BOOK REVIEW: Black Empire– a High-Stakes Afrofuturist Adventure


Image, Black Empire cover
Black Empire by George Schuyler

How far should we go in the name of justice? This question troubles a revolutionary secret society in BLACK EMPIRE (Penguin Classics; January 31, 2023), a pioneering work of Afrofuturism and antiracist fiction by leading Harlem Renaissance writer George S. Schuyler, the author of Black No More. This stunning Penguin Classics edition—on sale just before Black History Month—features a new introduction and notes by Brooks E. Hefner, the author of Black Pulp, and cover art by the incomparable Nigerian American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. You can begin reading BLACK EMPIRE now on Netgalley or request a physical copy.

Carl Slater, a bright young journalist for the Harlem Blade, makes a life-altering decision when he is intrigued by a mysterious man in a diner and decides to follow him—then accidentally witnesses a murder. Now Carl knows too much, and the mysterious figure, revealed to be the rich and powerful Black scientist Dr. Henry Belsidus, draws him deep into the fold of a worldwide conspiracy. Belsidus is a mad genius, complex antihero, and charismatic leader with a host of unbelievable inventions at his fingertips.

Armed with the knowledge that the dominant cultural forces underestimate Black talent, he recruits a group of Black intellectuals from every background—politics, religion, science, engineering, military, and more—to help him form a secret society called the Black Internationale. Their goal? To reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the planet’s Black population. Through Carl’s eyes, we see the incredible strength and influence of the Black Internationale blossom—and witness the sinister measures their leader will take to achieve his mission.

Drawing on Black Nationalist movements like those of Marcus Garvey, BLACK EMPIRE originally ran as a serial in The Pittsburgh Courier from 1936 to 1938. Electrifying cliffhangers and intriguing curiosities abound in the novel. Schuyler’s commentary is both clever and entertaining, featuring a tongue-in-cheek satirical style and mastery of science fiction tropes as they were developing in the post–World War I era. Among the many innovations of the Black Internationale are solar-powered engines, giant hydroponic vegetables, skin-dissolving acids, and awe-inspiring robots that command religious ceremonies. When it comes to liberating their people from the crushing tyranny of white supremacy, there seems to be nothing Dr. Belsidus and his followers cannot create.

At once a daring, high-stakes science fiction adventure and a strikingly innovative Afrofuturist classic, this controversial and fearlessly political work exposes ethical quandaries about race, power, and justice. I hope you will consider coverage of BLACK EMPIRE in 2023!

About the Author:

George S. Schuyler (1895–1977) was a satirist, critic, and eminent African American journalist of the Harlem Renaissance. He became the first Black journalist to attain national prominence and was known for his controversial opinions. In addition to Black Empire, he published the novels Black No More and Slaves Today, as well as several novellas and an autobiography.

Brooks E. Hefner (editor/introducer) is a professor of English at James Madison University. He is the author of Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow and The Word on the Streets: The American Language of Vernacular Modernism, as well as the codirector of the National Endowment for the Humanities–funded digital humanities project Circulating American Magazines.

Praise for BLACK EMPIRE:

“Imagine W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Marcus Garvey rolled into one fascist superman, and there you have Dr. Henry Belsidus. . . . [Black Empire is] an Afrocentrist’s dream.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The New York Times Book Review