- Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962
Is it a man’s world? The artist James Brown, “Godfather of soul,” in a song posed and answered the question with a conditional “yes!” According Brown, “This is a man’s world.… But it wouldn’t be nothing / Nothing without a woman or a girl.” Michelle Ann Stephens is not asking the same question in Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962. Instead she scrutinized the worldviews of three radical Afro-Caribbeans—Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and C. L. R. James—and their influence on the transnational “masculine imaginary” in the creative production of Black intellectual struggles during the early 20th century (p. 49).
Black Empire, says Stephens, is concerned with how these “leaders and intellectuals… chose to imagine African Americans as part of a global political community during the early years of the twentieth century” (p. 1). Her methodology for the work is interdisciplinary, taken from the fields of black studies (history, politics, creative production) and women’s studies. While her interdisciplinary approach has contributed to its complexity for standard interpretation, it is not an incompatible “oil and water” mix for two reasons. First, she is a Caribbean American female interpreting the art and political images created by Black men with a concern for what it may mean for women since not all anticolonialist, antiracist, and anticapitalist struggles are inherently antisexist. Second, Stephens is examining a historical period in a protracted conflict in which both sides have adapted to changes in the form of the contradiction in which they are locked, necessitating the use of different strategies for struggle over time—war, politics, and art.
The Russian literary critic Aleksandr Voronskii explained the role of art in society. According to Voronskii, “art is the cognition of life… art and science have the same subject: life, reality.” It is for this reason that the art of the oppressed presents a problem for the ruling elites because it possesses information about the [End Page 197] form and nature of their struggle against inequalities in society. Bourgeois intellectuals are therefore compelled to confine the creative production of radical Blacks within the “imagination,” a kind of creative human-mind straight-jacket. There is no evidence that this is Stephens’s approach to her interpretation of the political imageries found in the literary output of the Afro-Caribbeans studied. Notwithstanding, a cursory reading of Black Empire without an understanding of the relationship between “imagination” and the conscious or subconscious mind in gender studies could lead the reader to wonder if that is not what Stephens is attempting. A question emanating from such a reading could be, how “imaginary” is the destination towards which the real, continuous, struggles of Blacks is moving?
In part I, “Blackness and Empire: The World War I Moment,” Stephens provides the context for the radical politics of the Afro-Caribbeans examined, what she calls selective internationalism (p. 20). She argues that they developed a “gendered and masculinized” worldview that is a legacy of Black intellectual history and the “racialized discourses of citizenship and manhood of the Euro-American ruling elites (pp. 21, 37, 40–41). Stephens claims that in “male-authored nationalist” art, Black women are domesticated and tied to the imaginary Black nation and the home (p. 61).
In part II of Black Empire, the ideas of Claude McKay and C. L. R. James are analyzed. Stephens explores “the alternative ways of imagining black identity and belonging made possible [for McKay and James] as they became disillusioned with the promise of freedom offered by the nation state” (p. 21). She contends that “a queer reading of McKay’s work informed by feminist critique reveals… an alternative space where black men renounce nationality and domesticity by leaving behind the woman of color” (pp. 21, 131). Unfortunately, finding such a critical social problem, Stephens made no attempt to determine if more powerful...