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Was Moses Black?

November 29, 2011 | By

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The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery is one of our culture’s most enduring legends. From the Bible (the book) to The Ten Commandments (the movie), it has been adapted countless times.

The novel Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) is another retelling of the Exodus story, this time in African-American dialect, mixing biblical rhetoric and slave folklore and song. In other hands, this book could have been a farce or a disaster, but it was written by Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American feminist author–whose previous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is still regarded as one of the seminal works of African-American literature. From the book’s first sentences, we know we’re about to witness something unusual and special:

“Have mercy! Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!”

Women gave birth and whispered cries like this in caves and out-of-the-way places that humans didn’t usually use for birthplaces. They must cry, but they could not cry out loud.

The book is a fascinating, powerful testament to the pain of slavery–and to the universality of freedom.

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