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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Black Empire

George S. Schuyler

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To purchase Black Empire

Title: Black Empire
Author: George S. Schuyler
Genre: Novel
Written: 1936-8
Length: 347 pages
Availability: Black Empire - US
Black Empire - UK
Black Empire - Canada
L'Internationale noire - France
L'Empire noir - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Contains:
    • The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World
    • Black Empire: An Imaginative Story of a Great New Civilization in Modern Africa
  • Serialized between 1936 and 1938; first published in book-form in 1991
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Brooks E. Hefner

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Our Assessment:

B : more of historical than specifically literary interest, but a fascinating piece of work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/9/1992 H.L.Gates Jr.
Science Fiction Studies . (19:2) 7/1992 R.D.M.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Black Internationale and Black Empire, which, in the manner of the pulp science fiction of its day, combine action-packed adventure with futuristic technology, are an Afrocentrist's dream, and ought to enjoy a large readership among those in search of a black utopia. But they are particularly important for what they teach us about Schuyler's complicated response to the pressures of ideological conformity among blacks -- and the failure of most received ideological stances or political programs to account for this complexity." - Henry Louis Gates Jr., The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) book, as the saying goes, only of historical interest. (...) To any student of popular fiction, Black Empire should be of great interest for the ways in which Schuyler, in order to write on psychological and sociological themes for a black audience, inverts the modes of racist fiction intended for a white audience. (...) Despite all its crudities, Black Empire is a work of great imaginative power." - R.D.M., Science Fiction Studies

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Black Empire collects George S. Schuyler serialized novels The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World and Black Empire: An Imaginative Story of a Great New Civilization in Modern Africa -- easily read together as one work. (There was a break of a few months between the publication of the first and the second parts, but basically 'Black Empire' just continues the story of 'The Black Internationale' with the same characters.)
       The narrator is journalist Carl Slater, and his story begins with him getting a late-night meal in Harlem and finding himself intrigued by two fellow-diners: a black man the waitress identifies as Dr. Belsidus and an attractive young (white) woman. His curiosity piqued, Carl follows them when they leave -- and falls into Dr. Belsidus' clutches when he draws attention to himself after watching the doctor off the girl. It turns out Dr. Belsidus knows who he is, and has even had his eye on him for a while -- he's always on the lookout for: "loyal race-conscious youngsters to help me" -- , and he now gives him the choice of joining forces with him, becoming his secretary, or suffering a similar fate to the girl's. So Carl become his secretary -- and witness to Dr. Belsidus carrying out his incredibly ambitious plan.
       As Dr. Belsidus explains to Carl:

I have dedicated my life, Slater, to destroying white world supremacy.
       When Carl comes on board, Dr. Belsidus hasn't gotten very far yet, but he has certainly begun to lay the groundwork -- on an incredible scale: "I have the organization already, Slater, scattered all over the world". He has money, too, explaining that quite a bit comes from his medical practice:
Most of my patients are wealthy white women. I have great magnetism, great skill, Slater. I am unscrupulous. Whatever they want done, legal or otherwise, I do it if they have the money to pay me or can get it.
       Dr. Belsidus is a sinister, dark figure, willing to do anything for his higher cause. It's also all or nothing for him:
     We must get used to bloodshed, Slater. We must be hard. We must be cruel, We must be unrelenting, neither giving nor asking quarter, until either we or the white race is definitely subjugated or even exterminated. There is no other way. Softness is weakness. Compromise is disastrous. Tolerance is fatal.
       And he, and the story, live up to his words. His associates go along with it -- preferring also to remain in the dark about some aspects of all this: "We don't ask too many questions, Slater" -- even as it is hard to overlook Dr. Belsidus putting into practice his philosophy, which includes: "when an error has been made it must be eliminated".
       There's no question that, under the banner of the Black Internationale, it's his show: as he explains to those who will help implement his grand designs:
All successful revolutions must be conducted along dictatorial lines by a minority obedient to one man. I am the man.
       Part of the plan involves the spreading of a new religion -- giving: "the masses of Negroes the sort of religion they want but haven't been able to get" --, with houses of worship called Temples of Love, built "in a hundred cities and towns". It's am early variation on the megachurch, with the complexes including various stores, banks, hair parlors, even a gym with a swimming pool.
       The Black Internationale is also involved in economic activity -- from, impressively, harnessing solar power to large-scale farming. And, to help sow dissent among the enemy, Dr. Belsidus even seeds and fosters an organization called the 'White Americans': "anti-Catholic, anti-Jew and anti-Communist, composed of native white Protestants".
       Dr. Belsidus riles up whites against each other, all the while quietly preparing his far-flung enterprise for the big uprising:
We must keep the white world in pandemonium while we are solidifying our position. We must spread terror, secretly, of course, until we are strong enough to come out in the open ....
       This they do: written in the late 1930s, this is nevertheless a story featuring a 'Second World War' which is as terrible and large-scale as the actual one would then be -- and which: "settled down to a stalemate similar to that of 1914-1918, while pitiless and persistent air attacks reduced the civilian populations further into bestial fear and terror". (The work in some ways reads more disturbingly knowing what actually occurred after it was first published -- not least with mention that, for example: "'You can't eliminate six thousand people in a flash,' I objected, 'unless you're going to get them all in one place and gas them'.)
       Dr. Belsidus lets his grand plan unfold -- going to Liberia, where he proclaims: "I am the King of Kings" -- and, while the Europeans' attention is elsewhere, taking back the continent. (In the 1930s, Liberia was one of the few places on the entire continent not under colonial rule.) Before the Europeans know what hit them (and a lot of things hit them):
A summary made at that time for Dr. Belsidus showed that every white habitat or business from Morocco to Cape Town had been destroyed and the white people without exception exterminated.
       Only pockets of white control remain -- though the battle for the continent continues then in 'Black Empire', even as:
We had hoped for peace, for time to build here on the bosom of Mother Africa a great united land -- one people, one soul, one destiny.
       The colonial powers don't make it easy, trying to hold and claw back the territory they controlled. Dr. Belsidus' forces can put up a good fight -- but he also plans beyond that, undermining white civilization from within with a few more tricks up his sleeve, including spreading some nasty diseases to further cripple the European nations. He also aims to wipe out British tool-making capacity, a plan which Carl is sent to London to take part in.
       Much of the action in the novel is large-scale, but Carl is also witness to and participant in smaller adventures. There's a lot of flying about -- including in prototype helicopters ("an autogiro, or windmill airplane") -- and everything from aerial combat to crashes, but Schuyler also throws in some more exotic twists, from Dr. Belsidus' plan to spread the bubonic plague and other diseases to some good old-fashioned cannibals.
       It is all very pulpy, for better and worse -- fast-paced, action packed, thin on details and follow-through. Because of the serial nature of the original, the chapters are short and tend to the breathless; at times, it does make the story choppy but overall Schuyler keeps the momentum going well. A love interest is thrown in for Carl as well, making for a bit of romantic tension -- she's dedicated to the cause, and long puts it first -- but in the crowded story it's hard to get too personal anyway.
       The fantasy of a black re-conquest of Africa Dr. Belsidus has is extreme in not just being one of self-determination but also of revenge and annihilation: there's no place for whites on the continent in Dr. Belsidus ' vision, and the colonialists must be eradicated. Beyond that, too, the white powers must be weakened at home -- not least, to give the blacks time to establish Africa as a new and true power. Disappointingly, too, Dr. Belsidus is himself a fascist who doesn't have faith in the people he is 'saving': "Negroes are not yet used to freedom, and so for a time we must have dictatorship".
       Other unsettling attitudes include that towards disease, as Dr. Belsidus promises: "We are going to abandon Christian ethics and deal with the problem of health and sickness rationally". Indeed, he's against the Albert Schweitzer-approach, arguing instead:
     "Before the white man came to Africa," he said, unperturbed, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, "there were no hospitals, and yet the Bantu peoples had lived here for fifty thousand years. How do you suppose they managed to flourish and develop such fine physical types ? I'll tell you: In one way or the other they eliminated the unfit. That's what we shall do. That's what we ARE doing."
       To Carl's credit, he is shocked by Dr. Belsidus' willingness to cull the sick; still, it does add to the sour taste of Dr. Belsidus' project. So also the entire story is balanced uneasily between a laudable ideal -- freedom -- and the high cost of achieving it (given Dr. Belsidus' approach). Dr. Belsidus' sees no way forward other than in the destruction of those who have been holding blacks back -- the entire white race. (And those who can't keep up, like the sick and infirm, apparently have to be disposed of as well.)
       In Carl, Schuyler has a kind of counter to Dr. Belsidus' at-any-cost ruthlessness. Though Carl goes along with everything, it is basically because he has no choice -- Dr. Belsidus will have him killed if he doesn't. Carl is fundamentally supportive of Dr. Belsidus' aims -- but still is allowed to express some shock and dismay at his methods.
       As Carl recognized early on about Dr. Belsidus:
Somehow or other he seemed not quite human. Rather, he was a cold, cruel, fanatically determined machine. Each day I realized more and more that the man would stop at nothing to gain his ends.
       So even as Dr. Belsidus is fighting the good fight, he's in many ways not a heroic figure -- complicating the message of this whole fantasy.
       It still does make for a fascinating piece of work -- not least because of when it was written, with Europe to descend (if for different reasons) into turmoil very similar to what Schuyler depicts shortly afterwards. The militancy of the approach here does remain troubling, and while there is some empowerment of blacks -- economic and otherwise -- Dr. Belsidus insists from the first on absolute control. He is a dictator, with the power of life and death always in his hands -- as he repeatedly demonstrates -- and while he may have the interests of the 'black race' at heart and thus treats (many) of his subjects better than the colonialists did, he retains an equally firm hand over their destinies. Freedom it ain't.
       Black Empire is a solid read -- there's good adventure here, and Schuyler tells his story quite well --, and it's also of literary-historical interest. The Penguin Classics edition is also an excellent one, from editor Brooks E. Hefner's useful Introduction to the interesting appendices -- including the: 'Notes for Speculative Fiction Serials Never Executed by Schuyler'. Certainly of interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 February 2023

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Black Empire: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author George S. Schuyler lived 1895 to 1977.

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© 2023 the complete review

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