Claiming a heritage that weds rhetorical image to the realities of black life in America, Kenyatta Gilbert draws connections between today’s musicians and hip-hop artists and activists of the past. Gilbert’s scholarship has an expansive reach only begun to be introduced in this excerpt from his full essay in Liturgy 32, no. 3 which is available at www.tandfonline.com. The entire issue of Liturgy is on Pilgrimage, with this essay exploring the journey of African American experience and the language describing it as a traceable lineage particular especially to black preachers.
The development of faith identity in African American churches has traditionally invested symbolic significance in the Exodus narrative. Whether one considers the celebrated Black poet and abolitionist Phyllis Wheatley’s “Letter to Reverend Samson Occum” (1774) or A.M.E. Zion preacher Absalom Jones’s “Thanksgiving Sermon” (1808) based on Exodus 3:7–8, since the late eighteenth century, appropriation of the Egypt-to-Canaan saga has been an essential part of Black Christianity’s literary and socioreligious imagination.
. . . African Americans have found points of congruence between their narrative world and that of the Israelites. Frederick Douglass exited his Egypt to become a prototypical Black Moses; Nat Turner’s clandestine escape (despite his short-lived freedom) struck terror into the hearts of Pharaonic Virginian slaveholders; Marcus Garvey coaxed several thousand Black vassals to embrace his Afro-Atlantic nation-building crusade; and Martin L. King, Jr.’s theological vision of a beloved community heartened the hopes of the societally dispossessed, although Promised Land habitation would elude him. African America’s reifying impulse to coronate a Moses figure is centuries old.
Dr. King’s death-warning sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered in 1968—thirteen years after his stirring message to a packed assembly at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church on the eve of the Montgomery Bus Boycott—is arguably the most well-known audio-visually archived sermon preached in the modern period. . . second only to his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” establishes a crucial referent for observing how acts of utterance become acts of imagination that carry generative power to evoke new perceptions of reality––symbolically significant perceptions that stretch beyond the rhetor’s leitmotif. As the saints of old had intoned the sacred lyrics of suffering and deliverance in “Go Down Moses, Down in Egyptland … tell ole’ Pharaoh to let my people go” from their wearied throats as a tool of hope in the antebellum South, King’s sermon in Montgomery in 1955 had in similar fashion triggered a tactical, poetical war of unmasking systemic evil and deceptive human practices in America by means of moral suasion and subversive rhetoric.
Celebrated as the “Moses of the twentieth century”. . . the Kingian impulse for speech-act beauty––drawing on aesthetical principles that reveal the tremendous creativity and deeply rooted rhetorical imagination and expression of African American preaching—remain continuous in the speech-acts performed by an emerging generation of Joshuas and Calebs who have found sure footing on a lyrically potent sacred ground for announcing hope in the face of human tragedy and collective suffering. One way to notice how the appropriation of the Egypt-to-Canaan saga continues to shape and fund an aesthetical language-world for African-descended people to interpret their social plight and construct identity is to give specific attention to how two African American lyricists employ what I term the Kingian impulse whose arrested speech-act performances conspicuously and inferentially embrace the cultural metanarrative of God’s emancipation of the Israelites from bondage to freedom.
Kenyatta R. Gilbert, associate professor of homiletics and founder of The Preaching Project (www.thepreachingproject.org), Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC., is the author most recently of A Pursued Justice: Great Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights (Baylor Univ. Press, 2016).