Empire of Ruin: Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture

Research output: Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook


This book traces the development of a critical practice within African American literature, art, and activism that identifies and critiques the widespread appropriation of classical tradition to the projects of exceptionalist historiography and cultural white supremacy in the United States. This appropriative method has typically figured the United States as the inheritor of the best traditions of classical antiquity and thus as the standard bearer for the idea of civilization. Where dominant narratives-articulated through political speeches and editorials, poetry and the visual arts, and the monumental architecture of Washington, DC-envision the political project of the United States as modeled on ancient Rome yet destined to surpass it in the unfolding of an exceptional history, the writers, artists, and activists this book considers have connected modern America to the ancient world through the institution of slavery and the geopolitics of empire. The book tracks this critique over more than two centuries, from Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in the era of Revolution, through the antislavery writings of David Walker, William Wells Brown, and the black newspapers of the antebellum period, to the works of Charles Chesnutt, Toni Morrison, and other twentieth-century writers, before concluding with the monumental sculpture of the contemporary artist Kara Walker.

Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages236
ISBN (Electronic)9780190663629
ISBN (Print)9780197635100, 9780190663599
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • African american literature
  • American history
  • American literature
  • Black classicism
  • Classical tradition
  • Classicism
  • Empire
  • Monumental culture
  • Slavery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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