- Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism by Alex Zamalin
Alex Zamalin's Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism offers the most thorough scholarly survey of African American utopian literature currently available. The scope of the project is ambitious—the book's chapters proceed chronologically from the genre's utopian beginnings in Martin Delany's Blake; Or, the Huts of America (published in 1859), through the anti-utopian turn of the twentieth century found in texts such as George Schuyler's Black Empire (published serially from 1936 to 1938), and concluding with the ambiguous utopias and heterotopias of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. Unlike recent scholarship on black speculative fiction (andré m. carrington, Sandra Jackson, Isiah Lavender III, Sheree Renée Thomas) and Afrofuturism (Ytasha L. Womack, Reynaldo Anderson, Paul Youngquist), Zamalin is exclusively focused on utopian narratives—joining the growing field of African American utopian studies. But Black Utopia is not solely focused on the traditional category of the "literary"; Zamalin moves comfortably between disciplines, blending analyses of political philosophy, avant-garde music, and literature to produce a critical engagement with the political ideas expressed in black utopias.
This interdisciplinarity is the major contribution that Black Utopia makes to utopian studies. Each chapter (with one exception) takes up a single author and analyzes how his or her utopian or anti-utopian texts offer "a unique take on perennial questions of political theory" (13). These include the debate between democratic populism and elite rule, the epistemological limitations of the abstract reasoning privileged by the Enlightenment, the limits of organic community, and many others. While this broad lens occasionally makes the chapters feel disconnected, as if each could stand alone as an analysis of an individual author or text, Zamalin does an admirable job of drawing [End Page 216] continuities between the chapters. For example, while the four authors analyzed in the second chapter were writing decades after Martin Delany, their defense of democracy and public authority implicitly critiques Delany's insistence on elite rule and shows how the rise of Jim Crow after Reconstruction refigured black political thinking around power and authority. Ultimately, while the ideas offered by the authors analyzed in Black Utopia vary wildly, they all "repurposed core American political ideas to be serviceable for black liberation" (15). Unlike classic American utopias such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, these utopias engage directly with individual and institutional racism and offer critiques and reimaginings of the United States that continue to be valuable to us today. As Zamalin states at the end of the introduction, he intends to "assess which elements of black utopian and antiutopian thought ought to be reclaimed or abandoned" (18). In this aim he is very successful.
Black Utopia is organized chronologically and covers eleven different authors in eight chapters. Thus, it would be unwise to attempt to offer a systematic summary of the book's contents. Rather, I want to roughly subdivide the book around three subgenres identified by Zamalin (utopia, anti-utopia, and ambiguous utopia) while highlighting chapters that should be of particular interest to utopian scholars. A proviso on this subdivision—as Zamalin persuasively demonstrates throughout the book, black utopias "mixed different narrative genres, emotional registers, and eclectic theoretical sources in their futuristic visions" (12). As a result, the texts analyzed do not always cleanly fit into the traditional subgenres of utopian studies. My division of the book into three sections is less about drawing clear generic boundaries between the texts and more about noting the three major arcs of African American utopian writing described in Black Utopia.
The first three chapters analyze texts that are traditional utopias: they describe either the formation or the discovery of a good-place, one that offers an escape for its black protagonists from racism and white supremacy. Yet these texts do not offer an uncompromised vision of an ideal black society. As they envision how a slave revolt, for instance, could bring...