restricted access Chapter 2. Let my people go: The Exodus in African American Cultural History
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27 Chapter 2 let my people go The Exodus in African American Cultural History When, on the first night of the Montgomery bus boycott, King spoke of the “long night of captivity,”1 when almost a year later he proclaimed , “The Red Sea has opened,”2 when he invited his audience to imagine the “great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice,”3 and when he urged his hearers, “We’ve got to keep moving” because “we’ve got to get to Canaan,”4 he joined a long tradition in African American culture of viewing life through the lens of the Exodus.5 As Miller observed, “African Americans composed songs, preached sermons, and wrote tracts about the Exodus because no other story proved more sublimely expressive of the theme of deliverance.”6 When King used that biblical language, therefore, he was not simply quoting the Bible but was invoking a cultural myth that had been developed and transmitted over the more than 150 years in which that story was told and retold by African Americans. The place it held as sacred social knowledge presented him with both promise and risk. This chapter explores the Exodus tradition from which King drew so pervasively. It begins with a discussion of social knowledge as a crucial element in the rhetoric of narrative. Then, it offers a brief account of the story as it was recorded in the Bible, followed by a survey of the way it was used in African American discourse. The chapter concludes by noting how, because of the recurring patterns with which elements of the Exodus myth had been used across the years, King’s audiences might have been expected to “hear” the story, in a way that presented King with possibilities and challenges as he sought to articulate a vision of social reform. 28 CHAPTER TWO Narrative and Social Knowledge Narratives are compelling, in part because they evoke previously held myths, recognizable characters, and paradigmatic or even archetypal themes and plot lines among their hearers, and because they accord with the values and presuppositions—the social reality—of the communities in which they are told. Gronbeck emphasized this dimension of narrative as rhetoric when he argued that a narrative is not simply a story told by a narrator to someone else, but rather is a complex, that is, multi-layered, series of action-sequences, all of which depend for their meaningfulness upon knowledges shared by the teller and the told-to. A narrative does not somehow unfold, for its intelligibility depends upon the action-sequences which are already enfolded in commonly held stocks of knowledge.7 A narrative thus depends on an audience’s “preknowledge” to achieve salience with that audience. As a number of scholars have argued, this preknowledge can represent a significant inventional resource for the rhetor. For example, Lewis emphasized that Ronald Reagan persistently drew on one familiar and easily-stated story line: “America is a chosen nation, grounded in its families and neighborhoods, and driven inevitably forward by its heroic working people toward a world of freedom and economic progress unless blocked by moral or military weakness.” The themes of Reagan’s presidency—the “moral imperative of work, the priority of economic advancement, the domestic evil of taxes and government regulation, and the necessity of maintaining military strength”— achieved their resonance, Lewis asserted, because they were consistently grounded in a social reality that fulfilled all of the requirements of myth: it was “widely believed, generally unquestioned, and clearly pedagogical.”8 Similarly, Browne argued that the narratives embedded in accounts of the British treatment of the colonies, accounts that inflamed anticolonial passions by plotting “a sustained conflict between freedom and tyranny,” exploited previously held myths of Saxon political rights that were “known to all literate colonists” and that constituted “a powerful source of collective pride.” These accounts also evoked the powerful myth of “America’s errand into the wilderness, a Let my people go 29 composite narrative of daring, courage, and entitlement that remains intact and familiar even now as sanctioning a collective political and social identity.”9 In both cases, the social knowledge in which these narratives were grounded helps to explain why they were persuasive. Scholars have also pointed out, however, that the familiar myths and stories that comprise a community’s shared knowledge can severely limit the options with which the members of that community view events or problems. As Ehrenhaus argued, for example, in the years following the Vietnam...


Subject Headings

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968 -- Language.
  • Exodus, The -- Sermons.
  • Exodus, The.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • King, Martin Luther, -- Jr., 1929-1968 -- Oratory.
  • Rhetoric -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
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