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Excavating Exodus

Biblical Typology and Racial Solidarity in African American Literature

J. Laurence Cohen

Excavating Exodus analyzes adaptations of Exodus in novels, newspapers, and speeches from the antebellum period to the Civil Rights era. Although Exodus has perennially served to mobilize resistance to oppression, Black writers have radically reinterpreted its meaning over the past two centuries. Changing interpretations of Moses’s story reflect evolving conceptions of racial identity, religious authority, gender norms, political activism, and literary form. Black writers transformed Moses from a paragon of race loyalty into an avatar of authoritarianism. Excavating Exodus identifies a rhetorical tradition initiated by David Walker and carried on by Martin Delany and Frances Harper that treats Moses’s loyalty to his fellow Hebrews as his defining characteristic. By the twentieth century, however, a more skeptical group of writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and William Melvin Kelley, associated Moses with overbearing charismatic authority. This book traces the transition from Walker, who treated Moses as the epitome of self-sacrifice, to Kelley, who considered Moses a flawed model of leadership and a threat to individual self-reliance. By asking how Moses became a touchstone for notions of racial belonging, Excavating Exodus illuminates how Black intellectuals reinvented the Mosaic model of charismatic male leadership.

About the Author

J. Laurence Cohen is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology. He received his PhD in English from Emory University. He has published in ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture and in the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies.


Pages: 256 pages

Published: April 2021


ISBN: 978-1-949979-91-6


African American Literature


African American Literature