Department of Communication
Public Address Conference
Theon Hill

Metaphor, Leadership, and Legitimacy: Uses of the Exodus Narrative During the Civil Rights Movement and the Age of Obama

Through history, the Exodus narrative has played an essential role in constituting African Americans with identity, ideology, and purpose (Glaude, Jr., 2000; Keeley, 2008; K.D. Miller, 1992; Selby, 2008). In this dissertation, I view the Exodus as a key interpretive lens of the African American community. Initially, Barack Obama’s unusual candidacy excited the African American community. When speaking on issues of concern to the African American community, Obama was quick to evoke the Exodus as a means of positioning himself with legitimacy and solidarity with the prophetic tradition of the Civil Rights Movement (Frank, 2009; Murphy, 2011). Many were quick to anoint him as the leaders destined to lead African Americans into the Promised Land (Murphy, 2011). However, during his first term, many early supporters became stringent critics of the President, even accusing him of “hijacking” African American leadership (Watkins, 2012). At the heart of many of the criticisms is the belief that “the age of Obama has fallen short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy” (West, 2011). Part of what has contributed to this belief is the fact that Obama drew on the same language of prophetic voices of the past, while advancing a different agenda. Given the ties between metaphor, ideology, and identity, the Exodus narrative is a prime entry point to engaging the controversy that has emerged since Obama’s election. In this project, I will compare uses of the narrative during the Civil Rights Movement to uses by and in response to the ascendancy of Barack Obama, asking questions such as: Are contemporary uses of the narrative consistent with historical uses? Do contemporary uses maintain the prophetic fervor of the past? How do contemporary uses position African Americans in relationship to the past, as Israelites marching toward the Promised Land of equality, and also as actors in the future? Do narrative uses enable or constrain African Americans to preserve the best that has been bequeathed to them by the past? If the narrative uses have changed, how are the changes reflected in the leadership that the narrative calls for in the African American community?

Theon Hill
Purdue University

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