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Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962

Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962

by Michelle Ann Stephens, Donald E. Pease (Editor)

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In Black Empire, Michelle Ann Stephens examines the ideal of “transnational blackness” that emerged in the work of radical black intellectuals from the British West Indies in the early twentieth century. Focusing on the writings of Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and C. L. R. James, Stephens shows how these thinkers developed ideas of a worldwide


In Black Empire, Michelle Ann Stephens examines the ideal of “transnational blackness” that emerged in the work of radical black intellectuals from the British West Indies in the early twentieth century. Focusing on the writings of Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and C. L. R. James, Stephens shows how these thinkers developed ideas of a worldwide racial movement and federated global black political community that transcended the boundaries of nation-states. Stephens highlights key geopolitical and historical events that gave rise to these writers’ intellectual investment in new modes of black political self-determination. She describes their engagement with the fate of African Americans within the burgeoning U.S. empire, their disillusionment with the potential of post–World War I international organizations such as the League of Nations to acknowledge, let alone improve, the material conditions of people of color around the world, and the inspiration they took from the Bolshevik Revolution, which offered models of revolution and community not based on nationality.

Stephens argues that the global black political consciousness she identifies was constituted by both radical and reactionary impulses. On the one hand, Garvey, McKay, and James saw freedom of movement as the basis of black transnationalism. The Caribbean archipelago—a geographic space ideally suited to the free movement of black subjects across national boundaries—became the metaphoric heart of their vision. On the other hand, these three writers were deeply influenced by the ideas of militarism, empire, and male sovereignty that shaped global political discourse in the early twentieth century. As such, their vision of transnational blackness excluded women’s political subjectivities. Drawing together insights from American, African American, Caribbean, and gender studies, Black Empire is a major contribution to ongoing conversations about nation and diaspora.

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
New Americanists
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6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

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Black Empire

By Michelle Ann Stephens


Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3551-1

Chapter One

The New Worldly Negro: Sovereignty, Revolutionary Masculinity, and American Internationalism

The New Negro is here ... no more courageous than the Old Negro who dropped his shackles in 1863 ... but better informed.... He is aware that the balance of power is shifting in the world and so are his cousins in Africa, in India, in Malaysia, the Caribbean and China. -GEORGE SCHUYLER

IN THE FEBRUARY 1920 issue of The Crusader, a little more than a year before the African Blood Brotherhood's manifesto, the first installment of a serialized story entitled "The Ray of Fear: A Thrilling Story of Love, War, Race Patriotism, Revolutionary Inventions and the Liberation of Africa" appeared with the byline "C. Valentine." Comparing the language, style, and argumentative approach of entries by C. Valentine throughout The Crusader with those of the magazine's editor Cyril Valentine Briggs, it is clear that the one was a loosely veiled pseudonym for the other. The story was a romance of black revolution, an internationalist tale involving the revolt of the black world against worldwide imperial and colonial powers and the resultingestablishment of independent black states.

In "The Ray of Fear's" opening conversation between Princess Nazima, the main female protagonist, and her beloved, the black revolutionary Paul Kilmanjaro, blackness reveals itself as a term with shifting cultural and political meanings. Announcing the Black Republic's declaration of a war "for the glory of the Republic, the redemption of the fatherland and the liberation of our oppressed and scattered kinsmen," Kilmanjaro's comments reveal that various ideas of nationhood-nation as fatherland, homeland, black republic-and the notion of a diaspora-our oppressed and scattered kinsmen-occupy here the same imaginary world. While in contemporary discourse the terms nation and diaspora are often posed in opposition to each other, in certain forms of black discourse from the early decades of the twentieth century they constituted two equally determinative and linked notions of blackness. Both allowed for the expression of a certain affective dimension in black literature, the race's longing for some form of self-determination and sovereignty.

Notably, as we shall see in chapter 2, this level of affect, the "desire for the state," was often signaled in black narratives in gendered terms through the figure of the woman of color. But this chapter focuses first on her historical male counterpart, the New Negro male as he was being imagined in both politics and literature in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Why did some Caribbean intellectuals such as Briggs, living and working in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, feel compelled to tell these global, revolutionary stories of the race? What were the conditions that made these types of narratives possible, and what were the political hopes and fears these narratives were meant to address? The historical answer lies in political world events that immediately followed World War I and the Russian Revolution and their convergence with the specific African American cultural and intellectual formation of the first two decades of the twentieth century, captured in the trope of the New Negro as the particular figure for a new modern masculine construction of black subjectivity.

Black Empire begins with the argument that Pan-African politics during the 1920s were based on a collective historical reality. Black colonials were not included in any imagination of world citizenship occurring during the postwar discussions of peace at Versailles. Instead, in the shift from world empires to an international League of Nations, Europe sharpened the distinctions between empire and republic by drawing a firm racial line between the nations and the colonies, a color line that would then become the defining mode for distinguishing a modern First World from an underdeveloped Third World. The modern twentieth-century world after World War I was understood by black intellectuals to be a white world of European nation-states, a world that could not imagine black Africa, for example, as part of the global body politic. Both the war and these immediate postwar events compelled many black intellectuals to view domestic racial relations and race politics in the United States from a more global perspective. Their lens tended to be much wider than that of the imperial powers, as seen in the starting premise of Du Bois's 1925 essay that the war had left behind more than simply a new Europe of nation-states.

However, at the same time that modern black subjects were keenly observing events in the European metropoles, they were also witnesses to the drama of social revolution. The Russian Revolution produced a different internationalist vision than that of the League of Nations, one that provided alternative class-based rather than nation-based models for modern political identity. The Bolshevik alternative to the politics of nation and nationality made a deep and lasting impression on early-twentieth-century black intellectuals. The Russian Revolution became a motivating force for shaping an alternative vision of racial revolution. It gave black intellectuals from the New World, already armed with centuries of critical engagement with and resistance to empire and colonization, a way to envision racial revolution in the modern terms of early-twentieth-century capitalist world society.

The Russian Revolution's impact can be seen in a specific way in stories such as "The Ray of Fear." In the revolutionary male Paul Kilmanjaro's description of impending war, international conflict is understood very much according to the logic of the Communist Manifesto, the logic of two opposing camps facing each other on the battlefields of history. Yet though the story is set against the backdrop of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, in "The Ray of Fear" class warfare is understood from a black, colonial perspective as a race war between "the Negro race" and "the white oppressors and murderers." This understanding of race war, as opposed to class war, as the motor of history, is a key feature of strands of revolutionary black internationalism during this period. In studies of black radicalism scholars have consistently failed to see that black and Caribbean intellectuals borrowed selectively from Marxist and Russian models of internationalism. They chose the logic of class relations as a global narrative of modern world history and capitalist relations, but located the origins of that story even further in the past in the racial epistemologies of colonialism. With the notion of race war, they substituted race instead of class as the grounding term for their analyses of both world history and the future potential of world revolution.

Paul Kilmanjaro's later repetition of his opening announcement raises a further illustrative point about race war in "The Ray of Fear." Heralding the beginnings of a black revolution that is itself conceived in internationalist and multinational terms, Kilmanjaro reports back to the Black Republic's president, "It is war, sir! The war of the races. The war for the liberation of the Negro race and its holy fatherland. The war against the white oppressors and murderers." Here, Kilmanjaro's description of world events moves the story's readers away from nation and diaspora as the two frames for understanding black identity in the early twentieth century; instead, race is invoked, but take note-this notion of "the race" crystallizes in the context of war. Nazima's and Paul's oppressed and scattered kinsmen become a race when faced with a "war against the white oppressors and murders." Race here, then, shadows empire as the global category broad enough to narrate the race's war with the empires on a world stage. For certain black intellectuals that race war had a centuries-long genealogy, one that utilized notions of race and culture to create a European imperial discourse of competing African and colonial barbarisms against European and imperial civilizations.

"The Ray of Fear" was only one of innumerable fables, stories, plays, and longer fictional narratives written during the first third of the twentieth century that attempted to imagine some version of an internationalist revolutionary black state. These black empire narratives were tales created by black New World intellectuals from the Caribbean and the United States, primarily male. They were part of a broader discourse on international black self-determination during this period that I have termed here "black transnationalism." They are evidence of a black, masculine, transnational, political, narrative imaginary during this period, which runs from the 1914 declaration of war that led to international political formations such as the League of Nations to the granting of national independence in 1962 to the first two island-colonies of the British West Indies. I use the image of a black empire to capture this imaginary because it describes a formation that is immediately racial and global. By pairing blackness and empire I seek to recapture the tension of a cultural politics constituted by both radical and reactionary impulses-impulses toward racial revolution, movement, and freedom and impulses toward militarism, statehood, and empire. In the late nineteenth century certain African American writers merged discourses of blackness and empire, reaching back into transatlantic history to mobilize often problematic aspects of the racialized discourses of empire and civilization they were seeking to contest. The trope of a black empire, then, becomes another way of portraying the early-twentieth-century black imaginary I represented in the metaphor of a Negro ship of state. The icon of the black empire captures the contradiction between specific notions of racial nationalism-based in ideals of national sovereignty and imperial civilization, the ship of state itself-and the openness of the alternative routes that ship has taken in its quest for racial freedom.

The black internationalism of the New Negro during this period takes place within the specific domestic cultural context of a new expression of black subjectivity shaping arts and letters within the United States. W. E. B. Du Bois is an apt African American figure to open with, since he straddles nicely the fence usually separating these two worlds of the political and the aesthetic. He participated and helped to shape the movement of the New Negro within the realm of domestic cultural politics, and he traveled to Versailles during the immediate postwar period in an effort to help shape the global discourse and decisions of the moment to better benefit the New Negro in the world at large. A broader discussion of the New Negro movement within the black internationalist framework that is the focus here also reveals why certain literary expressions of this black global imaginary took the particular forms they did during this period, particularly in relationship to the construction of gender.


During the early twentieth century, "the new Manhood Movement among American Negroes" represented its own series of breaks with black and white American racial ideologies of the nineteenth century. As the twentieth-century world was experiencing the upheaval and the aftermath of world war and revolution, black migrants from both the American South and the English-speaking Caribbean were traveling to northern cities such as Harlem in unprecedented numbers. They came to escape poverty and racial discrimination in the South and in the colonies and to benefit from wartime economic prosperity in the North. They also joined the war effort in significant numbers, with some 380,000 black soldiers serving in World War I, "11 percent of whom were actually assigned to combat units." As I have argued elsewhere, they represented the proletarianization of black peasantry from the rural Caribbean and the American South into the modern industrial economies of the northern United States.

The confluence of world war, revolutionary internationalism, and mass black migration was felt on the ideological and intellectual level in the evolution of the trope of the New Negro. The New Negro was the ideological figure for a new black cultural and political identity for the twentieth century. New Negro ideology originated, post-Reconstruction, in the desire for the fair representation of the race. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has pointed out that this desire for representation was fundamentally a cultural politics: "Black Americans sought to re-present their public selves in order to reconstruct their public, reproducible images."

The image of the New Negro was that of the "spontaneously generated black and sufficient self," one who had turned away from the Old Negro of slavery. The New Negro was also undeniably male, the symbol for a new racial manhood as John Henry Adams would describe him visually in 1904: "Here is the real new Negro man. Tall, erect, commanding, with a face as strong as Angelo's Moses and yet every whit as pleasing and handsome as Reuben's favorite model. There is that penetrative eye ... that broad forehead and firm chin.... Such is the new Negro man." Gates argues that black masculinity was at stake in early-twentieth-century African American conceptions of the New Negro partly due to contemporary debates surrounding the military capabilities of black soldiers and officers. In 1899 Theodore Roosevelt had argued that inherent racial weaknesses prevented black officers from commanding successfully. Part of the project of re-presenting blacks, then, included histories of black involvement in American wars. As Gates points out: "To have fought nobly, clearly, was held to be a legitimate argument for full citizenship rights."

By linking the formation of New Negro masculinity and subjectivity to Roosevelt's particularly racialized discourses on citizenship and manhood, Gates's reconstruction of the history of the trope also intersects directly with a broader discourse on American masculinity during this period, identified by Gail Bederman in Manliness and Civilization. Arguing that "During the decades around the turn of the century, Americans were obsessed with the connection between manhood and racial dominance," Bederman identifies Theodore Roosevelt in particular as the primary architect of a version of white supremacy with masculinity at its center. Her analysis of Roosevelt takes place within the broader context of identifying a broader shift in American discourses of manhood during this period, from Victorian notions of "manliness" which emphasized strong character, a certain moral "uprightness," and sexual self-restraint to a desire for a more aggressive and virile form of American manhood captured in the increased use and developing meanings of the term "masculinity" between 1890 and 1917. Tellingly, as Bederman observes, black American men were placed centrally in this discussion, revealing the importance of black masculinity to domestic discourses of American manhood that would continue well into the twenty-first century.

Bederman's text opens by recounting the important boxing match between white heavyweight Jim Jeffries and his black opponent Jack Johnson. This 1910 bout became the staging ground for articulating whether white men could have access to a certain primitive or savage masculinity seen as the specific attribute of black men without white men thereby losing their own "manliness" and civilized virtues, seen as distinctly and hereditarily not available to their black counterparts. Bederman's point is further proven by the fact that, as evidenced in Gates's account, the trope of the New Negro male represented a striving on the part of certain African American male intellectuals to emulate the manly virtues of the Victorian gentleman in order to prove their own claims to military prowess and the national entitlements of citizenship.


Excerpted from Black Empire by Michelle Ann Stephens Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Michelle Ann Stephens is Associate Professor of English, American Studies, and African American Studies at Mount Holyoke College.

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