Epilogue: Is There Life after Exodus Politics?
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Epilogue: Is There Life after Exodus Politics? What had once been so easily defined as the ongoing black-against-white conflict has metastasized into a polychromatic, polyglot, polyethnic stew of a war. And within the black community, what once had been romanticized as a monolithic voice from a mountaintop, a series of moral Elijahs and Moseses and Apostle Pauls condemning their pharaohs and Pilates, has broken free of those old Biblical archetypes into a fractal world of politics and economies, a chaos of cultures, a bouillabaisse of media, a shifting tangle of strategies and agendas and ideologies. What once had been so easily polarized by Huey Newton and Marcus Garvey is now not so easily parsed. —randall kenan, the fire this time Messianism, Charisma, Exodus Politics: Black Leadership in Perspective WhenOprahWinfreydecidedtoendorseBarackObama’spresidential bid, she carved out a new space for herself in American electoral politics. Although Winfrey previously had not endorsed any presidential candidate , her use of messianic typology demonstrated her familiarity with exodus politics’ long-standing history. Winfrey emphasized Obama’s uniqueness as “the One” who could redeem America and deliver her into a more democratic and equitable future. In an Iowa campaign speech in December 2007, she invoked Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to explain Obama’s status as “the One” and thus situated him within the exodus politics tradition. Winfrey recounted watching the cinematic adaptation and seeing actress Cicely Tyson point her finger and ask Jimmy, “Are you the One?” As Winfrey recalled, “I remember her [Cicely Tyson as Miss Jane Pittman] standing in the doorway, body bowed, frail, old, and holding the baby in her arms, and saying, ‘Are you the one, Jimmy: Are you the one?’”1 By framing Obama in this black messianic political tradition, Winfrey claimed that Obama would usher America into a new era of equality by disrupting political systems that produced inequality. As Winfrey concluded, “I believe in ’08 I have found the answer to Ms. Pittman’s 154 / exodus politics question. It is the same question that our nation is asking. He [Barack Obama] is the One.”2 The audience thunderously applauded, thus showing the continued saliency of the male messianic figure as the desired political leader in (African) American political and cultural thought. Yet by isolating this particular moment in the film, and ignoring the fact that racists murder Jimmy, Winfrey celebrated black messianism and exodus politics. Her exaltation of redemptive patriarchal leadership was curious because both Gaines and Obama appeared skeptical of its potential to institute long-term change. Obama emphasized “we” in his inauguration speech and employed the slogan “Yes we can” throughout his campaign to deemphasize the singularity of “the One.” Similarly, Gaines in his novel calls into question the political effectiveness of the black messianic figure by illuminating how an investment in male formal leadership undermines enfranchisement efforts. Although Miss Pittman contests the very premise that Winfrey champions, her invocation of an African American literary text to endorse a presidential candidate underscores the long-standing role African American literature has had in shaping political discourses. In Exodus Politics, I have argued that contemporary writers of African American literature have challenged the dominance of exodus politics in black political thought and have called for increasingly complex notions of black politics, black leadership, and civil rights. Whereas earlier cultural forms, including spirituals, deployed exodus politics to argue for civil rights, more contemporary writers have contested the efficacy of exodus politics to achieve civil rights equality. They point to paradoxical logics inherent in exodus politics that prevent the development of political agendas that engage cross-cutting issues and consider the political interests of non-normative black subjects. When Winfrey framed Obama’s leadership within this paradigm, she illuminated the tensions in black politics, leadership, and civil rights struggles that African American literature continues to engage. She also turned attention to the charismatic and messianic traditions that exodus politics has developed alongside. In Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (2012), Erica R. Edwards examines sociological and religious conceptualizations of charisma to challenge the valorization of charismatic authority in black leadership discourses. Edwards argues that charisma is “a political fiction or ideal, a set of assumptions about authority and identity that works to epilogue / 155 structure how political mobilization is conceived and enacted.”3 She maintains that political discourses have idealized black male leadership as “the necessary precondition for survival progress, political power, and social unity.”4 Contesting the authority of charisma in black political discourses...


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