“Is the Black Internationale a true story?” 1 wrote Bernice Brownlee of Wewoka, Oklahoma to the Pittsburgh Courier in 1937. She—and many other readers—wanted to know more about the newspaper’s new fictional serial: “The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World.” Harry Louis Cannady of Avella, Pennsylvania, wrote, “Is the Black Internationale a true story? I was a member of the 367th Infantry regiment in the World War and if the Black Internationale is a real organization, I want to join it.” 2 Samuel L. Thorpe Jr. of Miami, Florida, for example, wrote, “One of the purposes in my life when I have finished my college career is to imitate in a rather modest way, ‘Dr. Belsidus.’ I have always longed for the day when racial equality will come to pass and until the day comes, I shall never be satisfied.” 3
Although speculative fiction, the Pittsburgh Courier trumpeted this serial and its sequel as dramatically as if they were the real thing. The newspaper promoted and described “The Black Internationale” as “not a story exclusively about American Negroes, but about Negroes everywhere, united by a common bond of hatred of white exploitation, persecution and ostracism.” It further centered the movement’s leader, Henry Belsidus, as a hero in this work: “One determined black man, educated, suave, immaculate, cruel (at times) and unmoral, gathers around him the genius of the Negro world, and using every device imaginable, organizes the greatest conspiracy in history against White Supremacy!”4
African American writer George S. Schuyler is famous for two especially controversial things: his biting 1931 Afrofuturist satire Black No More and his hard turn to the political right wing after World War II. Unfortunately, both of these have obscured something rather extraordinary: Schuyler was one of the most prolific African American writers of popular genre fiction in the first half of the 20th century. And he was, almost certainly, the most prolific writer of genre fiction about African Americans during this time. Both sides of Schuyler’s fame can be seen in his writing, using a pseudonym, of the two serials that comprise Black Empire.
A powerful and prescient example of work that anticipates later Black speculative fiction and Afrofuturism.
At the conclusion of the first Black Empire serial, Belsidus proudly proclaims himself a “benevolent” dictator, which puts him in league with other 1930s figures like Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler and raises questions about whether Schuyler truly wants his readers to identify with this Black genius. Still, Schuyler never really backs off from this characterization, allowing Belsidus’s authoritarian impulses to guide the movement to its final success at the conclusion of the sequel. Perhaps in response to Schuyler’s seeming embrace of authoritarianism, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Courier’s chief rival for Black genre fiction, featured in the summer of 1937 William Thomas Smith’s 12-part serial “The Black Stockings,” which followed the rise of a fascist presidential candidate in the United States and the multiethnic anti-fascist resistance movement that developed in opposition to him.
Schuyler may have dismissed these serials as “hokum,” but, unlike his later shift to the political right, his politics in the 1930s were more firmly aligned with the Pan-Africanism of Dr. Belsidus. Four months after the conclusion of the second serial, Schuyler, under his own name this time, again invoked the name of Belsidus’s revolutionary movement in an essay for The Crisis entitled “The Rise of the Black Internationale.” He concludes this article by claiming that the “New Negro . . . knows that the fear of losing the colonial peoples and their resources is all that prevents another World War. He believes that to combat this White Internationale of oppression a Black Internationale of liberation is necessary. He sees and welcomes a community of interest of all colored peoples. No longer ignorant, terrorized or lacking confidence, he waits, and schemes and plans.”5 Schuyler’s Black Empire serials use the form of speculative fiction to imagine the very scheming and planning he proposes here, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding and mastery of a host of pulp genre conventions in order to raise a host of questions about Black liberation.
Even if the Black Empire serials remained for many years largely forgotten in the microfilmed pages of The Pittsburgh Courier, they nonetheless represent a powerful and prescient example of work that anticipates later Black speculative fiction and Afrofuturism, from the satire of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo to the revolutionary novels of Samuel Delany to the utopian world of Black Panther’s Wakanda to the bold contemporary experiments of N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor, among many others. Upon their original publication in the late 1930s, however, these serials entertained and inspired Pittsburgh Courier readers, prompting them to imagine utopian possibilities of a future without Jim Crow white supremacy. Belsidus’s consistent celebration of diasporic Black excellence in science and technology and his unwavering commitment to the liberation of Africa from colonial powers—by any means necessary—make Black Empire a landmark of early Black science fiction that offers readers today a potent vision of an imagined challenge to “white world supremacy” and a new world of racial equality.
From BLACK EMPIRE by George S. Schuyler, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright © 2023 by Brooks E. Hefner.
- “Questions and Answers,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 13, 1937, 16. ↩
- “Questions and Answers,” Pittsburgh Courier, March27,1937,14. ↩
- “‘Orchids’ to the Author of Black Internationale,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 14, 1937, 7. ↩
- “The Black Internationale”promotional insert, Box1, Folder1, George S. Schuyler Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. ↩
- George S. Schuyler, “The Rise of the Black Internationale,” The Crisis, August 1938, 277 ↩