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Empire of Ruin

From the US Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, classical forms and ideas have been central to an American nationalist aesthetic. Beginning with an understanding of this centrality of the classical tradition to the construction of American national identity and the projection of American power, Empire of Ruin describes a mode of black classicism that has been integral to the larger critique of American politics, aesthetics, and historiography that African American cultural production has more generally advanced. While the classical tradition has provided a repository of ideas and images that have allowed white American elites to conceive of the nation as an ideal Republic and the vanguard of the idea of civilization, African American writers, artists, and activists have characterized this dominant mode of classical appropriation as emblematic of a national commitment to an economy of enslavement and a geopolitical project of empire. If the dominant forms of American classicism and monumental culture have asserted the ascendancy of what Thomas Jefferson called an "empire for liberty," for African American writers and artists it has suggested that the nation is nothing exceptional, but rather another iteration of what the radical abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet identified as an "empire of slavery," inexorably devolving into an "empire of ruin."
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About the Author

John Levi Barnard is an Assistant Professor of English at The College of Wooster.


"John Levi Barnard's Empire of Ruin is an exhaustively researched, tightly woven analysis that takes scholarship on black classism in a fresh, original direction. He demonstrates how African American writers from the Revolution through the civil rights era and beyond have exposed the central role of the classical tradition in supporting slavery and creating oppressive narratives of national and racial identity. An expert study of the politics of culture and the ongoing vision of African American literature and liberation, this book is required reading for specialists in American Literature, African American Studies, Cultural Studies, Rhetoric, and Public History. In the ruins of the classical past, as this book hauntingly presents, rest meanings that continue to haunt and divide our present times." --Barbara Mccaskill, University of Georgia "Barnard deftly illuminates how figures such as Phillis Wheatley, William Wells Brown, and Charles Chestnut, among others, summoned classical resonances to occasion a critique of the intertwined discourses in the U.S. about democracy, imperialism, and racial formation throughout the long nineteenth century. Over a series of acute and elegant readings, Barnard's book as a whole serves as a trenchant intervention in the still ongoing debates about race and Western modernity, not only the latter's formation but its continued expansion, and a necessary reminder of how black cultural producers have reinvented the ruins of empire into monuments and testimonies of freedom. ... [it] rewards its readers by compelling a reassessment of some of the central lines of critical inquiry of African American Studies and Classics, equally for where they intersect as where they diverge, to reveal how both fields are committed to animating ... the promise of humanism." --Ivy Wilson, Northwestern University "This lucid and deeply learned book forces us to reconsider the cultural work of classicism; it also announces the arrival of an important new critic. Working across centuries, cultures, and canons, John Levi Barnard offers a series of bravura readings that grant coherence and urgency to a heretofore understudied African American cultural tradition. Barnard's deft discussion of Phillis Wheatley, Charles Chesnutt, and Kara Walker, among others, reveals their withering critiques of American imperialism and white supremacist idealogy." --Coleman Hutchison, University of Texas at Austin

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