Exodus!: Religion, race, and nation in early nineteenth century Black America.
In her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, Zora Neale Hurston describes the posture of the Israelites as they prepare for the Exodus: "Everybody said it according to their thought and feeling. Some talked it with the edge of their lips. Some rolled it deep in their throats. Some throbbed it inside their hearts and let their bodies move with the rhythm. Some said it with their eyes, with a gleam, with future-searching gazes. Some said it with a question, 'Tonight?'" This kind of diversity of responses to the challenge of obtaining freedom is what Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., presents in his study of "religion, race, and nation in early nineteenth-century Black America."
The author displays a zeal for historical archeology and presents a wealth of material that demonstrates a multiplicity of approaches toward securing a sense of identity in antebellum America. The link, as the book's title suggests, is the biblical Exodus story. But inspired by the kind of wisdom found in the old folk expression "God don't like ugly and He ain't stuck on pretty," the author consistently moves between polarities in describing the historical, indeed emotional, situation African Americans faced. In so doing he reveals that the goal of emancipation was never a fixed concept but one that shifted and was shaped by a range of opinions, beliefs, and cultural and political sentiments. What remained constant, of course, were the reality of slavery and the effects of racism. But how this situation was negotiated depended on how African Americans were informed by and interpreted the Exodus story.
Among the polarities Glaude identifies and tries to keep in tension are: concepts of identity as individual vs. collective or national vs. cultural or ordinary vs. chosen; religion's role as promoting ethics vs. liturgy or moral vs. civic duty; a rejection vs. participation in American life and corresponding emphasis on unity vs. difference among Americans, conservative vs. radical approaches to social transformation, a true vs. a false expression of democracy, and an emphasis on everyday acts vs. historical meaning. All these tensions are held in balance by a "structure of ambivalence," a concept closely linked to Du Bois's double-consciousness. The Exodus story and its use by African Americans in articulating their circumstances and desires comes closest to resolving these tensions, particularly when it is used in metaphoric ways to envision a future. But when the Exodus story is abandoned, the tension that held together contrasting perspectives comes undone. Claude is sincere in urging that we read nation language in an Exodus way, one that "simultaneously accents the idea of racial solidarity and identifies with America."
While at times the precise function of the Exodus story remains vague in Glaude's formulations, his intention to "explore the ways the story became a source for a particular use of nation language among African Americans as well as a metaphorical framework for understanding the middle passage, enslavement, and quests for emancipation" certainly merits our attention. Some of the information he provides is derivative (the author is particularly indebted to Michael Walzer's Exodus and Revolution) and not terribly original. Most familiar with slavery will already appreciate the dual sacred and secular role played by biblical and other religious influences and will come to this study already convinced of the resistance embedded in these influences. Along the way the author also digresses into discussions about ethnic theory, ritual theory, and several specific challenges to scholars whose relevance he never quite makes clear. In other words, his choice of whom to invoke as a major influence or as source for confro ntation seems idiosyncratic. I would also like to have seen the author wrestle with and consider the work of some more recent African American theo rists. In particular I think he could have made interesting use of Victor Anderson's concept of "ontological blackness," especially in his discussion of the politics of respectability, and profited from exploring Anthony Pinn's examination of theodicy in African American thought. Nonetheless, what makes Glaude's study noteworthy is the vast amount of work he has done rescuing primary sources and documents that make specific allusion to Exodus. Furthermore, the author contextualizes each instance he cites and shows how references to Exodus serve a broader agenda of helping African Americans to work out a concept of national identity that reflects their unique experience.
Exodus! is organized in two parts. Part I, "Exodus History," examines the relation between the construction of black identity and American identity and looks at different uses of Exodus by black and white Americans and the concepts of nation the story generates in each instance, drawing attention to the ways in which each narrative interpretation participates in the construction of American nationalism. Part II, "Exodus Politics," explores the metaphorical use of the story to describe a particular style of imagining the nation, particularly as employed by the independent black church movement. Identifying imagination as a credible and functional link between religion and politics is one of the book's great contributions. Glaude effectively demonstrates that the exercise of the imagination and the metaphoric application and interpretation of Exodus served important practical functions directed toward the emancipation of African Americans in body and soul--how "an oppressed people acquires an identity from thei r oppression and then creatively transforms that identity through struggle."
Glaude concludes with a consideration of Henry Highland Garnet, whose 1843 speech forced the American Moral Reform Society at its New York State Convention to make a choice between identifying with an American national identity or defining themselves and their political aims over and against it. Glaude argues that the rift caused by Garnet's challenge--despite a shared commitment to racial solidarity and social transformation--is one that persists between those who practice a "soul-craft politics" for the soul of the nation and those who took up the cause of a black nationalist politics. Glaude believes, however, that this division is arbitrary and unnecessary, in part because of what Ralph Ellison described as the "irony implicit in American democracy." African Americans, Ellison concludes (and Claude affirms), "symbolize [democracy's] most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest freedom." What remains, therefore, is best summed up again by Hurston, whose Moses muses on emancipation and the pro mise of Exodus in the following way: "He had given Israel back the notes to the songs. The words would be according to their own dreams, but they would sing."
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|Author:||Connor, Kimberly Rae|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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