Editors note: Dieselpunk is shorthand to describe a fantasy society with an industrial level of development, informed by Cyberpunk sensibilities, The dieselpunk narrative is characterized by conflict vs the undefeatable (nature, society, cosmic), strong use of technology, and Grey and Gray Morality. The protagonists are often Heroic Neutral and have low social status.
Black Empire: George Schuyler, Black Radicalism and Dieselpunk
Sometime in the 1930s, a black journalist is kidnapped in Harlem by the charismatic Dr. Henry Belsidius, leader of the Black Internationale–a shadowy organization determined to build a Black Empire and overthrow the world of white racial hegemony with cunning and super science. Journalist George S. Schulyer’s fantastic tale was written in serials in the black Pittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938 under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. It quickly found a loyal following among African-American readers, who saw in Dr. Belsidius and the Black Internationale a heroic, sci-fi tale of black nationalism, triumph and race pride. The newspaper was surprised at the serials’ growing popularity, and pushed for more–sixty-two in all. Yet no one was as surprised at the story’s success than George Schuyler who, disdaining what he saw as the excesses of black nationalism and race pride, had written Black Empire as satire.
George Schuyler was probably one of the premiere black journalists and satirists of his day, writing for established black magazines like the Crisis, Messenger and Negro Digest, as well as more mainstream white-run publications including The Washington Post, The Nation and, most famously, American Mercury. Schuyler’s politics were in constant flux during the years and in this heady day of black politics, social movements and culture he found his beliefs undergoing several phases. Starting out with an interest in Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” Movement and the UNIA, he eventually dissented, joining A. Philip Randolph’s organizing group, the Friends of Negro Freedom. Throughout his tenure as a journalist in the 1920s he wrote numerous articles on black life in the North and South, always offering his strong opinions–laced with satire and skepticism. At one point he dismissed the Harlem Renaissance flowering about him as mere “hokum” and “hullabaloo,” which could not be counted as actual art because it allegedly segregated itself. He chastised black organizations like the NAACP and figures like W.E.B. DuBois, especially their notion of a Talented Tenth, all part of a black bourgeoisie political machine whose notions he found elitist and ill-suited to the “Negro Problem”–if, he seemed to suggest, there really was such a thing. He was particularly critical of organized religion, most pointedly Christianity, which he believed to be filled with huckster preachers that allowed ignorance and racism to flourish. He called instead for a cadre of black atheists who would reject a god forced on them through slavery, one that “permits them to be lynched, Jim-Crowed, and disenfranchised.”
George Schuyler with his wife Josephine Cogdell and their daughter Phillipa
In one of his most radical works in 1929, he wrote a pamphlet that called for mass racial inter-marriage as a solution to the race problem. Yet, in what was often a conflicting pattern, Schuyler found himself supporting black outrage and activism over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 (something I discuss here) and years earlier intimated strong Pan-Africanist leanings, praising the deported UNIA leader Marcus Garvey as a man with a “vision:”
He sees plainly that everywhere in the Western and Eastern hemispheres the Negro, regardless of his religion or nationality, is being crushed under the heel of white imperialism and exploitation. Rapidly the population of the world is being aligned in two rival camps: white and black. The whites have arms, power, organization, wealth; the blacks have only their intelligence and their potential power. If they are to be saved, they must be organized so they can present united opposition to those who seek to continue their enslavement. (George S. Schuyler, Interstate Tattler, August 23, 1929)
Schulyer’s brand of “unique,” at times contradictory, left-leaning politics ended abruptly sometime after WWII. Having spent near a decade working for the NAACP, he became caught up in the Red Scare hysteria of his age and–denouncing socialism–took a hard turn to the right. In 1947 he would pen The Communist Conspiracy against the Negroes and even contribute to ultra-right groups like the John Birch Society. The emerging Civil Rights movement became a favorite target, and no one was spared–including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Stiffly opposing King’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, Schuyler wrote a scathing letter calling King a fraud and comparing his message to a disease: “Dr. King’s principal contribution to world peace has been to roam the country like some sable Typhoid Mary, infecting the mentally disturbed with perversions of Christian doctrine, and grabbing fat lecture fees from the shallow-pated.” The editorial was so inflammatory, the Courier refused to publish it. In 1966 Schulyer detailed his emergent political philosophy in an autobiography, Black and Conservative. By his death in 1977, his views, and his often scornful rhetoric, left him largely disconnected with the larger African-American community and his name mostly disappeared.
Yet, Schulyer couldn’t be forgotten altogether. I first learned about him in the 2000 excerpt of his story of race and satire Black No More which was included in the anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. Originally printed in 1931, the novel tells the tale of an inventor named Dr. Crookmore who creates a “black-no-more” treatment, allowing anyone to change their skin-color from black to white–down to their features and hair texture, which is made over as blonde. In short time, the United States is populated by all white people–leading to a massive identity-crisis and series of unforeseen events. Predating Dr. Seuss’s children’s tale of star-bellied Sneeches by thirty years, Schulyer’s satirical tale of mad-science gone wrong doesn’t fail to disappoint in its controversy. Unsparing in its condemnation of both blacks and whites, the story creates caricatures of well-known black activists and even seems to compare the KKK and the NAACP, as huckster organizations who used race their own ends.
It is in this vein, as the leftist critical of the black political institutions and movements of his era, that in 1936 Schulyer began publishing his serials of Dr. Belsidius and the Black Internationale. Pulling once more on speculative fiction, Schulyer tells his story (fittingly) from the perspective a black journalist, Carl Slater. By random chance, Slater witnesses the murder of a white woman by a black assailant who then kidnaps him. The murderer is Dr. Belsidius, who is in the habit of seducing wealthy white women for his diabolical aims. Slater is persuaded to work for Dr. Belsidius (declining the offer means death) and is introduced to the secret underworld of the Black Internationale.
In Black Empire, Schulyer’s political and social ideologies are recast in myth and metaphor. Dr. Belsidius, is both a megalomaniac and a genius, a shrewd towering figure of black masculinity able to manipulate with his wit (he uses dashing white women as secret agents) and capable of ruthless brutality in pursuit of his aims–like some fantastic blending of Marcus Garvey with the fascism that Schulyer would have seen sweeping much of the world at the time. Dr. Belsidius is the founder, creator and leader of the Black Internationale, a group whose sole aim is to unite the black world to overthrow white racial hegemony. This begins by a meeting of the diaspora, pulling together blacks from the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe and colonized Africa. Dr. Belsidius presents his plans to them without a chance of refusal; those blacks who are skeptical he labels as race traitors, who are subsequently killed.
Dr. Belsidius is an inventor extraordinaire, utilizing super science in the form of solar power, underground aircraft facilities, hydroponics, eugenics and death rays in his plans of world conquest; there is even the prediction of revolutionary new inventions like the fax machine, and on a much more somber note, the gas chambers of Nazi Germany–essential dieselpunk in all its wonder and horrors. He even invents a religion to help unify black people the world over. Pulling on his beliefs in the innate simplicity of the human psyche, Dr. Belsidius creates the Church of Black Love–complete with a set of tenets, prayer and idol. Its adherents are lulled into acceptance of its orthodoxy by the release of a gas, that renders them so giddy they roll around on the floor and shake and speak in tongues.
Throughout the story we are treated to Dr. Belsidius monologues as he explains in blunt terms the logic of his plans:
…all great schemes appear mad in the beginning. Christians, Communists, Fascists and Nazis were at first called scary. Success made them sane. With brains, courage and wealth even the most fantastic scheme can become a reality. I have dedicated my life, Slater, to destroying white world supremacy. My ideal and objective is very frankly to cast down Caucasians and elevate the colored people in their places. I plan to do this by every means within my power. I intend to stop at nothing, Slater, whether right or wrong. Right is success. Wrong is failure. I will not fail because I am ruthless. Those who fail are them men who get sentimental, who weaken, who balk at a little bloodshed. Such vermin deserve to fail. Every great movement the world has ever seen has collapsed because it grew weak. I shall never become weak, nor shall I ever tolerate weakness around me. Weakness means failure, Slater, and I do not intend to fail.
Seeming to predict WWII, Schulyer writes Dr. Belsidius as a mastermind who foments war and tension in the United States and Europe, all meant to weaken the colonial hold on Africa. The Italians play a key role as the enemies of Africa (no doubt an allusion to the Italian conquest of Addis-Ababa, which would have been popular in the minds of readers) and bear the brunt of Dr. Belsidius’s wrath. In time the Internationale is triumphant, and Africa is liberated–only to fall under the control of Dr. Belsidius, who becomes both ruler, god and tyrant.
George Schuyler, author, journalist and social commentator
To understand Black Empire, one has to understand Schuyler. As you read his work, you realize early on it is satire, and bitingly so. The Black Internationale is no vision of utopian black nationalism or Pan Africanism existing on a higher moral plane. In its Machiavellian motives, it is as amoral and oppressive as that which it fights against. It paints the black struggle, black race consciousness and race pride as the work of charlatans and flim-flam men, peddlers of fantasies and snake oil. The Black Internationale, like the Church of God, are really machinations of one twisted mind, tools towards an ultimate goal. And its black adherents are superstitious, pliable, gullible and easily manipulated.
Yet at the same time, Schulyer can’t help but instill some form of grudging admiration for what he mocks. Dr. Belsidiuis is smart enough to outwit his white enemies; the black scientists and inventors he recruits are able to achieve wonders beyond the white world; and, probably most important, the Black Internationale is brilliantly effective. It is Pan-Africanism, black nationalism and race pride–which he often ridiculed in real life as impractical–working (in its own way) and exacting change for black people.
In a sharp analysis and overview featured in the afterword of the reprint, Robert Hill and Kent Rasmussen suggests that this was no coincidence, hinting that Black Empire may have been a type of mask for Schuyler’s own radical vision. In Dr. Belsidius and the Black Internationale is a form of black radicalism that moves beyond the passivity he saw in the Black Talented Tenth and the impractical pomp of Garvey and the UNIA. It is a tale that fits Schuyler’s own hopes for black mass mobilization, the type that if effective would have found a way to liberate Ethiopia and fight against global discrimination.
As if channeling his own dichotomous nature, the narrator of the story, the journalist Slater, is often at once fearful and admiring of the mad scientist and his plans. Dr. Belsidius himself, turns out in the end to echo Schulyer’s own hopes. With the enemies of Africa defeated, and the continent on ascendancy to world dominance, the ruthless tyrant makes a surprising appeal of moral transcendence to his followers:
And now, a word of warning to the black people of the world. You have a great empire created out of black brains and strength…. You must not make the mistake of the white man and try to enslave others, for that is the beginning of every people’s fall. You must banish race hatred from your hearts, now that you have your own land, but you must remain ever vigilant to defend this continent which is rightfully ours. I have led you to victory…. Now I shall lead you to a higher civilization than Europe has ever seen, with your consent. The glory that was once Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s and Benin’s and Timbuctoo’s and Songhoy’s and Morocco’s shall again make Africa first in the family of nations.
It is on this note of denouncement of white hegemony, and the possibility of a black run world cleansed of race-hatred, that Dr. Belsidius, and by extension Schulyer, ends his tale. The last words in the story are of Slater’s description of a white woman, Martha Gaskin, one of Dr. Belsidius’s key agents, shedding tears and wringing her handkerchief at their leader’s words. We are left to ponder the reason for her tears. Is she crying because she knows her part in the overthrow of white global dominance? Or is she equally overjoyed at the end of the burden of white supremacy and the possibility of a world cleansed of racism?
The reception and success of the serials of the Black Internationale left Schulyer in a conundrum. On the one hand, here was his chance to lay out his thoughts (tongue-in-cheek and laced with mockery) of the many popular black political strategies and philosophies of the day. On the other hand, black readers were eating it up; he was making popular precisely that which he disdained:
I have been greatly amused by the public enthusiasm for ‘The Black Internationale,’ which is hokum and hack work of the purest vein. 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)
And perhaps indeed, the last laugh was on Schulyer. Black Empire remains one of his most popular remembered works of fiction, and saw a reprint in 1991–in part with the help of none other than the Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project at the University of California. Dr. Belsidius, the ultimate mad genius, may have in the end outwitted his own creator.
George S. Schuyler, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933-1940 (1st ed. 1931)
George S. Schuyler, Black Empire ed. by Robert A. Hill and Kent Rasmussen (Northeastern University Press, 2000)
Robert A. Hill and Kent Rasmussen, “Afterword” in Black Empire by George S. Schuyler (Northeastern University Press, 2000)
Oscar R. Williams, George S. Schuyler: Portrait of a Black Conservative (University of Tennessee Press, 2007)
- What is Afrofuturism? (www.mediadiversified.org)
- Philippa Schuyler – genius or genetic experiment?
- “Popular culture” is no longer a “marketplace of ideas.” (www.mediadiversified.org)
- Afrofuturism: Where Space, Pyramids and Politics collide (guardian.com)
- Where are the Black Women in Science Fiction? (www.mediadiversified.org)
- Oh Come All Ye White Saviors (www.mediadiversified.org)