- American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture
In American Prophecy, George Shulman examines the political meaning of prophetic language in the United States. Shulman, associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, is particularly concerned with the impact of prophecy on issues of race and redemption in the work of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. In a tightly argued and sophisticated account, he demonstrates how the approach to prophecy has changed in the last century and a half.
Shulman begins with the observation that prophecy is an important element in American politics. Prophecy draws on biblical rhetoric about the possibility of redeeming the problems and possibilities of a special [End Page 208] people. In this context, he is most concerned with issues of race. On the very first page of his preface, he declares, "My premise is that prophetic language is axiomatic in American life" (ix). But while religious fundamentalists have largely appropriated prophecy and given it a dogmatic interpretation, Shulman is intent on giving it a larger meaning that seeks to challenge racial restriction and create a more expansive political approach.
The argument starts with a definition. "In this book," Shulman writes, "'prophecy' connotes the genre canonized in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, and the ways their speech and example is taken up by Jesus and Paul, reworked by Martin Luther and John Calvin in the Protestant Reformation, by Puritans in the English Revolution and first American founding, and by slaves, nationalists, and reformers in the United States" (2). He hopes to deal with prophecy not as Scripture "but as living poetry open to infusions of new meaning" (3). But prophecy, he observes, also has a clear political message and has been used to revitalize politics in significant ways. As Shulman notes in his conclusion, "I began to study prophetic language simply because politics involves persuasion, and persuasion requires starting with how one's audience thinks and speaks" (247).
Then the book addresses the ways various authors have used prophecy. Henry David Thoreau comes first. "Everything he wrote," Shulman notes, "is haunted by imperial expansion and the destruction of native peoples, by chattel slavery and northern complicity, by new forms of labor, false fates, and subjection to them" (41). While assessing these important political issues, Shulman clearly recognizes Thoreau's poetic sensibility. He also compares Thoreau to such figures as Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln as "[Thoreau] tells a jeremiad about a crisis in a house divided" (49). Shulman shows how Thoreau sought to create a sense of personal and political responsibility, to acknowledge despair while announcing vitality in all elements of his writing.
Next comes an examination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the first sentence of this chapter, Shulman asserts that, like Thoreau, King "assumes the office of prophecy and uses the genre as a language in and for politics" (97). In one particularly telling passage, he notes King's faith in his personal God "as a comforting personal presence and as a spiritual force intervening in history on the side of righteousness" (101). He suggests that King identified blacks with Jews in Egypt and used such parallels to advance his argument and to try to understand the suffering that occurred. King, he says, "embraces the role of redeemer in a narrative that saves the soul of America…" (119).
Turning to James Baldwin, Shulman notes that "he raises central prophetic questions: about the commitments we authorize and how we practice them, about whom we identify with and on what basis, about which story we tell to depict the past and its power, and in each regard, about how we conceive and seek redemption" (131). Rather than relying on transcendent principles, he observes, Baldwin dealt with the racial situation in America as it actually existed. In his most telling observation, Shulman declares, "In narrative terms, … Baldwin does not deliver a jeremiad to return citizens to first principles or a founding 'event'; rather, he tells a story...