I admit I read this book somewhat dutifully, having written on the Harlem Renaissance extensively in the past, but having not paid a lot of attention I admit I read this book somewhat dutifully, having written on the Harlem Renaissance extensively in the past, but having not paid a lot of attention to Schuyler beyond some of his shorter works, which I loved, and having only skimmed somewhat cursorily through it before to see how much relevance it might have to my own subject on religion and gender. While a religious organization plays a significant part in the book in establishing a kind of proto-Afrocentric religious experience that may be trying to evoke the religiosity of Marcus Garvey's UNIA organization, I didn't find a lot of substance there and did not pursue the book seriously in the past. I decided to come back to it and give it a second chance. Although I'd like to say it's a major statement of African American letters, it clearly isn't. Other things in Schuyler I find compelling. His shorter work is sharp, he's iconoclastic and acerbic without being merely combative. I don't share his generally conservative political outlook, but he usually made me think hard about what I thought about the Harlem Renaissance and why.
This book not so much. Its worst features are its predictability, so much so that even when it tries to be shocking it is predictably so, and so even it's horrors end up being kind of boring. A kind of black fascist revenge fantasy, the book focuses on a kind of Garveyesque empire-builder, Dr. Belsidus, who is willing to cross any and every ethical boundary in the quest to develop a black empire noted in the title. Belsidus seems to be a type of moral fascist, willing to destroy everything in his path to realize what he recognizes as the greater ultimate good of his vision of a black empire. Although Belsidus seems sometimes to thrust the narrator--who seems to be something of a journalistic stand-in for Schuyler--into moral quandaries, these quandaries are short-lived as the narrator dismisses them in favor of Belsidus's overwhelming and compelling will. One can imagine such a scene result either in forms or moral reckoning or in ironic recognitions of the violence of power and empire building, but the book and its ethics never really ascends to irony or moral complexity, being content to remain within the bounds of a revenge fantasy. It never really ascends beyond that in a way that seems to interrogate racial conflict, white supremacy, black resistance and identities with the complexity they might deserve. On the other hand, it is worth noting that this began as a serialized newspaper fiction, written largely to give his primarily African American readers a source of entertainment and to give himself a weekly paycheck. It reads that way. And so my final feeling that I have done my duty by Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance to come back and give the book a more serious read. That would be time better spent if it were a more serious book....more
I found myself liking what this book was about more than I liked the book. For those of us who struggled and fought as young people with what are veryI found myself liking what this book was about more than I liked the book. For those of us who struggled and fought as young people with what are very often the controlling absurdities of life in church, the themes and images will resonate, sometimes painfully or bitterly. There are especially some nice contemporary renditions of the story of Job and its implications, if adding nothing absolutely new to the 30 centuries of midrashim turned over and over again to explain or protest Gods complicity in and impassivity towards Job’s suffering. In the end I felt there were too many theses and too few poems. Still, it is a book in earnest. Though it records the poet’s pain and joy more than it makes me feel it, I felt there were more and better books to come....more
Great book. In an era of Puritanical rectitude of both the left and the right, it was a delight to read. A good book makes me laugh out loud. Or weep.Great book. In an era of Puritanical rectitude of both the left and the right, it was a delight to read. A good book makes me laugh out loud. Or weep. As this one did, sometimes in the scope of a page. It reminds me that there is pleasure in being human, in this body, here, now....more