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Empire of RuinBlack Classicism and American Imperial Culture$
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John Levi Barnard

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190663599

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190663599.001.0001

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National Monuments and the Residue of History

National Monuments and the Residue of History

(p.169) 5 National Monuments and the Residue of History
Empire of Ruin

John Levi Barnard

Oxford University Press

This chapter explores the tension between the association of the Lincoln Memorial with the civil rights movement and the continued prevalence—during and after the movement itself—of the rhetoric of imperial ruination in African American political discourse and cultural production. The chapter considers this rhetoric in the writings of Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Martin Luther King Jr., before turning to Kara Walker’s art installation A Subtlety. Walker’s sculpture of an African American woman, molded out of refined white sugar in the shape of an Egyptian sphinx, was arguably the most prominent public monument ever constructed to enslaved people in America; but it also aligned with a long tradition through which African American writers and artists have refigured Thomas Jefferson’s exceptional “empire for liberty” as merely another iteration of what Henry Highland Garnet called the “empire of slavery,” inexorably devolving into an “empire of ruin.”

Keywords:   Kara Walker, Martin Luther King Jr., Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson, Amiri Baraka, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nikki Giovanni, James Whitfield, Ralph Ellison, national monument

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