While scholars have taken an increasing interest in the ways writers of the African diaspora have appropriated, revised, and otherwise intervened in the Western classical tradition, this scholarship has yet to fully articulate a cohesive theory of the political implications of black classicism as a literary and historiographical practice. This essay works toward such a theory by delineating a continuous tradition of black classicism as political engagement and historical critique across two centuries, from the early antebellum period through our contemporary moment, and situating key literary figures—most prominently Charles Chesnutt—within this tradition. Chesnutt and others (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Toni Morrison among them) adapt and revise multiple mythic traditions—ancient and modern, “African” and “American,” “black” and “white”—to counter an exceptionalist view of American history. These writers oppose exceptionalism by linking the United States to a broader and deeper history defined by slavery, empire, and ruin, while at the same time offering a prophetic vision of a future beyond the “empire of slavery.”

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