- Shocks Americana!:George Schuyler Serializes Black Internationalism
1. George Schuyler and the International Longing for Form
"Internationalism" in the 1920s and 1930s has generally been regarded as an expression of the political ideologies and programs that dominated those decades: socialism, particularly as linked to the Comintern; liberalism as embodied in the League of Nations; and nationalism itself, the basis for world polity, empire, and the fascist movements. In contrast, recent scholarship on black writing, publishing, and politics between the world wars has theorized the emergence, through literary genres and periodical forums, of black internationalism as a counterforce to these frameworks for world politics. This effort was undertaken by imaginative writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance and modernism, such as Claude McKay and W.E.B. Du Bois; by journalists and activists like C.L.R. James and George Padmore; and by a network of periodicals, such as the Crisis, the Chicago Defender, the Negro Worker, and La Dépêche africaine, circulating through the Atlantic world.1
This essay examines the linked histories of black internationalist print culture and American national consciousness through the 1930s serial fiction of the African-American journalist George S. Schuyler. Between the summer of 1934 and the winter of 1939, Schuyler, usually writing pseudonymously, contributed several long, often bizarre serial stories about African liberation conspiracies to the African-American weekly Pittsburgh Courier. The most significant of these stories appeared in the aftermath of Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, an event that galvanized Pan-African [End Page 937] and anti-imperial activism around the world. Black Empire, a two-part novel that helped secure the Courier's 1936–38 status as the most widely-circulating black weekly newspaper in the US (Buni 243), describes an elaborate plot by people of color, led by the enigmatic American technocrat Dr. Henry Belsidus, to liberate Africa from "white world supremacy" (10).2 In "Revolt in Ethiopia" (1938–39), an African-American expatriate helps an Ethiopian princess organize her country's resistance to the Italian invasion. During these explosive years, the Courier arranged these melodramas and other "Features" into a serial presentation of American race history, anti-imperial activism, and heady but often amorphous concepts of what Schuyler called a "Black Internationale."
Despite some attention following the 1992 republication of his serial thrillers, Schuyler remains calcified in literary history as an iconoclastic satirist who marginalized himself by denouncing Pan-Africanism, dismissing ideas of "Negro Art" formulated by Langston Hughes and others, and turning virulently conservative after World War II.3 There is much in his writing, even before World War II, when fascism was decried in the global black press, to support the claim that his only genuine conviction was that most collectivisms, and especially ones grounded in racial identity, were balkanizing and subversive. Analyses of Black Empire, for example, have noted that these stories expend far more energy depicting the destruction of anyone (of any color) who opposes Dr. Belsidus's plot than they do convincing their audience that a "Black Internationale" embodies a legitimate collective desire.4
Schuyler regularly used his Courier column "Views and Reviews" to express a common opinion of the period: cosmopolitan points of view were the products of an unwholesome dissent from national identity. In June 1937, for example, he describes with characteristic brio the crisis confronting the colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the West Indies: "[i]n practically every country of importance in the world, militant nationalism has routed the feeble internationalism which fluttered feebly for a decade following the World War and then died under the bludgeon blows of poverty and propaganda." In 1937, this rebuke to the "spirit of 1919" hardly qualified as a fringe position, especially given the League's inaction following Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia 20 months earlier. But Schuyler attributes the "rout" less to "Communism . . . Fascism . . . [and] Americanism" than to the efforts of "minority groups" like Polish Jews and African Americans to protect their identities against hostile majorities. The column proposes that "minority groups" repudiate their "professional chauvinists" and "merge" themselves into the dominant national [End Page 938] identity.5 If Du Bois, McKay, the Trinidadian trade unionist George Padmore, and others...