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Introduction: Civil Rights, Leadership, and Exodus Politics Without such [local] activists there can be no progressive politics. Yet state, regional, and national networks are also required for an effective progressive politics. That is why locally based collective (and especially multigendered) models of black leadership are needed. These models must shun the idea of one black national leader; they also should put a premium on critical dialogue and democratic accountability in black organizations. —cornel west, race matters In Race Matters (1993), Cornel West argues that black leadership has entered a state of crisis because post−civil rights era black leaders do not possess “a collective and critical consciousness” for improving the plight of the black masses.1 While romanticizing the commitment of pre−civil rights and civil rights era leaders to black communal enfranchisement, West rightfully illuminates how black politicians of the post−civil rights era might better serve black communities. West also, however, draws attention to a broader crisis of black leadership than just the lack of commitment to poor black communities among black politicians. As the epigraphreveals ,heidentifiesthesimultaneousmasculinizationandnationalization of black leadership as two phenomena that have thrown black leadership into crisis. By positing that black leadership models should be “multigendered” and that “the idea of one black national [male] leader” should be rejected, West challenges the dominance of black male leadership as necessary and desired for black political advancement. Similarly, by underscoring the need to develop “locally based” leadership that is connected to broader “national networks,” he unsettles the notion that local leadership is less important than “national” leadership. In West’s analysis, the crisis of black leadership is connected to a crisis in civil rights attainment: his concerns about black leadership stem from its inability to ensure that the equality of opportunity that the civil rights movement demanded translates into material equality. His critique of black leadership, black political organization, and black political behavior then calls into question black communities’ expectations for black 2 / exodus politics leadership. He demands that black communities enlarge their definitions of civil rights and reexamine the goals of the civil rights movement to develop a progressive politics that improves black people’s lives. West’s book is one of several interventions in the new civil rights studies and studies of black leadership that emerged in the 1990s and have persisted into the twenty-first century. In Exodus Politics: Civil Rights and Leadership in African American Literature and Culture, I theorize how African American literature intervenes in contemporary discourses about civil rights and black leadership by defamiliarizing definitions of “civil rights,” expectations of civil rights leadership, and goals of the modern civil rights movement. Defamiliarization here refers to the invocation, by contemporary writers of African American literature, of seemingly familiar discourses, concepts , and events in such a way as to demonstrate that that familiarity is only partial. Defamiliarization draws attention to fields of knowledge that are uncommon, non-normative, and unpopular, thereby upsetting the normativity of hegemonic epistemologies. As social scientists, social movement theorists, and civil rights historians have revisited the civil rights movement to defamiliarize how popular and scholarly texts have represented, understood, and invoked it, a number of contemporary writers of African American literature have as well. These writers have called into question the cultural and historiographical tendencies to champion male leadership, to promote models of leadership that diminish the significance of mass mobilization, to conceptualize racial rights as disconnected from gender and sexual rights, and to restrict the modern civil rights movement to the years between 1953 and 1965. Each of these tendencies feeds into the crisis of black leadership and the crisis of civil rights attainment by producing what I theorize as “the paradoxes of exodus politics.” Exodus politics explains why normative trends have enshrined civil rights historiography and discourses in paradigms that do not adequately describe the movement’s long-term and short-term vision for civil rights and empowerment. To begin, it is instructive to situate exodus politics within the context of the biblical Exodus narrative, since African Americans have long appropriated and typologically identified with this narrative to argue that their civil rights are God-given and divinely protected. Black freedom struggles, black leadership, and everyday black people historicallyhavecitedtheExodusnarrativetoarguethatcivilrightsinjustices contradict God’s will for freedom. Yet, although African Americans have appropriated the Exodus narrative and other biblical “liberation” texts introduction / 3 to contest racial oppression, they have been less inclined to conceptualize these narratives of “freedom” in terms that extend beyond “race.” In other words, in the...


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