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American Prophecy

American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture

George Shulman
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    American Prophecy
    Book Description:

    Prophecy is the fundamental idiom of American politics—a biblical rhetoric about redeeming the crimes, suffering, and promise of a special people. Yet political theorists rarely analyze American prophecy and its great practitioners—from Frederick Douglass and Henry Thoreau to Martin Luther King and Toni Morrison. This paradox is at the heart of American Prophecy, a work in which George Shulman critiques the political and racial meaning of American prophetic rhetoric.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6618-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. 1. Introducing Jeremiah’s Legacy: Placing Prophecy in American Politics and Political Theory
    (pp. 1-38)

    This is an introductory chapter that sets the frame for my substantive readings of Thoreau, King, Baldwin, and Morrison. It briefly describes my method of interpreting prophecy as a social practice and rhetorical form open to revision. Then it introduces the instantiations of “prophecy” that guide subsequent chapters. First is the Hebrew voice of prophecy, to identify key markers of biblical prophecy as a genre. Second is prophecy as an American idiom, to identify the capaciousness and political contingency of the ways biblical prophecy is translated and used. Third is “prophecy” as an object in American studies, to identify the...

  2. 2. Thoreau, the Reluctant Prophet: Moral Witness and Poetic Vision in Politics
    (pp. 39-88)

    Why focus first on the ways that Henry Thoreau takes up and revises prophecy? A story can introduce the reasons. The week after John Brown raided Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Thoreau personally organized three public events so he could defend Brown and his raid. Public opinion in the North already cast Brown as a “monomaniac” and murderer, but Thoreau linked him to Puritans and Revolutionary fathers who, unlike enfranchised northern whites, would not sacrifice the principle of equality to expedience. Because the Dred Scott case effectively nationalized slavery, Thoreau argued, Brown’s self-sacrificing violence was needed not only to free...

  3. Interlude From Henry Thoreau to Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin: Race and Prophecy
    (pp. 89-96)

    Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin came to prominence during what many scholars now call the second Reconstruction, from the late 1940s through the late 1960s, and each figure has been domesticated since this project of democratization was abandoned. King now is a national icon, cast as a figure who embodied—who lived and died for—the American Dream; he is contained by an American exceptionalist story of a nation whose progressive telos is to fulfill its founding principles. Baldwin, too, has been made into a critic who stands up for the universalism latent in a national consensus, to...

  4. 3. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Theistic Prophecy: Love, Sacrifice, and Democratic Politics
    (pp. 97-130)

    Like Henry Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. assumes the office of prophecy and uses the genre as a language in and for politics. As we have seen, Thoreau developed two registers of prophetic voice, one abolitionist and the other romantic, in tandem as well as in tension with each other and with politics. We told a story that revealed unexpected affinities between these registers of prophecy and his political engagement with white supremacy, but it also suggested that while his use of wilderness as a trope was politically fruitful, his turn toward nature could not sustain this engagement. Indeed, the...

  5. 4. James Baldwin and the Racial State of Exception: Secularizing Prophecy?
    (pp. 131-174)

    Like King, Baldwin is shaped profoundly by his experience in the black church, and he forges a language of love, suffering, and redemption that is both personal and political.¹ Like King, he exemplifies a “double-consciousness” toward both whites and blacks, whose entwined fates he can address partly because he refuses to be wholly defined by either. Like King, he works through a complex attachment to an “American” identity he links both to white supremacy and to a “promise” of overcoming ascription by “race, caste, and class.” Like King, he invests in African Americans a special responsibility for voicing and redeeming...

  6. 5. Toni Morrison and Prophecy: “This Is Not a Story to Pass On”
    (pp. 175-226)

    I initially conceived a book about “prophetic narrative” because I was so profoundly affected by Toni Morrison’s novelBeloved. More effectively than any other text in my experience, it dramatizes the redemptive language and longing that has driven American culture and that has twinned white and black. As its themes led me to reread Sacvan Bercovitch’sAmerican Jeremiad, which depicted the hegemony of redemptive rhetoric in American liberal nationalism, I conceived this book, which here returns to its origin. ForBelovedstill seems at once to address and end, though not simply end, a story that entwines the machinery of...

  7. Conclusion: Prophecy as Vernacular Political Theology
    (pp. 227-256)

    I have sought in this book to bring together political theory and a version of American studies by placing central concerns of the European canon into conversation with a politics organized by racial domination and biblical language. This has meant displacing philosophical modes of apprehending politics by rhetorical practices and literary genres. Bringing political theory into conversation with an American modernity shaped by race, religion, and genre, and not only by capital, normalization, and disenchantment, also expands the vocabulary of references and theories for analyzing politics. I then could trace how prophecy is reworked by critics of white supremacy to...