One lesson I take from Rosa Parks’ telling of her story is the importance of not retelling one’s oppressor’s story.
There’s a great example of this in the first chapter of the Book of Exodus.
“Then Pharaoh said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God, and did not do as Pharaoh commanded them, but let the male children live.” (v. 15-16)
In the court histories of Egypt at that time, that pharaoh’s name would be important, and would be repeated throughout the text. It is never written in the Book of Exodus. The Hebrew people were so unimportant—let alone a couple of lowly midwives!—that they are not mentioned at all in the surviving Egyptian records.
This would be like writing a history of, say, mid-20th century China and never mentioning Mao’s name…but prominently mentioning (and praising!) the names of two peasant women from a western province.
Rosa Parks tells her story in a similar fashion. Presidents and generals and captains of industry generally are mentioned in passing if at all.
But she stops her narrative to make sure we know who Fred Gray is, and why his returning to Montgomery to open a law practice was a sign of hope. “He could have stayed in the North and had an easier time, but he chose to come back to help in the fight for the rights of African Americans.”
Fred Gray would be Mrs. Parks’ lawyer when she was arrested in December 1955; and he would become a towering figure in the legal struggle to end segregation. As he identified himself in the subtitle to his memoir, “Bus Ride To Justice”, he was “lawyer for Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Desegregation of Alabama Schools, and the 1965 Selma March”.
Mrs. Parks names more names. “Now we had a second black attorney to advise us on legal matters. Charles Langford was the other black attorney. Before Fred Gray opened his office, a black woman named Mahalia Ashley Dickerson, who had been a good friend of mine for years, had opened a law practice. But she had to leave Montgomery because she did not receive the support she needed….”
Why are Charles Landford and Mahalia Ashley Dickerson important for us to read about? Because Rosa Parks says so, and it’s her story not the president’s (whoever he happened to be at that time).
Pharaoh will always have scribes to tell his story. But it’s not enough for us to critique the story Pharaoh tells. We need to create and tell our own stories—as Mrs. Parks did, as the ancient Hebrews did—so that Pharaoh’s story can be put into its proper context.
Shiphrah and Puah, they’re heroines. They listened to God and are worthy to have their names recorded and passed down for as long as the descendants of the ancient Hebrews survive. Whatever Pharaoh’s name was, it just wasn’t that important for the Hebrews.