The Black Avenger: ‘The Essential Trope of Atlantic Modernity’

Bust of Toussaint Louverture at Fort de Joux, France (Wikimedia Commons: Christophe Finot)

In the years before and since the release and reception of the blockbuster 2018 film, Black Panther, the iconic Marvel character has undergone something of a public and critical renaissance. In 2016 Ta-Nehisi Coates signed on as the author of Marvel’s relaunch of the Black Panther comic book series, and Roxanne Gay co-authored (with Coates) the parallel Black Panther: World of Wakanda series. This blog has devoted quite a bit of space to the Black Panther franchise, including a series exploring how the film and comics connect to contexts such as Pan-Africanism, Black Feminism, and Black Nationalism.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Grégory Pierrot concludes his 2019 book, The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture, with a glance at Black Panther. After all, as a member (at least within the world of the film) of Marvel’s leading team of superheroes, the character of the Black Panther is quite literally a Black “Avenger.” In his wide-ranging and ambitious book, Pierrot offers what he terms “a partial genealogy of the black avenger trope,” an exploration that carries the reader from Roman accounts of Spartacus, through 17th and 18th-century English and French drama, representations of the major figures of the Haitian Revolution, and US-based African American novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries, to arrive at 21st-century film (206). Engaging with a wide variety of English and French language sources, Pierrot argues that the Black avenger is not simply a recurring figure in the literature and culture of the Atlantic world. Rather, he contends, it is through invocations of and engagements with the figure of the Black Avenger that writers, playwrights, and other cultural producers in Great Britain, France, Haiti, and the United States have simultaneously revealed the fragility of white supremacy during and after slavery and attempted to silence and erase the presence and power of Black collective agency. As the sign of this struggle, Pierrot concludes, the Black avenger is “the essential trope of Atlantic modernity” (9).

Before turning to his main archive, Pierrot begins his study with Roman stories of the slave revolt of Spartacus and the rape of Lucretia, both of which he returns to at times in his book. By anchoring the trope of the Black avenger in stories of Roman antiquity, Pierrot’s work intersects with recent studies of Black classicism. But while this work largely focuses on how African American writers have received and reinterpreted classical concepts and themes, much of Pierrot’s book concentrates on the ways in which white European authors created and developed the trope of the Black avenger through an engagement with the stuff of Roman history and mythology. He locates the origins of the Black avenger, for example, in 17th century English works like Lust’s Dominion; or, The Lascivious Queen, Roger Boyle’s retelling of the Spartacus story Parthenissa, and Aphra Behn’s novella Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave, whose titular character becomes an archetype for the Black avenger. Throughout his readings of these works, Pierrot deftly connects them to the political concerns of England in the 17th century, demonstrating how the Black avenger developed within particular national-historical contexts.

In his second chapter Pierrot continues to explore the relationship between the Black avenger trope and particular national contexts. Looking closely at the reception and rewritings of Oroonoko in 18th-century England and France, Pierrot convincingly shows “how instrumental race at large and the black avenger figure in particular were in defining related and rival notions of Englishness and Frenchness in the eighteenth century” (54). Pierrot focuses especially on dramatic adaptations of Behn’s novella produced by the English Thomas Southerne and the French Antoine de Laplace, which again connects to Roman antiquity through readings of Voltaire’s Brutus and Bernard-Joseph Saurin’s Spartacus. And as he did in his analysis of earlier works of English prose, Pierrot links these English and French theatrical productions to specific national concerns. This chapter also offers a powerful argument for the necessity of a multilingual approach to the trope of the Black avenger, as Pierrot moves effortlessly between English and French language sources, and offers a compelling account of the ways in which the Black avenger emerged from the interplay between two distinct yet interrelated national-imperial cultures.

The payoff of Pierrot’s multilingual approach is on full display in his chapter on the figure of the Black avenger in the stories surrounding the Haitian Revolution. Pierrot focuses especially on how French and English writers applied the trope to the Revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture by casting him as a “Black Spartacus.” This “mythologization,” Pierrot argues, was a “deliberate process meant to translate and reduce the complex politics of Saint-Domingue into simplified, convenient, and profoundly inadequate racialized language for an Atlantic readership” (94). He impressively traces the “Black Spartacus” moniker and its application to Toussaint through a wide range of French and English-language sources, from a play by Guillame-Thomas Raynal, through a speech from general Etienne Bizefranc de Laveaux, to an account of the Revolution from the English soldier Marcus Rainsford. Through this exploration, Pierrot shows how the work of transforming “a man … into a trope” moved back and forth across the Atlantic world’s imperial and linguistic boundaries (97). Pierrot concludes this chapter with a look at how Toussaint’s successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines took up and revised the trope of the Black avenger for his own purposes, and thus offers an important counterweight to the ways in which white writers used the trope to minimize and silence the Revolution’s Black radicalism.

This move anticipates the book’s final two chapters, where Pierrot pivots to the ways in which Black writers based in the United States took up the trope of the Black avenger in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the decades before the Civil War, he argues, Black American writers blended the trope with a focus on the liberatory potential of literacy. “The American black Avenger,” Pierrot writes, “would be a reader.” He traces this confluence through two likely sources: David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World and Martin Delany’s 1860s novel Blake; or, the Huts of America. In their development of the Black avenger figure, both writers, Pierrot argues, privilege the position of the Black reader. Pierrot also traces how discourses of the Haitian Revolution made their way into US American versions of the Black avenger. After pointing to a handful of white accounts of the Revolution from the antebellum decades, Pierrot offers an account of the ways in which Haiti haunts Delany’s novel even as it fails to make an explicit appearance. Delany, he concludes, “built a new narrative of black revolt, one that revived the sense of black political agency imparted by the Haitian Revolution by writing it over, and writing over it” (163).

Pierrot’s last chapter remains in the United States while moving forward in time to the turn of the 20th century. There and then, a trio of African American novels show, according to Pierrot, the largely conservative development of the Black Avenger in the era of Jim Crow. Touching upon Sutton Grigg’s Imperium in Imperio, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, and Robert Lewis Waring’s As We See It, Pierrot sees African American engagements with the figure as a return “to the white, antipolitical roots of the black avenger trope” (191). Griggs’s novel shows “how, at the turn of the century, American variations of the black avenger trope had become inseparable from the racist politics that had long undergirded it”; the fate of Chesnutt’s Black avengers point up “the limited narrative and conceptual structures by which the very notion of black political agency could be expressed at the turn of the century”; and Waring’s work reveals “the contortions necessary to defend a black conservative stance in a white supremacist state and how returning to the white, antipolitical roots of the black avenger trope could serve such purposes” (173; 181; 191).

The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture is an important book, one which simultaneously tells a crucial story about a key trope while also opening up avenues for future work. For example, while Pierrot begins with theater and does periodically return to fairly broad conceptions of the theatrical, his focus on drama largely falls away in the second half of the book. But it would be fascinating to discover how theater culture in the 19th-century United States took up the trope of the Black avenger. Such an exploration would, following the example of Pierrot’s strongest chapters, necessarily adopt a multilingual approach, especially given the importance of French-language culture in sites like New Orleans. Pierrot’s broad scope invites such inevitable gaps, but rather than a detriment to the work he has produced, they are openings for continued attention to a trope that shows no sign of going away.

All of this brings us back to the Black Panther. With Pierrot’s genealogy in hand, we can now recognize T’Challa as the most recent invocation of a vexed and contested trope, one whose history stretches from Roman antiquity to the present and across the Atlantic world, and whose invocations have the potential to at once inspire and stifle Black power.

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Benjamin Fagan

Benjamin Fagan received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and his B.A. from the University of Iowa. He is the author of The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation (University of Georgia Press, 2016), and his work has appeared in journals such as American Literary History, African American Review, and American Periodicals. He teaches courses in early African American literature and culture.