Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth. Revised Edition / Edition 1

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“Martin Luther King is dead and the millenarian integrationalism that he symbolized sleeps with him,” but messianic Christian rhetoric still characterizes black oratory both from the pulpit and on the hustings. Dead, too, are the chief American prophets of Pan-Islam, but the Ethiopian Hebrews and Moorish Science Temple are still active. “As black messianic myths die out,” this book argues, “new ones spring up to take their places.”

Dr. Moses views black messianism as “a powerful and, in many respects, a beautiful myth, permeating the thinking of both white and black Americans since the late 18th century.” But, he points out, black messianism was evident as early as 1788 in the writings of “Othello,” or 1791, when Benjamin Banneker wrote to Thomas Jefferson of the Negro’s divine right to share the new nation’s “peculiar blessing of the heaven.” The author carefully defines the concept of messianism, and considers “redemptive mission” as a key attribute of the conception—one with which Harriet Beecher Stowe endowed Uncle Tom (despite activists’ mistaken notion of him as servile).

The mythic black hero as messiah is a pervasive theme in literary and social expressions as disparate as the writings of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, and Ralph Ellison, and the cults that developed around Joe Louis, Malcolm X, and others. Following the methodology used by Henry Nash Smith in Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Dr. Moses presents a “new angle of vision on many of the issues of black messianism and on the leading figures in the movement.” The author concludes that—despite the frequent excesses and even absurdities of black messianism—the American traditions of “evangelical reform, perfectionism, and the social gospel” offer more promise than today’s widespread “narcissistic anarchism.”

Reviewers commented that “[Dr. Moses’] analysis is as probing as anything “ and that the book “will stir controversy as well as praise by other scholars in the field.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
""Moving chronologically over 150 years of Afro-American history, Moses discusses the religio-political positions of diverse historic figures and the messianic themes of several novels. It's obvious that he has read exhaustively and reflected seriously. Fresh insights abound. His assertion, for example, that David Walker's Appeal is more a jeremiad than a protonationalist tract is a convincing rereading. He sardonically demonstrates that the 'Uncle Tom' ideal, correctly understood, has exerted a lasting appeal not only upon integrationists but upon separatists as well. . . . An impressive study of an important myth in Afro-American and American culture."

—Albert J. Raboteau, The Journal of Southern History"

""A brilliant and provocative book. It is a major contribution to Afro-American Studies, and religious studies, as well as an incisive critique of American civilization. . . . The author analyzes black messianism, a form of redemptive theology which assumes that Afro-Americans are destined to play a unique role in history and have a special message for humanity. . . . Moses finds that by employing the concept of black messianism he was able to reconcile apparently opposing trends in black history. He notes that the Afro-American's desire to separate from the mainstream of American society can be reconciled with his desire to integrate."

—History: Reviews of New Books"

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Moses examines the evolution of the black messianic tradition over 150 years of African American history. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271009339
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 4/9/1993
  • Edition description: REVISED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 294
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Wilson J. Moses is Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University and author of, among other works, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850–1925 (1988) and The Wings of Ethiopia (1990).

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Revised Edition
1 The Concept of Messianism, Sacred and Secular 1
2 A Search for African Roots of the Tradition 17
3 The Black Jeremiad and American Messianic Traditions 30
4 The Myth of Uncle Tom and the Messianic Mission of the Black Race 49
5 Faith, Fatalism, and Racial Christianity: The Slavery Crisis and Reconstruction 67
6 Booker T. Washington: A Black Moses and the Covenant Revealed to Him 86
7 The New Negro and America's Changing World Mission 107
8 Marcus Garvey: The Resurrection of the Negro, and the Redemption of Africa 124
9 Du Bois' Dark Princess and the Heroic Uncle Tom 142
10 Waiting for the Messiah: From Joe Louis to Martin Luther King, Jr. 155
11 Chosen Peoples of the Metropolis: Black Muslims, Black Jews, and Others 183
12 Messianic Oratory and the Theme of "Ethiopianism" in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man 196
13 Martin, Muhammad, and Malcolm: Political Revivalism in the Sixties 207
14 Black Messianism and American Destiny 226
Notes 239
Selected Bibliography 265
Index 275
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