Zora Neale Hurston uses the Moses story to explore enduring issues in African American culture: the nature of freedom, political leadership, nationalism, racial identity, class, and the role of women in society. These issues are also important cross-culturally and thus are central to American society in general. By creatively altering the Moses myth from a familiar “liberation” biblical story and by using African American vernacular to “place” the story as allegory, Hurston crafts her own “folktale” about Moses into a sharp political commentary. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Hurston was often criticized by African American nationalists and/or writers on the Left for being apolitical in her anthropological focus on folk material or for being politically conservative. The former charge is hard to support when faced with Moses, Man of the Mountain or Hurston’s other fiction; the latter charge remains open to a range of interpretations.
In a key thematic focus throughout the novel, constant squabbles erupt between Moses and the people, and between Moses and the “second-tier” leadership (Miriam and Aaron). As Moses leads the people out of slavery in Egypt, it seems that freedom is a difficult thing to keep hold of—physically, mentally, spiritually, and politically. The Hebrews falter in their journey through unfamiliar territory and look back with longing to the old structures of slavery. Moses struggles all through the novel to convince the people that freedom is hard-won and a constant effort. Freedom means resisting the ideas from slavery days, especially regarding the nature of political leadership. Near the end of the book, Moses talks the people out of crowning him an Egyptian-style king: “This freedom is a funny thing. It ain’t something permanent like rocks and hills. It’s like manna; you just got to keep on gathering it fresh every day. If you don’t, one day you’re going to find you ain’t got no more.” Moses’ posture as a reluctant “traditional” leader underscores the challenges facing a people who escape a slavery that shackled them with habits of thought as much as with chains.
In Moses, Man of the Mountain, Hurston focuses on the internal process of gaining freedom, and her generally unsympathetic portrayal of “the people” may have inspired some critics to charge her with political conservatism. By showing Moses as the beleaguered leader and dismayed observer of the mumbling, rumbling “mob,” Hurston seems to suggest that the main obstacle on the road to freedom is the short-sightedness of the Hebrew people. As Moses ponders his role in the liberation, “he wasn’t sure he had succeeded. He had found out that no man may make another free. Freedom was something internal. The outside signs were just signs and symbols of the man inside. All you could do was give the...
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