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Empire of Ruin

Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture

John Levi Barnard

Publication Date - December 2021

ISBN: 9780197635100

248 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


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."


  • Advances a new theory of "black classicism"
  • Considers the function of classicism within American culture at large and reads black classicism as part of a larger critique of that culture
  • Argues that classicism functions as a "language of power" and is itself central to the cultural hegemony that underlies and authorizes the regime of oppression and enslavement

About the Author(s)

John Levi Barnard is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Honorable Mention for the 2018 MLA William Sanders Scarborough Prize

"This is a brilliant study of power in the US. ... Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty." --L. L. Johnson, CHOICE

"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

"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

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: Phillis Wheatley and the Affairs of State
    Chapter 2: In Plain Sight: Slavery and the Architecture of Democracy
    Chapter 3: Ancient History, American Time: Charles Chesnutt and the Sites of Memory
    Chapter 4: Crumbling into Dust: Conjure and the Ruins of Empire
    Chapter 5: National Monuments and the Residue of History

Related Titles

The Oxford W. E. B. Du Bois Reader
Classic Fiction of the Harlem Renaissance