- The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home: African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion by John Cullen Gruesser
John Cullen Gruesser’s The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home seeks to fill in one area of research on US imperialism that hasn’t yet been studied to its full potential: African American responses to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century US expansion. His book [End Page 183] examines African American writings about the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, and the US and its borderlands from the early 1890s to the mid-1910s—the little-researched and poorly defined postbellum, pre-Harlem years. His central goal is to establish that black writers from this time period “responded extensively and idiosyncratically to overseas expansion and its implications for domestic race relations” (3). He does so convincingly, opening up a conversation about this understudied body of literature, while leaving room for more in-depth critical investigation in the field.
The Empire Abroad is divided into two parts. Part I (chapters 1 and 2) explores African American literary responses to the Spanish-Cuban-American War, while Part II (chapters 3 and 4) examines African American literature that engages with the Philippine-American War and US expansion in the Pacific. Through his analysis of a wide range of writers (such as Sutton Griggs, W. E. B. DuBois, James McGirt, James Weldon Johnson, Pauline Hopkins, and others) who worked in a variety of literary forms, Gruesser aims to establish three points about African American responses to US expansion. First, concerns about race, especially domestic race relations, consistently trumped anxieties about empire. Second, African American writers’ political stances regarding imperialism and expansion were not static: they changed depending on “the foreign location in question, the presence or absence of African American soldiers within the text, the stage of the author’s career, and the text’s relationship to specific generic and literary traditions” (7). Third, US expansion allowed and compelled African American writers to engage with the topics of empire and expansion; their texts often link US imperialism and colonization of communities abroad with the systematic subjugation of blacks in the US. Gruesser’s work serves as a good introduction to this literary corpus, yet some of his central arguments are so broad as to seem almost self-evident. Furthermore, his analysis at times oversimplifies or fails to recognize the complexity of the ideas about race and empire that are articulated in these texts.
In chapter 1, Gruesser focuses on African American poetry from the late nineteenth century written about the Cuban Revolution and the US’s subsequent involvement in the Spanish-Cuban-American War. He looks at the different ways in which these military conflicts in Cuba were used in African American poetry as sources of community identification. On the one hand, he examines how African American poets (like Elijah W. Smith, George Hannibal Temple, Frank Barbour Coffin, Stella A. E. Brazley, and McGirt) used depictions of Cuba’s fight for independence as a way of linking Cubans and African Americans as subjugated peoples of color, joined together through a “New World pantheon of Black military freedom fighters” similarly [End Page 184] invested in fighting colonial and colonizing powers (28). On the other hand, he analyzes poems that depict African American soldiers’ role in the war, arguing that these poems focus on the heroism, loyalty, and bravery of black soldiers in order to position African Americans more favorably within the US. Thus, these poems, Gruesser argues, generally do not critique US expansion or empire and engage more with domestic race relations.
Chapter 2 explores Griggs’s novels Imperium in Imperio and The Hindered Hand as further examples of the ways the Spanish-Cuban-American War was utilized in African American literature to establish the patriotism of African Americans and to connect to other subjugated peoples of color. In the case of The Hindered Hand, for example, Gruesser argues that black loyalty (represented by African American soldiers who fight...