B-Sides: George S. Schuyler’s “Black Empire”

“Black Empire” ends with an international revolution, led by a heroic Black genius preaching empowerment; it ends with a continental dictator clutching power through unremittent cruelty and cries of racial supremacy. Both statements are true.

In the first half of the 20th century, George Schuyler was one of the most widely read Black writers alive. He is best remembered now for his delightfully morbid satire Black No More (1931). In it, scientists devise a chemical process to turn Black people white—only to find out that this transformation does nothing to staunch American racial animosity. Reviewing this “universal satire” in The Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois saw it offering “not only scathing criticism of Negro leaders,” including Du Bois himself, “but the masses of Negroes” too, even as it “slaps the white people just as hard and unflinchingly straight in the face.”

The same blanketing, corrosive wit that makes this satire so bold also notably makes its politics difficult to pin down. Schuyler only made this problem thornier by swinging from youthful pan-African socialism to a right-wing individualism in his later years, inveighing against Dr. King and Malcolm X alike. What exactly transpired between his most famous novel and those later diatribes?

Depending on whom you ask, trash or treasure. From 1933 to 1939, Schuyler wrote some 50 short stories and 20 serialized novellas for the Pittsburgh Courier, where he served as chief editorial writer. In his groundbreaking study, Black Pulp (2021), Brooks Hefner has shown how newspapers like the Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American were powerhouses of Black genre fiction, turning out as many as 2,500 stories. In 2023, Penguin Classics reissued Schuyler’s magnum opus from this era, Black Empire. Their edition combines two novellas, “The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World” (November 1936–July 1937) and its sequel, “Black Empire: An Imaginative Story of a Great New Civilization in Modern Africa” (October 1937–April 1938), which together tell one complete story. The book manages to deliver an even wilder plot than Black No More, as well as an even more fascinating—and troubling—political problem.

Black Empire follows the machinations of Dr. Belsidus, a Harlem criminal mastermind. Belsidus is pulp fiction villainy at its best. He dissolves his enemies in acid. He has trained his pet leopard—disarmingly named Ben—to kill on command. He walks about his lavish lair, decorated “strictly late Egyptian,” sporting such crisp fits as “purple and white pajamas,” while smoking “cigarettes six inches in length.” He also commits horrendous acts of violence: murders white women wantonly; conspires to assassinate world leaders; mobilizes a private army. The Doctor’s fantastically vicious schemes seem immediately recognizable as the work of a pulp archvillain, like Fu Manchu before him and Ernst Blofeld after.

But unlike such villains, fated to meet their match at the hands of an equally extravagant protagonist, Belsidus is the tale’s implausible hero. Every dastardly deed—every theft, murder, and bombing—he commits in the name of Black liberation. He has assembled “the best brains in the Negro race” to destroy “white world supremacy” and establish a new pan-African civilization. His violence is not in pursuit of personal wealth or fame, but to “break the back of white imperialist peace”—that is, to force a battle between races so that Black people can at last be truly free.

Is this satire? Are we meant to recognize Belsidus as an absurd caricature of nationalist leaders like Marcus Garvey? If so, why does the book refuse to punish Belsidus for his actions? Are his noble ends really meant to justify his cruel means? Refusing to settle these questions, the novel drives us to reconsider how we envision the relationship between literature and politics in the first place. Must novels finally endorse or condemn the political acts they display? Or can we understand some (pulpier) narratives as a form of wish fulfillment, offering frustrated readers a cathartic release via transgressive acts of fiction they would unhesitatingly abhor in actuality?

Must novels finally endorse or condemn the political acts they display? Or can we understand some (pulpier) narratives as a form of wish fulfillment, offering frustrated readers a cathartic release via transgressive acts of fiction they would unhesitatingly abhor in actuality?

Black Empire undeniably belongs to a small but significant tradition of Black nationalist fiction, running from Martin Delany’s Blake: or, the Huts of America (1859–61) through Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (1899). In Griggs’s novel, which must have influenced Schuyler, the protagonist founds a secretive Black society—based in Waco, Texas, of all places—only to abandon it once the Imperium launches its plan to secede from the United States. Doctor Belsidus, by contrast, consistently rationalizes his cruel actions by championing pan-African ideals, much like those Schuyler espoused in his own editorials from the 1930s. Early in the novel, Belsidus unveils a set of brilliant discoveries in solar power, hydroponic farming, and media, such as long-distance radio and even a prototype television. These devices, he explains, will assure Black people a shared future without poverty, starvation, illiteracy, or internal fighting—those perennial ills left behind by decades of “colonial exploitation.” Schuyler renders these technologies with an earnest relish for detail that would have satisfied the most zealous fans of early sci-fi pulps like Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. (The spy scenes and aviation battles likewise show Schuyler’s command over other genre tropes of the age.)

Even the Doctor’s first major display of brutality is notably an act of revenge directed against the racial violence of the Jim Crow South. When news breaks that a Black man has been lynched in Mississippi after being falsely accused of rape, the Doctor orders his fleet of secretly constructed airplanes to carpet-bomb the lynchers’ town with thermite explosives. Vicious? Certainly. But Belsidus repeatedly invokes Hammurabi’s dictum, “an eye for an eye,” evoking an ancient mode of justice as a reckoning for years of colonial brutality.

Some of his speeches even seem to argue—like Frantz Fanon decades later—for violence as a necessary tool in decolonization. White people, Belsidus insists to his secretary Carl Slater, “have murdered millions of black men, women and children, and indirectly destroyed millions more by impoverishment, discrimination, segregation, cruel and inhuman treatment. They haven’t been very squeamish about it have they, Slater? No, so why should I be?” Although Slater expresses discomfort with the “diabolical” confidence of his boss from time to time, he never breaks with Belsidus—nor does any other character qualify or critique his actions.

Still, early Schuyler readers can hardly have accepted that Belsidus’s grand ends justified his increasingly horrific means. He gasses leading industrial laborers of Britain and has rats infected with typhus, cholera, and the bubonic plague airdropped into major European cities. He even (writing in 1938) instigates a “World War II” filled with “swift, ruthless, unremittent bloodshed.” Unlike the “protest novel” movement soon to dominate African American publishing, Schuyler’s pulp fiction seems committed to providing a memorable character, a gripping plot, and a series of vivid scenes, rather than a message.

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Schuyler later dismissed Black Empire as “hokum and hack work of the purest vein.” Today, it is tempting to see him as a political thinker in transition, a writer who could imagine the fantastic means by which a global pan-African insurrection might occur—and could delight readers struggling under the oppressive weight of Jim Crow and the Great Depression with bombastic displays of racial empowerment and retributive violence. Yet a writer who could not, in the end, either wholly celebrate or condemn his own violent fantasy.

Black Empire ends with an international revolution, led by a heroic Black genius preaching empowerment; it ends with a continental dictator clutching power through unremittent cruelty and cries of racial supremacy. Both statements are true. Which mattered more to Schuyler? His later writing condemns and even pathologizes collective political action. In the political climate of the late 1930s, however, Doctor Belsidus’s heroic self-assurance might have been just as memorable as his pajamas or vat of acid. Neither sincerely championing pan-African insurrection nor transparently satirizing it, Schuyler’s pulp tale refuses any simple political verities. Readers today may still find themselves thrilled—yet unable to pass any quick judgment on Dr Belsidus and his leopard, Ben. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz.

Featured image: “Marcus Garvey speaking at Liberty Hall, Harlem, 1920” by an unknown author / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)