Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

“When the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame she came with a very great retinue to test him with hard questions, and told him all that was on her mind . . . . And she said, ‘Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report I heard, happy are your wives and servants, blessed be the Lord your God.’ And she gave the king 120 talents of gold and a very great quantity of spices; never again came such an abundance of spices to him. . . . And King Solomon gave her gifts, as well as all that she desired.” (from 1st Kings 10: 1-12)

She traveled to meet men reputed
Wise–a queen of questions,
Loving well turned answers.
In Solomon’s cedar palace
They two sat on facing thrones
On the inlaid stones adorned with six-winged creatures,
Prophets’ pictures of awe before the unseen god of storms.
Morning to evening they talked and smiled,
Their gestures more sweeping each day.
Solomon so pleased her mind
That all her gold and spices
Were scarcely worthy gifts, she thought.
Spicy his looks, golden his words,
Fitly spoken each turn of talk,
‘Like apples of gold in silver settings.’

‘How may one best deal with enemies?’
‘Ah,’ said he, ‘give them bread and drink, for so
You will heap burning coals on their heads.’
‘And should we save the poor and abused?’
‘What else?’ he said, ‘Rescue those being taken away To death–if you say you did not know it,
Yet he who watches thoughts will know, and requite you Desertion for desertion.’
‘And how should one practice love, O wise one, you With your palaces of wives and concubines?’
‘To love is to come to one’s garden, my sister,
And gather myrrh with the spice,
To eat the whole honeycomb with the honey,
And drink both wine and milk.’

Regal herself in querying, the queen adored his replies.
She laid down her gifts.
He too gave caravans of mementos,
And beyond them, ‘all she desired.’
The Ethiopian Jews, tracing their lineage,
Say this meant love nights–
Regal bodies in mutual honoring of minds
In a love full fledged in Spirit and also
Back to her land with camels in tow she went,
And no one else brought Solomon such spice as hers–
Lover of his dancing mind.
Queen of riches more than kingly.

An Interracial Encounter

The story is of the most glorious king of Israel and Judah having a grand encounter with an African queen. Were there no problems of racism or racialism in that age? This episode seems to have been some grand exception, for the Israelites’ origin story of Noah and his three sons, as fathers of all mankind, portrays Ham (father of the African peoples) as under a curse, condemned to be a slave to his brothers, Shem (the Semitic peoples) and Japhet, the northern (as we would say Indo-European) peoples.

Were the ancient Israelites unusual in being racist? The Japanese are said to consider all peoples but themselves ugly and inferior. The Chinese, in their origin story of the Japanese, say they descended from monkeys. Virginia Woolf spoke of a Sri Lankan independence leader she had seen as looking like a caged monkey. Walt Disney, casting voices for varieties of apes in his animation of Kipling’s Jungle Book, chose African-American musicians–the best (he could pay for them). What possesses the human race, that racialism should run through so many times and cultures?

Consider one corner of it, our eyes and our looking.

Within our own group, in a shared identity (which everyone must have), we grow up noting many subtle variations in faces. We must. It’s essential for our own self-image, and knowledge of other individuals, to scan faces closely, quickly, and to recognize each one—to apply the norms for beauty and other qualities within one’s own cultural scene—or plainness, soulfulness, or whatever may be the categories. For someone who has grown up in a racially uniform community, people with new kinds of features are often hard to ‘recognize’–in every sense. Their looks may not scan on one’s template. ‘Those people’ all tend to look the same, and probably not good –because ‘I’ don’t have a program for recognizing the norms and the variations in their facial type.

Where I myself grew up, almost everyone was Caucasian or African-American. Oriental people I knew only from movie stereotypes.

They were apparently all either laundrymen (all male), or geishas or china dolls (all female), or masses of identical looking communist soldiers on the march.

Recently I walked in from daylight to a dark elevator with my sunglasses on. I addressed a fellow rider by name as an Asian-American person I took him for. It was someone else, though indeed of the same height, build, and age as my acquaintance. My face turned redder than his was yellow.

Oh yes, what about skin color. To native Americans, the first north Europeans were “palefaces,” seeming perhaps like anemic, sickly beings. To blue eyes first seeing Africans in the seventeenth century, a deep brown skin might seem reminiscent of animal hide. This may be understandable, though certainly not apolitical (it’s shot through and through with one’s stereotypes and cultural notions). But when it gets mapped onto differences of power and wealth, then things turn really ugly. And it usually does get mapped onto them.

Why did Solomon and the Queen of Sheba not suffer from these disorientations? For the wealthy and secure, a racially ‘other’ person may seem not less but more appealing than the pleasures one is used to. Exoticism may come into play. And a community of black Jews, centuries later assuming a point of pride against the racism of their fellow Jews the ashkenazi (for oh yes, racism is very much present in modern Israel)—the black Jews could even appropriate that tale of exotic pleasure to their cultural identity. Indeed the Queen may have been a proud ancestor of proud Ethiopian Jewish descendants.

Of course, wealth is not only money and things. It’s also symbolic capital. Two friends of mine, an interracial couple for years, both have rich temperaments and family backgrounds. Not rich in money beyond the average bourgeois, but rich in love, support, appreciation of art and human creations, and good genes for intelligence and cheerfulness. He is north German, she a California African-American, he a literary scholar, she an art historian. One evening we were talking of films, and I told of seeing Lone Star, where a certain scene brought a great belly laugh in the theater.

In a Texas border town, a white army sergeant in his thirties tells his drinking acquaintance, the white sheriff, that he’s getting married to a black woman, also a sergeant. “Are your parents taking it bad that she’s black?” asks the young sheriff.

“Oh no,” he says, “They’re just glad she’s female, they thought maybe I was gay.”

Slowly shaking his head and wide-brimmed hat the sheriff drawls, “One deep prejudice drives out another.” This was what had brought the big laugh in the theater, and we chuckled also.

Our California friend responded that much the same thing had once happened to her. She’d briefly dated a guy whose parents were unhappy that he would go out with a black woman. A few months later, he told them he was gay. “Oh,” said his mother, “what about Christine, why don’t you call her up some time?” We all laughed again. But there were visceral twinges all around the laugh. In the steel-trap categories of current mainstream American identity politics, it’s clear which deep prejudice drives out which other one, even though the oppression of different groups will vary from scene to scene. In a university, people of color may encounter more barriers than gay people. In a mountain ranching town the reverse might be true.

Does it sound like all gay people are white, and all blacks are male? Ludicrously, on the unconscious bulletin board of white straight mainstream America, in the list of who’s fearful and dreadful, black women and gay people of color are blanked out—they just don’t appear. How can people of all identities protest such psychic violence? The question is urgent, because ludicrous notions, embedded in rhetorics of sin or sickness or ‘disability,’ can turn to murder, when dropped into the minds of troubled, disempowered people like the killers of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr.

For one thing, we should get specific with celebrations. Two gay people of color very important to me have been James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. In college years, I learned much about sex, city life, racism, the variety of love, and all sorts of things by reading Going to Meet the Man, Another Country, and many Baldwin stories. Audre Lorde I admired later in life as a poet. And then during treatments for my own illness, I read her cancer journals and drew comfort from them.

Solomon and Her Majesty of Sheba had no one to insult or thwart them. Inside their own story, they were in charge. Thousands “at their bidding stood.” As teenagers nowadays might say, ‘they ruled.’ At least for a while. His wise sayings and poems were being copied out by scribes–many survive now in the Bible as the books of Proverbs and Song of Songs. She may not have had poems, nor even a name, but she had a rich kingdom, and she had good questions.

Our friends from California and ‘foreign parts’ split up for a time. When he took a job in an Appalachian state, his lady was at first too afraid to move there with him. Now she has decided to try it.