- The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home: African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion by John Cullen Gruesser
John Gruesser’s new book highlights African American writers’ critique of an emerging U.S. empire at the turn into the twentieth century. Between 1898 and 1902, the United States engaged in two extra-territorial wars, first with Spain, then with the Philippines. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1899, the U.S. had acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines; by the conclusion of the Philippine-American War in 1902, it had officially established its control over the archipelago.
Most Americans associate the Spanish-American War with Teddy Roosevelt and Stephen Crane; others may have some sense of domestic debates over the annexation of the Philippines and the ensuing three-year guerrilla war with Filipino nationalists. Few know that African American writers weighed in on both sides of the issues. Gruesser’s book fills in the gaps in that literary landscape.
As Gruesser demonstrates, African American writers responded to U.S. imperialism in verse, essays, and fiction. Much of the verse parodied [End Page 279] Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”—a highly popular poem urging the U.S to annex the Philippines and create an Anglo-Saxon front to civilize the rest of the world. Like white parodies of the poem, African American versions pointed out that the “burden” of empire rested not on the ruling powers, but on the empire’s foot soldiers and on their colonized peoples, particularly those of color. Essays such as W. E. B. DuBois’ “The Burden of Black Women” appropriate Kipling’s lines to point out that the white man has burdened the black race for centuries. However, as Gruesser shows, fiction confronted the issue of imperialism most directly.
In his three main chapters, Gruesser gives us tailored readings of fiction by Sutton E. Griggs, James Weldon Johnson, Frank Steward, James McGirt, F. Grant Gilmore, and Pauline Hopkins, dividing them into those addressing the Caribbean conflicts and those concentrating on the Philippines. In addition to better-known fiction such as Hopkins’ “Talma Gordon,” the study also targets lesser-known works such as Griggs’ Unfettered and The Hindered Hand. As Gruesser’s readings demonstrate, African American responses to U.S. empire reflect the black community’s conflicts with the white majority. The central question concerned the effects of U.S. expansion for African Americans. Many writers imagined that the wars would give black soldiers a chance to prove their mettle; others correctly predicted that whites would simply export their racism. Griggs’ The Hindered Hand, McGirt’s “In Love as in War,” Gilmore’s The Problem: A Military Novel, and Hopkins’ “Talma Gordon” all feature black heroes whose courage belies Teddy Roosevelt’s well-known disparagement of black soldiers. Some succeed in winning respect from their white colleagues; others do not. Inevitably, some of the stories, such as Steward’s “Starlik” and “The Men Who Prey,” target miscegenation. Others probe African American soldiers’ complicity in foisting racist U.S. policies on other peoples of color. Finally, we learn that several of James Weldon Johnson’s unproduced operettas take on American imperialism and racism, including The Czar of Czam, which satirizes the entire enterprise, and El Presidente; or, The Yellow Peril, a comedy about a Japanese attempt to build a canal through Nicaragua. Although I would have appreciated less repetition and self-referentiality, and a more graceful interaction with other scholars, Gruesser’s examination of all of these texts gives us insight into the extent of African American engagement with U.S. overseas ventures and the sophistication with which many black writers viewed America’s excursions into extra-territorial terrains. [End Page 280]