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Characters of Blood

Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination
Celeste-Marie Bernier

BUY Cloth · 464 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813933245 · $45.00 · Dec 2012
BUY Ebook · 464 pp. · ISBN 9780813933252 · $45.00 · Dec 2012

Annual Book Prize, British Association of American Studies (2012); American Studies Network Book Prize, American Studies Network and the European Association for American Studies (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.


Characters of Blood weaves together analyses from scholarly and imaginative literature and visual material in astounding ways, proving that a ‘transatlantic’ debate about the black as hero has existed and persisted from the eighteenth through the twenty-first centuries. Bernier reminds us how powerful the narrative of the hero—and efforts to exclude black men and women from it—has been in Western culture. A superb intellectual history.

Jeffrey C. Stewart, University of California, Santa Barbara, editor of Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen

Celeste-Marie Bernier reads representations of African and African American rebels with extraordinary sophistication, showing how they embodied powerful and contradictory social forces. She adds novel insight to that perennial of historical scholarship, slavery and resistance.

Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh, author of The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

Celeste-Marie Bernier has produced an impressive body of interdisciplinary scholarship focusing on two centuries of African American art, and her prodigious research is to be applauded. She has mastered the art of storytelling while presenting critical case studies that deserve to be read by a wide audience.

Deborah Willis, New York University, Tisch School of the Arts

Bernier’s Characters of Blood is a major intervention in diaspora and slavery studies. Fully cognizant of many recent developments within diaspora studies that have sought to reclaim slave thought, experience, and agency, Bernier realizes both the necessity and the difficulties involved in excavating what is, in its earlier phases, essentially a white-generated archive. The historical and imaginative records of slave resistance, slave rebellion, and slave mythography are the particularly charged areas of the archive upon which Bernier has decided to focus her considerable analytic skills. Simply at an organizational level the book constitutes a tremendous scholarly feat. Bernier’s work asks black and white readers alike, when it comes to remembering slavery, what do we want from our heroes, and our anti-heroes, and what cultural parameters are used to make the subjects of biography conform, transform, and deform to the patterns we desire? These are very important questions that Bernier suggests quite new answers to.

Marcus Wood, University of Sussex

This impressive work covers a vast and tangled web of interconnected issues that reflect radically innovative concepts of race, rhetoric, and representation within the...Anglo-American transatlantic world for more than the past 200 years... Bernier hoists herself on to the high wire, balancing historical and literary portraits with commemorative materials, setting creative analysis of visual arts alongside compelling examples from memory studies.

Times Higher Ed. Supplement

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