Echoes of Exodus: Biblical Typology and Racial Solidarity in African American Literature, 1829-1962 Restricted; Files Only

Cohen, Joshua (Spring 2019)

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Echoes of Exodus reveals how the story of Moses resonated in and around African American culture by analyzing adaptations of Exodus in novels, newspapers, and speeches from the antebellum period to the Civil Rights era. The Exodus narrative has played a significant role in framing how Americans have understood their national mission throughout U.S. history. As an archetypal story of liberation from slavery, Exodus has been claimed by radically different groups. Whereas the Puritans understood their migration to the new world as an exodus from corrupt Europe, enslaved Africans felt that their suffering recapitulated the bondage of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt. By asking how Exodus served as a focal point for notions of racial uplift, this study illuminates competing views of liberation in U.S. literature and culture.

Echoes of Exodus focuses on writers who appealed to Exodus in counter-intuitive ways that go beyond simply treating the biblical narrative as a template for political liberation. This study argues that proponents of abolition and racial uplift, including David Walker and Frances Harper, treated Moses as a paragon of racial solidarity. Exodus served as a structure to stage the clash between divergent anti-slavery positions in the 1850s. This study introduces the concept of “typological plasticity” to show how Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Delany dramatically transformed Exodus into a story about the limits of violent resistance to slavery.

By the twentieth-century, the story of Moses evolved from a narrative of liberation into a compelling way for male leaders to sanctify their power. Exodus played a pivotal role in debates over aesthetics among black intellectuals in the aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance. By tracing Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston’s conflicting views toward black “folk” culture, this work shows how gendered perspectives on Exodus shaped the possibilities and risks of racial solidarity. Echoes of Exodus demonstrates that forceful critiques of Exodus emerged from Ralph Ellison and William Melvin Kelley at the very moment when Civil Rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, turned to Exodus as a narrative framework to mobilize black collective action.

Table of Contents




Chapter 1: Mosaic Subjectivity in David Walker and Frances Harper...30



Chapter 2: Exodus and Typological Plasticity in Delany, Melville, and Stowe....80



Chapter 3: Moses vs the Masses: Alain Locke, Aesthetic Uplift, and Zora Neale Hurston......131



Chapter 4: The End of Exodus?: The Dissolution of Mosaic Leadership in Ralph Ellison and William Melvin Kelley.......173







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