Schuyler's 'Black Empire' is a fantasy most real

June 28, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall III

BLACK EMPIRE.

George S. Schuyler.

Northeastern University.

347 pages. $19.95. A young reporter sits at a table in a Harlem restaurant, surreptitiously watching a couple at a nearby table.

The woman is "a charming, young, blonde white girl swathed in a gorgeous fur coat." The man is a "very tall, stern-visaged black man dressed entirely in dark gray and carrying a gold-handled cane in his gloved hand."

The woman is pleading with the man. The man listens impassively.

At last he says, in a voice "cultured, but deep and cruel": "So you have failed. I cannot tolerate failure."

He leads her out, the reporter following, turns into a darkened alley, and casually breaks the young woman's neck.

This is the way George S. Schuyler's "Black Empire" begins.

"Black Empire" is a fierce, in-your-face type story about a worldwide conspiracy of black geniuses to reclaim Africa for their own that many readers might find offensive and racist.

In fact, it is offensive in many respects, just as we find many of the adventure serials of its time period offensive. For "Black Empire" is a child of the 1930s -- the age of science fiction pulp fantasy heroes such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Doc Savage and Tarzan.

What makes "Black Empire" different -- what makes it downright astonishing -- is that it represents a fantasy adventure told from a black perspective.

Schuyler, who died in 1977, was one of the country's best-known black journalists and essayists. During the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote the lead editorials for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier, had his own weekly column, and launched several major investigative series. His biting, satirical essays earned him the reputation of "the Negro Mencken" and indeed, H. L. Mencken published several of Schuyler's essays in American Mercury.

Written in the fluid, easy style of newspaper journalism, the stories comprising "Black Empire" ran in 62 weekly installments in the Pittsburgh Courier between November 1936 and April 1938 under the pseudonym of Samuel I. Brooks.

The stories tell of the cruel, ruthless, and brilliant Dr. Henry Belsidus, who amasses a vast private fortune and uses it to build his own underground worldwide organization of black revolutionaries.

His plan, as he explains to the narrator, young Carl Slater, is to focus all of the wealth and all of the brilliance of the Negro race into a "Black Internationale" dedicated to overthrowing the supremacy of the white man.

"The white man has not hesitated to use any and every means to degrade the Negro and keep him demoralized," Belsidus announces. "We shall not hesitate to use any and every means to degrade and demoralize the white man."

In true fantasy form, Belsidus' armies liberate the Negro race as effortlessly as Buck Rogers conquered space villains. Stealth bombers flown by black pilots punish a racist lynch mob in Mississippi by leveling the town. A well-equipped army of black Americans and Africans launches a pre-emptive strike and overthrows colonial rule in Africa.

This is pulp fantasy at its best: taut, well-written, action-packed, as muchfun to read as a comic book. There is just one drawback to "Black Empire": The racial conflicts that shaped the stories in the 1930s still exist today.

Unlike Buck Rogers, "Black Empire" often hits uncomfortably close to home.

Mr. Hall is a columnist with The Evening Sun.

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