From Volume 1, Issue 1, 2017
In 1774, enslaved African poet Phillis Wheatley characterized American colonists as Egyptians slaveholders in her demand for liberty for enslaved people. More than a century later, sociologist W. E. B. DuBois evoked Exodus to encourage educator and activist Booker T. Washington to be a Joshua for his people, leading them into an American Canaan of freedom and equality. Claiming Exodus analyzes Afro-Atlantic authors like Wheatley’s and Du Bois’s appropriations of the biblical story of Exodus as a narrative that challenged slavery and racism throughout the African diaspora.
In The Bible and African Americans: A Brief History, biblical scholar Vincent L. Wimbush asserts, “[T]he Bible was the single most important centering object for social identity and orientation among European dominants” (4, emphasis added) during the colonial period. European colonists repeatedly turned to the Book of Exodus as they established colonies and founded America, and then white Americans evoked the story to help build their democratic republic. When Afro-Atlantic writers appealed to Exodus, they decentered these “official” narratives by giving different roles to whites and new meanings to European and American Exodus experiences. They utilized specific narrative strategies, such as characterizing their promised lands, both in America and abroad, as unstable, to develop their stories. The resulting fragmented and disparate narratives reflect the ultimate inability of Exodus to enable Afro-Atlantic people to fully achieve equality during the foundational phase of the civil rights movement. enslaved Africans’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, too. When Afro-Atlantic people’s quest for equality stalled after the revolution, they crafted new ways to claim Exodus as a roadmap for freedom. While politicians like Thomas Jefferson in his 1805 inaugural address linked the nation’s future to the Hebrews’ history, Afro-Atlantic authors once again decentered white Americans’ Exodus narratives by characterizing themselves as Israelites and demanding that America become an inclusive Canaan.
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