Jared Hickman’s beautiful and provocative book, Black Prometheus: Race and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery, offers us a racialized reconceptualization of modernity. Using the celebrated myth of Prometheus—who “represents Man’s Freedom in the Modern Age” (2)—Hickman tells the story of modernity as one about oppression and liberation. The book will attract, no doubt, scholars of English literature and of African American studies, but also anyone with interest in religion and in colonialism.
Hickman is interested in how the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus “has come to serve as something like a myth of modernity itself” (2). He challenges the equation of modernity with secularization and, instead, sets modernity against the background of European imperialism and racial domination. The Promethean myth has racialist potentiality, Hickman explains, because of its geographic association both with Africa and the Caucasus, its “iconization of the heroic suffering of the captive body,” and its historical function as a “political theology of the absolute” (4). The book’s argument unfolds through readings of works by a wide array of thinkers and authors, including Percy and Mary Shelley, Karl Marx, and Frederick Douglass, revealing the revival and reinvention of Prometheus as a modern, racialized figure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
We invited scholars of English literature, religion, and African American studies to engage with Black Prometheus from their various disciplinary standpoints and come into dialogue with its author. They refer to the book as “impressively researched,” “astonishingly ambitious,” “Herculean,” “transformative,” and “magisterial.” They offer serious engagement with different aspects of Hickman’s argument, and the latter offers his replies to their challenges. The result is an invigorating, multifaceted symposium on literature, theology, and race.
Prometheus as a myth of modernity had been traditionally understood as a figure of European enlightenment and of the industrial revolution. Hickman offers, instead, the European “discovery” of the “new world” in 1492 as the condition of possibility for a redefined Prometheus—Black Prometheus—to emerge in a globalized world. Associating Prometheus with Contact and with European imperialism allows Hickman to racialize Prometheus (and modernity itself) as well as to detach Prometheus (and modernity) from the secular. Hickman’s project is postsecular in that it aims to deprivilege the secular as a predominant feature of the past five hundred years, asking to understand modernity anew, as a process of globalization rather than secularization.
In the symposium we present here, both Emily Ogden (English, UVA) and Sylvester Johnson (religion, Virginia Tech) raise questions pertaining to Hickman’s choice of 1492 as his point of departure. Britt Rusert (Afro-American studies, UMass–Amherst) brings up the potential contribution of sexual difference as an additional lens of analysis of the Promethean myth. Colin Jager (English, Rutgers) reads several moments in the book as “more secular than postsecular.” Hickman responds to these and other points and engages in a fascinating dialogue with his commentators. We are delighted to present these conversations to our readers.
Prometheus offers us an understanding of liberation as rebellion against the gods. “The novel development of Romantic Prometheanism is that the liberation of Prometheus is linked, for the first time, with the possibility of ‘the dethronement of Zeus’” (74). While pre-Romantic Prometheus (that of Hesiod, Aeschylus, Marlowe and Shakespeare) was saved through submission, the Romantic Prometheus was saved through revolt. Hickman argues that this Romantic triumph of Prometheus at Zeus’s expense comprised two mutually exclusive versions: the first is White Prometheus, who interprets his victory as evidence of divinization, achieving absolute freedom. The second is Black Prometheus, who,
in enduring and resisting the absolute freedom the first, white Prometheus asserts, finds himself apocalyptically imagining and working toward a freedom that is not yet forthcoming in the cosmic status quo, a freedom defined by the negation of absolute freedom, the refusal of what I will call the master logic of the master. (75)
This is how Prometheus becomes “revolutionary” and “unshackled” (76). Hickman reads works of Romantic Prometheanism (such as those by Voltaire and Blake) as responses to the problem of racial slavery in this period. Hickman “abstract[s] from the Prometheus myth’s modern reinvention a set of larger political-theological questions regarding racial slavery.” He aims to “extrapolate from the Promethean struggle of African and Caucasian Prometheuses outlined in the preceding chapters a broader dilemma and dynamic—namely, that slave rebellion constituted a genuine threat to nothing less than the cosmic status quo presided over by the Euro-Christian man-god and that threat occasioned repression, not only on a physical but a metaphysical plane” (303). He offers a theopolitical analysis of five works of fiction about rebellious slaves (by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Victor Hugo, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda y Arteaga, Frederick Douglass, and Herman Melville) and argues that the fictions of rebellion become rebellious fictions. In a way, they become myths themselves.
The events on the US-Mexican border in the past few weeks remind me that we need Prometheus. Indeed, we need Black Prometheus. Hickman’s book is all too relevant today, when we need to respond to the use of biblical text as a justification and violent assertion of state sovereignty against a racialized immigrant community in our globalized world. These events echo another US administration’s violent separation of children from their parents in order to “kill the Indian and save the man” by sending American Indian children to Christian boarding schools. In this way, they reinforce Hickman’s point in making 1492 central to his argument in Black Prometheus.