Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Implications of "Chosenness": Unsettling the Exodus Narrative as a Model for Black Liberation in Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Implications of "Chosenness": Unsettling the Exodus Narrative as a Model for Black Liberation in Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits

Article excerpt

In Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America, Eddie S. Glaude outlines the historical importance of churches within black communities, which provided havens from the pervasive racism of American society and fostered the kind of black agency needed for the articulation of black subjectivity. According to Glaude, black churches served pre-civil rights era black communities by syncretizing religious and political goals, uniting individuals in their civil rights struggle through the rhetoric of the biblical Exodus narrative. Though dominant social groups in North America and particularly in New England consistently employed Exodus rhetoric to define "Americanness" as early as the seventeenth century, disenfranchised populations such as African Americans during and after the era of chattel slavery have appropriated and revised this trope in order to problematize the American exceptionalist myth of what Donald E. Pease has called a "unified national monoculture" (fir). Glaude traces the appropriation of the Exodus narrative in the "nation language" of African Americans in the nineteenth century struggling to articulate a communal identity that more accurately reflected the individual experiences of black people living in a nation that sought to systematically disempower them through slavery and racism. As Glaude asserts, in the African American revision of the Exodus narrative, "America was not symbolized as a promised land in the wilderness of North America. Rather, it was Egypt, the enslaver of the black Israel, God's chosen people" (10). African American churchgoers identified with the Israelites who would be led out of the bondage of Egypt/America and into the freedom of a promised land by a chosen figure, an intermediary between God and his people. This chosen individual, like Moses in the Exodus narrative, would spearhead the liberation movement, serving the cause in life and in death. Though invoked in order to provide a metaphorical framework for the uplift of a historically disenfranchised community, the rhetoric of the biblical Exodus, having played a significant role in founding and perpetuating the puritan ideals of American Exceptionalism, an ideology dependent upon the subjugation of perceived difference or "otherness" in the name of "progress," provides a problematic vehicle for black liberation as it often serves to reify the dominant discourse of exceptionalism from which it was drawn.

Randall Kenan's 1989 novel A Visitation of Spirits examines the post-civil rights era struggles of Tiros Creek, a fictional town in southeastern North Carolina descended from the kind of nineteenth-century African American communities Glaude considers in his historical work. Kenan's twentieth-century fictional community's investment in civil enfranchisement is similarly rooted in its fundamentalist Christian church, a body which, though founded in the late 1800s, continues to serve as the community's central organizing social system. In A Visitation of Spirits, Kenan explores this community's investment in the Exodus model of black liberation and (re)appropriates key aspects of this narrative, (re)revising them in order to examine the vexed ideological investments inherent in this symbology. Kenan scrutinizes the construct of "chosenness," a central aspect of the Exodus narrative, in order to interrogate the self-sacrificing demands of the covenant and to problematize the notion of progress through the trials of the wilderness toward an earthly promised land. Kenan's text articulates, with astringent and tragic clarity, not the successful enfranchisement of this community through the rhetoric of the biblical Exodus narrative, and particularly not the liberation of the community's gay members who are caught within its liminal spaces, but the absence of and the continued need for transformations within the black church that will allow all those oppressed by the interstices of race, class, gender, and sexuality to participate in and reap the benefits of the community's ongoing struggle for civil enfranchisement. …

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