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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 191-192

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Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. By Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 2000. x, 216 pp. Cloth, $42.00; paper, $16.00.

This book makes a persuasive and engaging argument for the centrality of the Exodus story to early nineteenth-century African American public discourse, especially the discourse of nation. Exodus, according to Glaude, “is a metaphor for a conception of nation that begins with the common social heritage of slavery and the insult of discrimination . . . and evolves into a set of responses on the part of a people acting for themselves to alleviate their condition” (6). The political utility and activist weight of this metaphor, Glaude argues, cannot be understood apart from religious thought and experience: through the Exodus story, “the nation is imagined not alongside religion but precisely through the precepts of black Christianity” (6). Glaude emphasizes the multivalence of this metaphor, examining the disparate readings and applications of Exodus within black communities as well as the disjunction between African American and Euro-American appropriations of the same biblical passages (in the latter case, of course, America is figured as a New Canaan, rather than as the Egypt of enslavement). But instead of focusing on the emigrationist ideologies that the Exodus story would seem most obviously to engage, Glaude foregrounds figures whose commitment to racial solidarity was not bound up with “a rejection of America” (163). Along these lines, for example, he reads in David Walker’s Appeal (1829) a fusion of calls for African American racial solidarity and self-help, on the one hand, and for (U.S.) national belonging on the other.

Glaude explores his key themes in large part through engagement with other scholars and critics, including Sacvan Bercovitch on “the rhetoric of errand” (47), Etienne Balibar on national identity, Catherine Bell on ritual, and Paul Gilroy on tradition. While these critiques, refinements, and applications of others’ positions are well reasoned and often provocative, at times they take on a life of their own, deflecting attention away from the specific sites Glaude has set out to examine. The book’s promised investigations of “the local” (109), on the other hand, sometimes seem truncated; this is especially true of the treatment of Northern freedom celebrations in chapter 5. Far more successful is Glaude’s careful analysis of African Americans’ heated debates over the question of racial solidarity, most evident in the American Moral Reform Society’s adoption of a “color-blind” position and in the angry critiques it engendered. Here Glaude deftly presents a wealth of primary evidence, [End Page 191] contextualizing it within the histories of U.S. racial ideology and African American political strategy.

Exodus! will be of great value to readers interested in the intersections between racial and national formation in the antebellum period, as well as to those investigating the imbrication of religion and political activism. And, while the book pays little attention to texts primarily categorized as literary, its analyses of African American rhetorics of race, nation, and deliverance promise to enrich our readings of slave narratives, abolitionist novels, and other politically potent genres.

Susan M. Ryan
University of Louisville



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pp. 191-192
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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