This essay tests what we might call the racialization-as-secularization thesis through an examination of a year in the intellectual and literary life of Frederick Douglass—from the summer of 1854, when he delivered his commencement address at Western Reserve College, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered” (his direct response to the American School of Ethnology), to the summer of 1855, when his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, was published. “Claims” reveals that Douglass apprehended in the American School of Ethnology a distillation of the problem of race past internecine contentions about the interpretation of this or that biblical verse or curse to a bottom-line Christian-theistic question: What does the enslaved black body signify within a creationist framework? This confrontation of racial slavery as a theodical problem can help us account for the most salient difference of his second autobiography—its recourse to mythic drama of the sort associated with Romantic titanism. Douglass’s bravura performance of Romantic titanism in My Bondage and My Freedom underscores the extent to which Douglass abandoned the Christian millenarianism of the Garrisonian camp not for a tacitly secularist political abolitionism but rather for what we might call a heretical political-theological abolitionism that provides fruitful fodder for current historical and philosophical debates about secularity, secularism, and immanence.
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