Wade in the Water

The biblical story of Exodus is a foundational narrative in many black diasporic spiritual traditions. The story of the Jews’ redemption from Egyptian slavery represents a powerful allegory for the promise of freedom from captivity in the New World. Zora Neale Hurston’s 1939 novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, for example, is a typological reading of Exodus that translates the historical context of the narrative and transforms it by incorporating black American folklore and African-derived storytelling and religious traditions.

“Many men could climb mountains. Anyone could bring down laws that had been handed to them. But who can talk with God face to face?” Hurston asks, “Who has the power to command God to go to a peak of a mountain and there demand of Him laws with which to govern a nation? What other man has ever seen with his eyes even the back part of God’s glory? Who else has ever commanded the wind and the hail? The light and darkness? That calls for power, and that is what Africa sees in Moses to worship.”

Hurston remarks the links between Moses and the premiere god in the Haitian pantheon, Damballa, whose origins lie in West Africa. “So all across Africa, America, the West Indies,” she writes, “there are tales of the powers of Moses and great worship of him and his powers. But it does not flow from the Ten Commandments. It is his rod of power, the terror he showed before all Israel and to Pharaoh, and THAT MIGHTY HAND.”

Spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Elijah Rock,” deal extensively in the tropes of Exodus. Professional black singers have long had a complex relationships with the spirituals, yet the persistent relevance of the songs still works something like alchemy. Listen to Mahalia Jackson. Her sublime faith transforms historical suffering into something meaningful, lasting–I dare say universal.

This year we’ll be hosting the first night Seder and to accompany the festive meal, I’ve made a playlist of black diasporic spiritual music that deals with slavery, redemption, and the perpetual striving to chant down Babylon–to fight the forms of oppression that still shackle people around the world. Tonight, the Exodus happens to each of us individually. We repeat, as Hurston did, the narrative of enslavement and freedom in order to suffer and survive together, again.