Characters of Blood
Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination
Publication Year: 2012
Across the centuries, the acts and arts of black heroism have inspired a provocative, experimental, and self-reflexive intellectual, political, and aesthetic tradition. In Characters of Blood, Celeste-Marie Bernier illuminates the ways in which six iconic men and women—Toussaint Louverture, Nathaniel Turner, Sengbe Pieh, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman—challenged the dominant conceptualizations of their histories and played a key role in the construction of an alternative visual and textual archive.
While these figures have survived as symbolic touchstones, Bernier contends that scholars have yet to do justice to their complex bodies of work or their multifaceted lives. Adopting a comparative and transatlantic approach to her subjects’ remarkable life stories, the author analyzes a wealth of creative work—from literature, drama, and art to public monuments, religious tracts, and historical narratives—to show how it represents enslaved heroism throughout the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. In mapping this black diasporic tradition of resistance, Bernier intends not only to reveal the limitations and distortions on record but also to complicate the definitions of black heroism that have been restricted by ideological boundaries between heroic and anti-heroic sites and sights of struggle.
Published by: University of Virginia Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes
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Preface: “Suppose Nat Turner Painted?”
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Across the centuries, acts and arts of black heroism have inspired a provocative, experimental, and self-reflexive intellectual, political, and aesthetic tradition. At war with monolithic conceptualizations of black diasporic histories, the lives and works of six iconic African, African American, and African Caribbean men and women—Toussaint Louverture, Nathaniel Turner...
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Introduction. “Their Names Colonized Off”: Remembering and Reimagining Black Heroism
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“On a beautiful morning in the month of June, while strolling about Trafalgar Square, I was attracted to the base of the Nelson column, where a crowd was standing gazing at the bas-relief representations of some of the great naval exploits of the man whose statue stands on the top of the pillar.” So writes the nineteenth-century enslaved African American fugitive turned...
1. “I Shed My Blood”: Toussaint Louverture, Myth, History, and the Transatlantic Imagination
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On November 4, 1941, Ralph Ellison published “Mister Toussan” in a radical magazine titled the New Masses. As a dramatic engagement with white official history and black oral folk culture, Ellison’s short story establishes the fundamental role played by black male heroism in the lives of his impoverished Black child protagonists, Riley and Buster. Re-created as a mythical...
2. “N.T. 11 11 31”: Nathaniel Turner, Symbolism, Memorialization, and an Experimental Poetics
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“The knightliest of the knightly race / who since the days of old / have kept the lamp of chivalry / alight in hearts of gold.” So reads the inscription carved onto the base of a Confederate memorial close to the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, in the American South. This edifice starkly memorializes a horrifying history of racial terrorism in defense of white masculinity by exalting in the “knightliest...
3. “No Right to Be a Hero”: Sengbe Pieh, Resistance, Representation, and the Politics of Seeing
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“To commemorate the heroism of the Amistad Africans and those who shared in their quest for freedom, [in] 1989 [the] Amistad Committee commissioned this sculpture by Ed Hamilton and dedicated it on September 26 1992.” So reads the stone lettering incised on the granite base of the African American artist Ed Hamilton’s bronze monument commemorating the...
4. “Tickety-ump-ump-nicky-nacky”: Re-creating, Reknowing, and Refiguring Sojourner Truth
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As recently as April 2009, the Black female sculptor Artis Lane’s bronze bust of Sojourner Truth made history as the first work representing an African American woman to be unveiled before audiences at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC. Worlds away from the centuries-old circulation of the body and face of the half-naked Black female enslaved woman...
5. “A Work of Art”: Frederick Douglass’s “Living Parchments” and “Chattel Records”
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Five Great American Negroes, a work painted by the Black artist Charles White between 1939 and 1940, is one of his most famous history murals (see plate 8). White was inspired to create this large-scale, aggrandized spectacle of black cultural and political resistance by a newspaper survey in which Black readers selected Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Marian...
6. “I’ve Seen de Real Ting”: Harriet Tubman, Performance, and Multiple Personae
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“Harriet Tubman: Armed and Dangerous.” “Revolution Is a Woman’s Work.” “Harriet Tubman: Woman Warrior.” “The Heroic Struggle of ‘General’ Tubman.” “Tubman Mural with Musket Is Rejected.” So read the titles of just a few of the newspaper articles that appeared in 2000 regarding the controversies over the white artist Mike Alewitz’s...
Conclusion. “Portals, Containers, Time Capsules, and Bridges”: Acts and Arts of Black Heroism in Textual and Visual Archives
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Appearing in 2002, Debra Priestly’s mixed-media series Strange Fruit dramatizes black male and female strategies of psychological, physical, aesthetic, spiritual, and political resistance. As a thought-provoking series that places the onus upon the viewer to interpret from the fragments, Priestly’s...
Afterword by George Lipsitz
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Celeste-Marie Bernier’s Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination grapples with the vexed legacy of race and representation in ingenious, imaginative, and innovative ways. Bernier’s bold interdisciplinary study reveals the impossibility of innocent representations of race. It also delineates the many different ways that Black artists, activists, and intellectuals...
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Page Count: 464
Illustrations: 16 color illus., 30 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012