Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America.
The Exodus story has played a key role in the history of the United States. From the country's settlement, to the Revolution and beyond, America has seen itself as a promised land of milk and honey, a place where all have an opportunity to come and find a new and free life. The Exodus story takes on an especially poignant meaning for African-Americans during the antebellum era. For blacks, slaves and free, considered themselves a modern Israel, held in bondage in a new Egypt which, ironically, perceived itself as Canaan. Eddie S. Claude's Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America examines how black leaders took the Exodus story and adapted it to create a sense of nationhood for African-Americans.
The basis of Exodus is nothing new. That African-Americans, especially enslaved African-Americans, identified with the Israelites has long been known and studied. Revolutionary and antebellum sermons and works by blacks often drew the comparison. African-American hymns, significantly slave spirituals, drew on the symbolism of Exodus to voice a people's outrage and heartache over their condition. "Go down Moses, tell ole Pharoah Let my people go" is not just a recollection of a long past event, but a message to contemporary whites and slaveowners. Free blacks in the North also viewed themselves as enslaved Israelites in Egypt. While not in actual bondage as property, they were also kept down, held back, and discriminated against. They too cried out for deliverance from bondage and for equality.
The significance of Glaude's work is how black religious and civic leaders in the North used the Exodus story to create a sense of community and nationhood among African-Americans. Glaude contends that African-Americans did not merely rely on the Exodus story to offer the hope that somewhere far down the road things would become better. Rather, they used the Exodus story to try to find a real solution for the problems that confronted them in the here and now. Rejecting theories of racial inferiority often used by whites to justify slavery and discrimination, black religious and civic leaders worked diligently to improve the conditions of African-Americans north and south to prove them wrong. Glaude argues that African-Americans drew upon Exodus to enact pragmatic policies to improve conditions for both free and enslaved blacks.
Exodus is a challenging work. Much of the first part of Glaude's book is devoted to a discussion of theories of nationhood. While an understanding of these theories is important to his thesis, Glaude often uses his history to illuminate them, rather than using them to illuminate his history. The reader feels as if he/she is reading two books in one. When Glaude begins the second part of his work on Exodus politics, the pace picks up and his narrative flows better. Glaude also too often interjects himself into the text which becomes disconcerting. It is as if Glaude does not trust the reader to differentiate between his views as opposed to others' theories which he introduces. Despite these flaws, which might turn away some readers, Exodus provides an interesting and different look into African-American religion, forcing the reader to consider black religion as a pragmatic response to African-Americans' conditions, rather than as a hope for the distant future.
TRENTON HIZER Library of Virginia Richmond, Virginia
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|Publication:||Journal of Church and State|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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