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  • Moses, Man of Oppression:A Twentieth-Century African American Critique of Western Theocracy
  • Michael Lackey (bio)

If Allen Dwight Callahan, author of The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, is to be believed, African Americans monolithically revere Moses as a "venerable ideal of African American leadership" (98), since he provided oppressed people with the perfect model for setting the captives free. So instrumental was the figure of Moses in the project of emancipating blacks that he has been considered almost as important as Jesus, for as James Cone claims in For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church: "black Christians have always known that the God of Moses and of Jesus did not create them to be slaves or second-class citizens in North America" (8). No doubt Moses figured prominently in nineteenth-century African American literature and culture, as can be seen in traditional spirituals ("Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said, / Let my people go" ["Go Down, Moses"]), Frances Harper's Moses: A Story of the Nile (Moses brings about the "great deliverance" [l. 153] of the enslaved and the oppressed) and Paul Laurence Dunbar's "An Ante-Bellum Sermon" ("de Lawd will sen' some Moses / Fu' to set his chillun free" [ll. 30-31]). 1 But there was a palpable split in black community's representation of Moses in twentieth-century African American literature, which poses a substantive challenge to Callahan's monolithic interpretation. For instance, in a letter to Carl Van Vechten about what she considered her most important work, Herod the Great, Zora Neale Hurston claims that "Moses forced" his laws on the ancient Hebrews "by terror and death" and that "Moses was responsible for the actual death of at least a half million of the people in his efforts to force his laws upon them" (Zora 529). So ruthless, monomaniacal, and fanatical was Moses that Hurston refers to him as a "dictator" (530), a description that certainly had profound implications in 1945, just after the end of World War II, when Hurston penned the letter. Hurston's remarks about Moses are interesting in themselves, but they are even more significant in relation to the black community's treatment of Moses and Exodus. Let me state my point more directly by challenging Callahan's monolithic interpretation of African Americans and Moses. Callahan claims: "For African Americans, Moses was more than an expert magician or antimagician. He was, first and foremost, a leader of his people. Moses personifies leadership as divine vocation" (93). Based on her 1945 letter, Hurston certainly does not subscribe to the view that Moses was a divinely inspired leader. Indeed by linking Moses with "terror and death" and by calling him a "dictator," Hurston indicates how he can be defined as the perfect enabler of an oppressive and unjust political regime, a position that directly contradicts Callahan's interpretation of black appropriation of the Exodus myth. As I will demonstrate throughout this essay, Hurston was not alone in thinking of the Moses figure as a potentially dangerous and ultimately destructive model of a political leader.

In James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Gabriel Grimes's mother has clearly internalized the standard view of the Exodus story in which "the national quest of Israel became an analog for the aspirations and aims of African Americans" (Glaude 54). As Gabriel's sister Florence paraphrases her mother's view, God wants the black [End Page 577] community to "hear, and pass thereafter, one to another, the story of the Hebrew children who had been held in bondage in the land of Egypt; and how the Lord had heard their groaning, and how His heart was moved; and how He bid them wait but a little season till He should send deliverance" (70). In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin explains that "the Negro identifies himself almost wholly with the Jew." In fact, Baldwin writes, "[t]he more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for a Moses to lead him out of Egypt" (55). But in his prefatory comments to this claim, Baldwin offers a psychological rather than a theological explanation...


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