- Signifying Genre: George S. Schuyler and the Vagaries of Black Pulp
No matter what the white man’s got, black men have the brains to duplicate it, improve upon it or originate something entirely different—Samuel I. Brooks [George S. Schuyler], Black Empire
For all his reputation as one of the more prickly and bombastic bêtes noires in African American literary and intellectual history, George S. Schuyler has retained a status central to twentieth-century conceptualizations of African American literature. Increasingly, Schuyler’s celebrated satire Black No More (1931) has taken a prominent role in the metanarratives of African American literary history, as it does in Kenneth W. Warren’s groundbreaking (and, in its own way, Schuylerian) study What Was African American Literature? Gravitating toward the many puzzles in Schuyler’s intellectual biography, critics frequently seek to fold his fiction into his politics, despite the fact that Schuyler’s transition from satirical and socialist-leaning journalist and editor of the Harlem Renaissance to arch-conservative and anti-communist figure of the post-World War II era offers a host of likely unsolvable problems and contradictions.1 Added to the larger, and decidedly important, dilemma of Schuyler’s political shifts is his interesting and various work over the 1930s for the African American weekly Pittsburgh Courier. For the Courier, Schuyler produced investigative pieces describing, for example, the plight of Mississippi workers in the early 1930s, a [End Page 483] series of editorials skewering political and social figures of the period, and, under his own name and a number of pseudonyms, a wealth of genre fiction drawing on all sorts of popular formulas of the period.
The fiction Schuyler produced between 1933 and 1939 has only served further to complicate Schuyler’s persona as a writer and intellectual. These stories lay virtually unknown in the microfilmed pages of the Courier until the early 1990s, when Robert A. Hill and R. Kent Rasmussen reprinted the first of two volumes of Schuyler serials from this period. This first volume, Black Empire, featured two long serial novels published by Schuyler in the Courier between 1936 and 1938, under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. A second volume edited by Hill and entitled Ethiopian Stories featured another two serials (originally published in 1935–36 and 1938–39) drawing on the Italo–Ethiopian War for thematic source material. Since their republication, these late 1930s serials have generated substantial critical attention; they have also provided additional fodder for critics interested in pondering Schuyler’s many paradoxes. Black Empire collects the two most popular Schuyler serials; 1930s readers and contemporary critics alike have been drawn to their sensational plots, which feature the continuing exploits of Dr. Henry Belsidus, the mastermind behind a plot to reconquer Africa and hold out against white imperial powers.
It is little wonder that Schuyler’s pan-African fantasy has become a source of critical interest. “The Black Internationale” and “Black Empire,” the two serials anthologized in Black Empire, settle nicely into a literary history of African American stories about armed resistance and pan-African nation-building, from Martin Delaney’s Blake; or, The Huts of America (published serially 1859–61) and Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (1899) to Chester Himes’s Plan B (1993). At the same time, the Black Empire serials raise a host of questions about Schuyler’s own politics; critics have seen in these serials a kind of heroic endorsement of pan-Africanism, all while acknowledging that Schuyler himself considered these, his most popular serials, “hokum and hack work of the purest vein.”2 Schuyler’s low opinion of these stories, found in private correspondence with Courier staff member P. L. Prattis, stemmed from what appear to be his own feelings about the pan-Africanist ideology expressed in them: “I deliberately set out to crowd as much race chauvinism and sheer improbability into it as my fertile imagination could conjure. The result vindicates my low opinion of the human race” (Schuyler to Prattis, April 4, 1937). Recent critical fascination with the compelling pan-African politics of Black Empire would probably give Schuyler an equally low opinion of academic literary scholarship.
Following Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s...