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>  News Releases >   2003 >   January

Examining a modernist parable

Posted 01/06/03, by Tamara Steinert


J. Martin Favor with the book Black Empire by Harlem Renaissance author George S. Schuyler
English professor analyzes prescient political vision of a 1930s novel

The eerie similarities between the 1930s political thriller Black Empire and today's international reality haven't escaped J. Martin Favor, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the African American Studies program. In fact, with only a few minor plot substitutions, the book could be a chronicle of the activities of contemporary extremist groups like al Queda.

The book, originally written as two serialized novellas published from 1936 to 1938 in the African-American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, centers around the activities of an underground organization dedicated to overthrowing the existing world order and establishing the supremacy of a black regime in Africa. Led by a highly intelligent but maniacal leader, the group kidnaps a journalist who then becomes the story's protagonist. The author, George S. Schuyler, was a prominent black journalist and satirist who is sometimes described as "the black H.L. Mencken."

"The book is about modernity. It's about the use of technology and science as both a means of control and as a sign of progress," Favor said.

Favor presented a paper that explored the similarities between Black Empire and the post-Sept. 11 world at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association in December. His presentation, which was part of a panel on the Harlem Renaissance, was one of only 40 events out of more than 2,000 that were open to the public.

The parallels between the modern world and Schuyler's 1930s vison are in some cases striking. For example, "there was a lot of talk about Pan-Africanism back then, just like we hear about the Pan-Arab world today," said Favor.

"Perhaps we should be thThe book is about modernity. It's about the use of technology and science as both a means of control and as a sign of progress."

-J. Martin Favor

Schuyler also plays on some of white America's fetishized images of Harlem as a "black jungle."

"The Euro-American modernists lamented the fact that we were becoming more mechanized and industrialized, so they'd go to Tahiti or New Mexico or Harlem to get 'revitalized.' They were seeking this 'primitive' existence that they thought the people there had access to. This book turns that around. It says that black people aren't stupid; they can be engineers, too. And it examines what happens when blacks turn the tools of modernity against them," he added.

He also said the recent controversy involving New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka's poem "Somebody Blew Up America," which some observers have criticized as anti-Semitic, echoes ideas that are found in Schuyler's Black Empire.

"Where do terrorists get their lead from? Who do they get their weapons from? It's the western world, and what Baraka is saying is that now those chickens are coming home to roost. That's what Schuyler is saying too," he said. "But if we label the poem as anti-Semitic, it allows us to write it off as not credible and we don't have to deal with the political questions it raises." In that sense, "we haven't really taken the lessons of the Harlem Renaissance to heart," he said.

Although the opening scenes of Black Empire are set in Harlem, its major characters have ambitions with global implications. In much the same way, the intellectual, social and political movement referred to as the Harlem Renaissance really was much broader than the Manhattan neighborhood for which it is named.

"If you look at the single most important text of the movement, Alain Locke's The New Negro in a New World, he talks about Harlem, Howard University, Hampton-Tuskegee, Africa, the Caribbean. It's a global scene," Favor explained. "Harlem was a base, but it quickly spins out from there."

While Black Empire isn't an artistic masterpiece — Favor compares its style to political thrillers by contemporary authors such as Tom Clancy — the story offers potent lessons for the modern world and demonstrates that visionary ideas can come in many forms.

"There's a lot we can learn from works that aren't high art," he said. "The literature of the Harlem Renaissance wasn't just poetry and quaint tales from the South."

- by Tamara Steinert

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