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George S Schuyler and Crime Fiction

May 23, 2011

George S Schuyler

George Samuel Schuyler was one of the most influential African-American authors of the twentieth century. A distinguished journalist and social commentator, Schuyler’s daring and original crime stories have been largely overlooked in regard to his other accomplishments (and his controversial political views), but Schuyler’s crime writing is a useful barometer in understanding his politics.

Schuyler’s most famous work is Black No More (1931), a science fiction satire in which an African-American scientist devises a process which can transform blacks into caucasians. As more and more black people undergo this change, the racial and economic inequality in the United States becomes increasingly apparent and problematic. Aside from this seminal fantasy novel, Schuyler’s reputation in crime fiction lies in a series of stories he penned using the pseudonym ‘Samuel I. Brooks’ and were originally serialised in the African-American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier from 1936 to 1938 and latterly published as the novel Black Empire. In Black Empire, Schuyler demonstrates his skill at interweaving both political ideas and literary styles. The plot is somewhat sketchy and takes secondplace to rather elaborate action scenes (most scholars believe Schuyler invented the story as it was being serialised and did not know where it was going) but tells the story of Carl Slater, a black journalist for the ‘Harlem Blade’ who witnesses the murder of a white woman by the debonair Dr Belsidus. Forced to choose between death at the hands of Belsidus or to join his mysterious organisation, the Black Internationale, Slater chooses to join Belsidus and soon becomes part of his fiendishly ingenious scheme to achieve pan-Africanism and subjugate the white colonial powers to a new black superpower. The plot is outlandish, the diabolical but suave Belsidus seems inspired by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, the style sometimes comes across as Golden Age, but the prose often exudes hard-boiled sensibilities, such as the newspaper headlines which form the titles of every episode:

Carl and Tom Repair Plane, Return to Desert Camp and Take Off with Pat, Della; But Gas Gives Out and Party Is Captured by Cannibals

As this headline suggests, Slater finds himself in many death-defying scenarios, and with cannibals, armies of plague-carrying rats, bizarre religions, spies and weapons of mass destruction featuring heavily in the plot, Schuyler is a writer clearly at home with action scenes. And yet the first-person prose gives Schuyler’s protagonist Slater plenty of opportunities to wax eloquent:

We have to become conditioned to our changed environment almost over night, historically speaking. Physically, we live in the Twentieth Century; psychologically, we live many thousands of years ago. We come into this world made for a life as a huntsman or herdsman and find ourselves in an environment of whirling machines, confusion upon confusion for the sake of order, complications and responsibilities and temptations that try the hardiest souls and often leave them balanced precariously on the precipice of insanity. Life has been made too complex, and man was intended to live a life of simplicity.

When reading Black Empire, there are constant reminders of what an enigma Schuyler was as a writer. The tone can be flippant and then eloquent, over- the- top but still quite prophetic about the looming Second World War. And the narrative reveals the shifting political views of Schuyler at the time. In the twenties and thirties Schuyler was considered a left-wing radical: he had joined the Socialist party in 1921. However, Schuyler was unorthodox amongst left-wingers in his admiration for capitalism, and Black Empire features overt criticisms of Black American culture such as the Harlem Renaissance and Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement. Schuyler was scathing in his condemnation of white racism and the Jim Crow laws, but he was increasingly identified as a conservative and became a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights movement. The complexity of Schuyler’s political views is ever-present in his contribution to crime fiction and Black Empire, a novel so outrageous, polemical, unpredictable, thrilling and yet profound.

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