Characters Of Blood: Black Heroism In The Transatlantic Imagination by Céleste-Marie Bernier

Catherine Clinton on a creative and contextual analysis of the visual art of enslaved blacks

March 21, 2013

This impressive work covers a vast and tangled web of interconnected issues that reflect radically innovative concepts of race, rhetoric and representation within the (primarily) Anglo-American transatlantic world for more than the past 200 years - not a modest proposal. Céleste-Marie Bernier is no stranger to ambition, having impressed fans and critics alike with her 2008 book African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present. But with this new work, she has broken free of several impediments and seems unwilling to ground her provocations within traditional frameworks, as her interrogations take on a Cassandra-like tone. She subverts traditional discourse with her inventive refinements, and pushes readers to explore several (mistaken) assumptions and replace them with her own.

With this bold agenda, 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. With refreshing ease, she explores public space and plaques, autobiographies and letters, paintings and sculptures, cartoons and statuary, periodicals and photography, without privileging one set of resources over another. She critiques portraits from Steven Spielberg’s cinematic take on the Amistad incident (with Sengbe Pieh, aka Cinqué, at the story’s core) and Ntozake Shange’s theatrical explorations of African- American abolitionist Sojourner Truth, to Kyle Baker’s vivid evocation of rebel slave leader Nat Turner in his 2008 graphic novel of the same name. She is evangelical in her quest to rediscover meanings buried along with lost or obscure works, such as Anne Whitney’s sculpture of Toussaint- L’Ouverture c.1870 or Daniel Panger’s “other novel” about Nat Turner that appeared in 1967.

Bernier’s ability to offer rich contextualisation is superbly showcased in, for example, her consideration of the Frederick Douglass mural on the Falls Road in Belfast, as well as the image in Debra Priestly’s 2001 mixed-media piece Strange Fruit 2. She probes not just ongoing obscurity but the deliberate erasure of too much African-American artistry, a body of work where storytelling remains unsurpassed. Figures such as William H. Johnson and most particularly Jacob Lawrence (whom she rightfully champions) receive extended analysis that highlights historicism and folk heroism. Along with Richard J. Powell and other emerging revisionist voices, Bernier redefines our appreciation of black heroism on many levels, sketching out the heroism of both the interpreters and their subjects.

However, this heroic remastering of the narrative gets framed in the language of guilt and innocence (powerful invocations for a volume with blood in the title) by George Lipsitz, author of the epilogue. Readers who attempt to navigate this book along a straight path may be frustrated. Some may wish for more description, less deconstruction. But the work can be picked up as easily as it can be put down, and might be best consumed at a relaxed pace, in imitation of its discursive refracted style, most particularly chapter 4, “Tickety-ump-ump-nicky nacky”.

Dipping into almost any chapter in this cornucopia, readers will come away feeling stimulated as well as slightly dizzy, navigating what Bernier posits as “the inextricable relationship between coded systems of signification and overt enactments of violence”. On occasion, Bernier throws in a familiar reference, as with her juxtaposition of an iconic Michelle Obama at the unveiling of Sojourner Truth’s new likeness in the US Capitol Visitor Center. But much of the time, in the maze of this discursive whirligig of a book, the widening gyre of Bernier’s intersecting interests can seem like a flipbook of eclectic snapshots that remain fascinating and at the same time elliptical. Perhaps not a good beach read, but still, available on Kindle.

Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination

By Céleste-Marie Bernier
University of Virginia Press, 464pp, £35.95
ISBN 9780813933245
Published 15 December 2012

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