george s. schuyler / black empire


What's interesting about Schuyler is that although he was a conservative and this work was a satirical take on black nationalism/pan-africanism, many people were and are still inspired by his futuristic vision of a united Africa presented through the sinister but actions-speak-louder-than-words character of Dr. Belsidus. I think Bodega Dreams is a more modern example of a benevolent-dictator-like character such as Belsidus ("Willie Bodega") as seen through the eyes of an ordinary joe, while Black Empire is an afrofuturism-based fiction with a similarly nationalist mastermind at the center of the narrative.

(Brothersjudd) George S. Schuyler was one of the premier black journalists of his, or any other, day. Between his own acerbic style and being published in The American Mercury, he was referred to as the Black Mencken. In addition, he wrote one great satirical novel, Black No More, and a fair amount of pulp fiction. Two of those pulp titles, The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World and the sequel, Black Empire: An Imaginative Story of a Great New Civilization in Modern Africa, are reproduced here in one volume. Written under the pseudonym, Samuel I . Brooks, for a black weekly newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, these sixty two serial installments in an ongoing adventure story originally appeared between 1936 and 1938.

Reminiscent of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, Schuyler tells the story of Carl Slater, writer for the Harlem Blade, who accidentally witnesses the murder of a white woman. The black assailant forces Slater into a waiting car at gunpoint, whereupon he is drugged. When he wakens, the murderer reveals himself to be Dr. Henry Belsidus, leader of the Black Internationale, an elite organization of black professionals whom the Doctor plans to lead in his mission to liberate Africa and restore blacks to their rightful position of dominance on the world stage. He explains that the woman had been one of his agents and her murder was punishment for failure. It turns out that Slater was on a list of blacks whom Belsidus planned to eventually recruit to his cause, and now circumstances force him to choose between joining up or being killed. He joins.

Dr. Belsidus is clearly maniacal, but he is also possessed of a compelling vision :

My son, all great schemes appear mad in the beginning. Christians, Communists, Fascists and Nazis were at first called scary. Success made them sane. With brains, courage and wealth even the most fantastic scheme can become a reality. I have dedicated my life, Slater, to destroying white world supremacy. My ideal and objective is very frankly to cast down Caucasians and elevate the colored
people in their places. I plan to do this by every means within my power. I intend to stop at nothing, Slater, whether right or wrong. Right is success. Wrong is failure. I will not fail because I am ruthless. Those who fail are them men who get sentimental, who weaken, who balk at a little bloodshed. Such vermin deserve to fail. Every great movement the world has ever seen has collapsed because it grew weak. I shall never become weak, nor shall I ever tolerate weakness around me. Weakness means failure, Slater, and I do not intend to fail.

In the ensuing chapters he realizes this vision, along the way utilizing such visionary technological wizardry as solar power, hydroponics and death rays, and such social measures as as his own new religion, the Church of Love. Carl Slater witnesses it all and--at the behest of Schuyler's editors and readers--falls in love with Patricia Givens, the beautiful aviatrix who commands the Black Internationale's Air Force. The serial ends with Belsidus and his followers triumphant and white Europe expelled from Africa.

Stylistically this is pretty standard fare, following the over-the-top, melodramatic, cliff-hanging, conventions of the pulp fiction formula. It's well written and exciting, though overwrought. What really makes it interesting though is it's politics. Schuyler, particularly late in life, was a conservative. He moved farther Right as he became more vehemently anti-Communist and finished his career writing for publications put out by the John Birch Society (see hyperlinked Essays below). Part of this evolution entailed becoming generally hostile to the Civil Rights movement and to African Nationalism, but apparently in the 1930's he was himself a Pan-Africanist, especially concerned with the fate of Ethiopia after the Italians invaded and with liberating Liberia. There's a tendency to dismiss black conservatives as somehow self-loathing, as if conservative values are necessarily at odds with the advancement of the black race. And you can see something of a dichotomy in Schuyler's writings if you take for instance one of his comments on Marcus Garvey, of whom he was generally skeptical :

Marcus Garvey has a vision. He sees plainly that everywhere in the Western and Eastern hemispheres the Negro, regardless of his religion or nationality, is being crushed under the heel of white imperialism and exploitation. Rapidly the population of the world is being aligned in two rival camps: white and black. The whites have arms, power, organization, wealth; the blacks have only their intelligence and their potential power. If they are to be saved, they must be organized so they can present united opposition to those who seek to continue their enslavement. (George S. Schuyler, writing in the Interstate Tattler, August 23, 1929)

and compare it to what he had to say about the success of Black Empire:

I have been greatly amused by the public enthusiasm for 'The Black Internationale,' which is hokum and hack work of the purest vein. I deliberately set out to crowd as much race chauvinism and sheer improbability into it as my fertile imagination could conjure. The result vindicates my low opinion of the human race. (George S. Schuyler, from a Letter to P.L. Prattis, April 4, 1937)

Taken at face value, he seems to be criticizing his black readership for enjoying stories based on the vision he had extolled in Garvey.

But perhaps this conflict is more easily reconciled than critics would have us believe. Throughout his career, Schuyler seems to have been entirely consistent in his hostility towards those who sought to speak for blacks. It is this general stance which explains his opposition to Garvey, Communists, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and so on. In Black Empire, he presents Belsidus as quite a monster, willing to use mass murder and near genocide to achieve his ends. It's easy to read the story as reflecting both his most treasured dream--the triumph of blacks over racial oppression--and his inherent pessimism about the leaders and means that would be required to achieve that goal.

At any rate, the story is great fun and Schuyler's personal conflicts only serve to add a few layers of tension. The reader is often unsure whether he's writing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek or whether he's allowing characters to speak his own forbidden thoughts. That you can read it on various levels merely adds to the enjoyment. There's also a terrific Afterword by Robert A. Hill and R. Kent Rasmussen, from which I gleaned much of the information in this review. Altogether, it's a marvelous book and the Northeastern Library of Black Literature is to be applauded for restoring it to print. Schuyler's reputation among academics and intellectuals declined in direct proportion to his increasing conservatism, but his is a unique and valuable voice, deserving of revival. (source)

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