Letting Moses Go: Hurston and Reed, Disowning Exodus

Article excerpt

In the introduction to a 1992 edition of Legends of the Bible, Louis Ginzberg's collection of Jewish lore. Shalom Spiegel defines "legend" by describing the persistent allure of Hebrew scripture to new readers: "legend may be taken to imply whatever will come to be read by successive ages into an event or record of the past: the ever-new and ever-changing rereading of old sources by new generations of men. ... Each following period pours its inner life into the patient and pliant texts of old" (xi). The vitality of the Tanakh derives from its endless applicability; it is an old flask into which we can pour and repour new wine. Students of African-American history thus commonly note the ways in which enslaved and free blacks poured themselves into the stories of the Exodus. In novels, hymns, songs, poems, speeches, and sermons, African Americans cast themselves in the role of the Israelites. enslaved but chosen by God for a glorious new freedom, oppressed but selected for a divine destiny. Indeed, in The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, Allen Dwight Callahan argues that

  African Americans heard, read, and retold the story of the Exodus
  more than any other biblical narrative. ... Exodus was the Bible's
  narrative argument that God was opposed to American slavery and would
  return a catastrophic judgment against the nation as he had against
  Egypt [and] signified God's will that African Americans too would no
  longer be sold as bondspeople, that they too would go free. (83)

If Exodus was God's love letter to African Americans and a firm promise that He would liberate and deliver retributive justice. American blacks' corporate identification with Biblical Hebrews also served as a foundation for establishing group identity. Werner Sollors terms the process by which a people comes to develop a group consciousness through identification with a text "typological ethnogenesis" (57), and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. analyzes instances of the Biblical form of typological ethnogenesis in nineteenth-century African-American communities, arguing that blacks' identification with the Israelites was crucial to the development of their concepts of group and national unity. (1) By seeing themselves in the enslaved Hebrews, nineteenth-century blacks built a vocabulary of African-American peoplehood--and effectively founded African America. Glaude's study could easily extend into the twentieth century, revealing numerous examples of African Americans' continued appropriation of the Torah's stories of Moses and the Israelites.

However, in its passage into the post-bellum period and the twentieth century, the idiom began to show signs of wear. Though the end of the Civil War formally abolished slavery, Southern sharecropping kept many of its worst aspects intact, and while the Exodus narrative promised not only freedom but a promised land, blacks living in America remained in a nation scarred. by the memories of their oppression. (2) Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Jim Crow laws demonstrated that African-American freedom was an attenuated version of true liberty, a condition that only became more discomfiting as the decades passed and emancipation did not give way to total equality, especially in the American South. While the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968--along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965--ended many forms of institutionalized racism, prejudice and violence continued through the 1970s. The Exodus myth thus provided a decreasingly effective template for re-imagining African-American experience. (3) Two twentieth-century African-American novelists who understood this were Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed, and in their fictions both questioned the usefulness of the Exodus story for black culture in the twentieth century.

In 1939, on the brink of World War II, and near the end of the Great Migration that brought millions of black Americans from the still-segregated, Jim Crow South to the urban North, Zora Neale Hurston published Moses, Man of the Mountain, a novel-length reworking of the Torah that features an ethnically ambiguous Moses enlisted by a shadowy Mountain god to free a people who are not his own. …