-day English.[3]

So, while it is undeniably based on identity politics, the identity of the people was switched to fit the times.  

When David Bernstein linked the video last year, he said "Happy Passover" by way of a reminder.  

Although Robeson did more to make the song famous than almost anyone, its use was much older, and it was a rallying song of "Contrabands" (confiscated freed slaves) in 1862. 

...the earliest recorded use of the song was as a rallying anthem for the Contrabands at Fort Monroe sometime before July 1862. Early authorities presumed it was composed by them.[4] Sheet music was soon after published, titled "Oh! Let My People Go: The Song of the Contrabands" and arranged by Horace Waters. L.C. Lockwood, chaplain of the Contrabands, stated in the sheet music the song was from Virginia, dating from about 1853.[5]

Seeing as the slaves were not considered citizens, the use of the phrase "my people" made sense, especially because it arose from the enslavement of another group of people at the hands of the Pharaohs. The phrase "let my people go" comes from the Bible:

And the LORD spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Let my people go, that they may serve me.

Whether that's the earliest use of the phrase, I do not know.

As to whether it could be said to have constituted identity politics, I guess that's open to interpretation too. Certainly it would not in the modern sense of the term. But identity politics springs from the oppression of one group by another. That this happens is understandable in the context of the times when the oppression is ongoing. But when the original oppression has ceased, its use becomes an all new form of oppression, meant to stifle dissent.

I'm pretty sure that Eric Holder does not believe that Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, Thomas Sowell, or Condoleezza Rice are within the rubric of what he means by "my people." When Holder says "my people" he does not mean all black people. He means those black people who do as they are told in the context of identity politics. 

When will he let them go? 


* It is probably fair to point out that Robeson was a Communist, and he also sang songs that glorified Stalin and the Soviet Union, like this one:

If Robeson actually believed that "his people" would have been better off under Stalin, I think that leaves his "Let my people go" with a lingering aroma of irony.

(As to the use of the phrase "my people" by a man who is supposed to be our Attorney General, I think the aroma is more along the lines a stench.)

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I don't know what inspires certain friends to send me links like this, but here's more letting my people go, Soviet style!

Pazhalsta, Tovarisch!

posted by Eric on 03.05.11 at 12:25 PM


"If Robeson actually believed that "his people" would have been better off under Stalin, I think that leaves his "Let my people go" with a lingering aroma of irony."

Indeed, it does. BUT. I rememmber what it was like here back then.Let's just say that blacks in those days did have MANY legitimate complaints. And it's likely that he didn't actually KNOW much about the Soviets. (Especially since he won the "International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples" in 1952) They might have looked good in comparison. The Soviets were always waaaaaay better at propaganda than we were.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  March 5, 2011 6:44 PM

Oh... and "My people"? Americans. Black, white, red, yellow, green, purple - whatever. Gay, straight, bi, trans, - whatever. Liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, communist - even Democrat or Republican. Born here or born anywhere else in the world and here by choice. If you can say "I'm an American" with pride, you're "my people."

If you say "I'm an American" with your head ducked down and shame in your face, you are NOT my people, and should go find some other country to emigrate to.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  March 5, 2011 6:51 PM

I enjoyed the Paul Robeson video very much. I saw him in person when I was a child and it left an indelible impression on me. It was in the old Memorial Hall in Columbus OH (since torn down), an awful building with terrible sight lines. But Robeson filled the hall with his magnificent voice. It was like a trumpet.

He undoubtedly was a Communist and quite indifferent to the suffering of others, but my God, what a voice!

miriam   ·  March 6, 2011 4:28 PM

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