Book on Fascism in Black American Literature Between the Two World Wars

Mark Christian Thompson, Black Fascisms: African American Literature & Culture between the Wars (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press 2007).

This is one of the other books I’ve been reading during the last few days. It’s a fascinating examination of a little known episode of Black American literary history when, in the 1930s and early 1940s, a number of Black American authors and activists took over elements from European Fascism to form their own version of the totalitarian creed. The blurb reads

In this provocative new book, Mark Christian Thompson addresses the startling fact that many African American intellectuals in the 1930s sympathized with fascism, seeing in its ideology a means of envisioning new modes of African American political resistance. Thompson surveys the work and thought of several authors and asserts that their sometimes positive reaction to generic European fascism, and its transformation into black fascism, is crucial to any understanding of Depression-era African American literary culture.

Taking on a subject generally ignored or denied in African American cultural and literary studies, BLACK FASCISMS seeks not only to question the prominence of the Left in the political thought of a generation of writers to change how we view African American literature in general.

Following the introduction, it has the following chapters:

  1. Black Literary Fascism
  2. The Myth of Marcus Garvey: Black Fascism and Nationalism
  3. George S. Schuyler and the God of Love: Black Fascism and Mythic Violence
  4. “In Turban and Gorgeous Robe”: Claude McKay, Black Fascism, and Labor
  5. His Rod of Power: Zora Neale Hurston, Black Fascism and Culture
  6. Richard Wright’s Jealous Rebels: Black Fascism and Philosophy

Conclusion: Historical Black Fascism, Black Arts, and Beyond

For some, this is no doubt shocking and uncomfortable reading. Thompson states that his book will be controversial, because it seems to challenge the dominance and achievements of Marxism in Black American politics and culture of the period. He does not seek to deny this, but to argue that there was a significant turn away from Communism towards Fascism at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, and that this was no mere blip in the career of the figures discussed, as some historians and critics have claimed. It’s also remarkable, in that as victims of racism it seems to run counter to reason that Black Americans would embrace a viciously racist ideology associated with White supremacy. But by the early 1940s some Black youngsters had become so alienated from their country, that they were singing songs about how they thought they’d move to Germany because they’d be better off there. The likelihood is that these kids probably didn’t understand what Nazi Germany was really like. The Black intellectuals, who turned to Fascism, didn’t support its specific European versions. They didn’t want to become Nazis or supporters of Mussolini’s Fascists. But they took elements of generic Fascism and adapted it as a vehicle for their own nationalist aspirations and desire for pan-African racial uplift.

Defining Features of Black Fascism

Thompson considers that the main elements in this turn were a dissatisfaction with Communist multiculturalism, the expectation that Ethiopia would produce a strong, modernising leader to redeem Blacks across the world, admiration for newly independent Haiti, and anti-Semitism. Black Fascists rejected Communism, because they were afraid that its emphasis on racial collaboration and the class war would lead to Blacks’ own aspirations and needs being neglected and Blacks used instead to improve conditions for White liberals. The Communist party in turn attempted to harness Black nationalism for the general class struggle, by defining Black Americans as working class. But this also created an anti-White racism that characterised all Whites as members of the exploiting classes. Which strikes me as not at all unlike Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory. The expectations of Black leadership from Ethiopia came from Psalm 68 in the Bible, which states that, after Egypt, Ethiopia will raise its hands to God. Ethiopia was the one African nation not conquered by the Europeans in the 19th century, which seemed to many Black Americans that the country was destined to lead the Black people. Coupled with this was the hope that Black Americans would return to Africa to take up positions of leadership and power in the continent, and free her from the European colonial oppressors. At the same time, the American army had just withdrawn from its occupation of Haiti. Many Black Americans admired this Caribbean nation because of the way it had thrown off French rule in the late 18th century to become a free, Black republic. At the same time, its new president, Stenio Vincent, sweeping autocratic powers dissolving the lower house and allowing him to appoint a sizable proportion of its senate. It was not a democracy in the American sense, as Zora Neale Hurston recognised, but an elected monarchy. Anti-Semitism and a hatred of Italians and Greeks among working class Blacks in Harlem was also part of the turn towards Fascism. The Black soapbox Caesar, Sufi Abdul Hamid, wished to create a separate trade union exclusively for Blacks. He was one of the leaders of a boycott against the White-owned department stores, which refused to employ Black clerks. He succeeded in getting this reversed, but his inflammatory anti-Semitic rhetoric – many of the stores were Jewish owned – resulted in the 1937 Harlem race riot.

Marcus Garvey and the Invasion of Ethiopia

Chapter one is a general discussion of Black American fascist aesthetics. The first of the writers and activists to be examined is Marcus Garvey, the founder and leader of the United Negro Improvement Association. This was a mass organisation, whose hierarchy was based on that of the army, with Garvey giving his followers various military ranks. Militantly nationalistic, the organisation also campaigned for a return to Africa, and Garvey was also impressed with the Italian Fascist corporatist state. Rejecting Communism, he instead supported private property. Blacks should work to acquire wealth, that they should then use to build the new Black state. However, private wealth should also be limited. Only the state should be able to hold investments over $5 or $6 million.

Of the figures discussed in the book, Garvey is the most overtly Fascist. Indeed, in a 1937 interview he claimed that Hitler and Mussolini based their movements on his. He was no fan of Mussolini, however, after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which also caused him to become a bitter critic of its former emperor, Hailie Selassie. Selassie had scarpered to London following the invasion, which bitterly disappointed Garvey. He had also expected the Ethiopian emperor to modernise the country, turning it into a modern, Fascist, corporate state, which would embark on its own destiny of imperial conquest. Selassie had not done this. Garvey also sneered at him because of the Biblical lineage of the Ethiopian monarchy. This claimed descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Thus, Garvey attacked him because he was, by virtue of this descent from the great Israelite king, Jewish. This was in contrast to Simon of Cyrene, who was Black, and Jesus, who was mostly Black.

Schuyler’s Pulp Fiction Supervillain Black Liberator

George S. Schuyler was a Black American writer and journalist, described by the book as somewhat like H.L. Mencken. He had started off as a vague socialist, believing that Africans were innately Communistic, and pan-African. Well, he was until he visited Liberia, which left him bitterly disillusioned to the extent that he wished the US army would invade so that America could take over and improve the country. This changed again with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Schuyler, like many other Black Americans, was outraged and wanted to raise an army of Black American volunteers, who would go and fight for the African nation. Seeking advice from the American foreign department, he was told that was impossible as America wished to preserve its neutrality. Schuyler thus turned to literature to express his anger and desire for revenge, writing the pulp story Black Empire. This tells the story of Dr. Belsidus, a Black American genius, who takes over Africa with his organisation, the Black Internationale, turning it into a military superpower through able to repel the Italians and then embark on the genocidal conquest of Europe through advance Black super science. Black scientists create death rays, hydroponic farms, fax machines and hypno-robots. Hypno-robots? Yes. Belsidus creates a new religion and deity, the God of Love, whose mission is to inculcate Black Africans with belief in their noble descent from the Babylonians and Egyptians and their future greatness. The hypno-robot is a giant, 50-foot tall figure of a naked Black man representing the God of Love, which has the power to move, raising its arms and nodding its head. Its eyes light up to hypnotise the congregation, so that they will become mentally receptive to Belsidus racial doctrines. Aiding Belsidus are a series of White women, his lovers, whom he casually murders if they fail him in bed or in their tasks of bringing down European rule. Belsidus comes across as Yaphet Kotto’s villain in the Bond film, Live and Let Die, but even nastier. He’s a genocide who ruthlessly kills White men, women and children. The story’s a nasty revenge fantasy, written by Schuyler to compensate for the Italian invasion. Schuyler himself didn’t stay a Fascist, but instead became a noted Black Conservative intellectual.

McKay, Sufi Abdul Hamid and Black Labour

Claude McKay was another Black American who had started out as a Communist, but then moved away from it, converting to Roman Catholicism. In the 1930s and ’40s McKay was also concerned with building a Black labour movement for which he also adopted aspects of Fascism. He was also an admirer of Sufi Abdul Hamid, an eccentric individual who styled himself Bishop Amiru Al-Minin Sufi Abdul Hamid, an Egyptian, but whose real identity may have been Eugene Brown of Philadelphia. Hamid had founded his own cult, the Universal Temple of Tranquillity. In 1932 he led a jobs boycott in Chicago and in 1934 led a similar boycott against Blumstein’s department store in Harlem. He was not popular with the other Black intellectuals, who regarded him as a charlatan and racketeer. Before his death in the late 1930s he was trying to promote himself as a cult leader in an attempt to challenge Father Divine. Called the Black Hitler because of his virulently anti-Semitic speeches, Hamid was partly responsible for the 1937 race riot, for which he was unsuccessfully prosecuted by the Jewish Minute Men. He appears as ‘Omar’ in McKay’s unfinished novel, Harlem Glory. This is partly an examination of the divided psychology of Black America. ‘Omar’ represents its Fascist side, while Father Divine, who appears as ‘Glory Savior’, and his cult, the ‘Glory Soulers’, represent religion and Communism.

Hurston, Moses and Haiti

Zora Neale Hurston is included because of her novel about Moses leading the Exodus, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in which both the greatest of the Hebrew prophets and his adversary, Pharaoh, have the nationalistic, genocidal qualities of modern Fascist dictators. Hurston also linked Moses to Haiti’s founder, Toussaint L’Ouverture. L’Ouverture’s power was represented by the Voodoo god, Damballah, who was also Moses’ rod of power. Damballah’s a snake god, while one of the miracles Moses performed was changing his staff into a snake. This novel is strongly influenced by Hurston’s admiration for Haiti and its authoritarian leader.

Cross Damon, Fascist Murderer or Existentialist Anti-Hero

Wright was another Communist intellectual, who then went to France to hang out with Sartre. He then wrote his own existentialist novel, The Outsider, about a former postal worker, Cross Damon. After losing his job, and suffering problems from the women in his life, Damon becomes a murderer, committing a series of killings across America. The novel was widely criticised at the time for not saying anything about the condition of Black America. Thompson argues that this is untrue. The book does examine their plight, as Damon personifies the Fascist tendency within Black America through his ruthless pursuit of the power over life and death. His murder of two twins, one a Communist, the other a Fascist, shows that to Wright these political creeds were essentially the same, and that Damon is also similar to them through their murder.

The Black Arts Movement and Neo-Fascism

The Black Arts movement was a post-War phenomenon, in which Black intellectuals and artists attempted to create a distinctly Black artistic culture, in contrast and opposition to that of White America. This chapter argues that historic fascism ended with the Second World War, and that its post-War successor, neo-Fascism, is markedly different. Fascism itself is also broader than Nazism, with which it has been identified, and which has itself been reduced to murderous anti-Semitism. It is a distortion, therefore, to describe the Nation of Islam as Fascist and genocidal simply because they held a joint rally with the American Nazi party, for which the party’s Fuhrer, Lincoln Rockwell, donated $20 to them. The chapter nevertheless states that the Black Arts movement constitutes an extreme form of Black nationalism, and ends with a call for it to be examined as a form of neo-Fascism.

Belsidus’ Statue and Fascist Homosexuality

Thompson’s a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so the book is less a work of political science as literary criticism. Thus it frequently refers to the works of such literary theorists as Georges Bataille, Foucault, Althusser and Guy Debord. I found some of the book’s arguments extremely convoluted, particularly in the chapter on Wright and The Outsider. There are times when he seems to be arguing for the Fascist nature of Cross Damon, from that character’s difference to or opposition to Fascism. He also follows the German writer, Ludwig Theweleit, in considering that their is a homosexual component to the Fascists’ adoration of their leaders. This causes the book to contain some bizarre passages about the significance of the penis in some of the pieces discussed. For example, he writes of the Belsidus’ 50 foot statue of a naked Black man

The statue is what Siegried Krakauer calls the “mass ornament”: a ritual object that is “an end in itself”. But even after the “ritual meaning” of such objects is discarded, “they remain the plastic formation of the erotic life which gave rise to them and determined their traits”. (146). The mass ornament is emptied of its ritual content and plenitude and re-cathected with an erotics of power that seeks to control the masses’ libidinal urges by converting them into an iconic religious outpouring. This is why Schuyler’s mass ornament is depicted as “a huge statue of a nude Negro standing with legs apart, gazing sardonically downward with arms crossed. It was all of 50 feet high and every part of the body was clearly depicted” (58). The bearer of the sardonic gaze cannot be mistaken. “Sardonic” is, after all, one of Schuyler’s favorite adjectives for the good Doctor and his notorious gaze. Also inescapable in this mammoth fifty-foot statue of a male Negro is an anatomical accuracy that surpasses the bounds of decency. If one wondered whether Dr. Belsidus’s movement followed the fascist phallocentric logic of male ego-reintegration Theweleit theorizes, the appearance of the fifty foot “God of Love” in all his anatomical glory removes all doubt. (pp. 90-1).

Black Fascism and other Forms of Dictatorship

The book acknowledges that none of the authors and activists discussed founded Fascist parties or movement, and he regards them as individual figures rather than the leaders of mass Fascist organisations. Garvey, with his militaristic nationalism and claims to have inspired the European Fascist dictators is the closest figure to European Fascism. So too is Sufi Abdul Hamid with his emphasis on labour, Black separatism and anti-Semitism. Hamid’s similar to the Nazis in another way: they also hated the department stores as an example of ‘Jewish capital’. Schuyler’s Black Empire is a revenge fantasy, whose hero – or anti-hero – would certainly qualify as a Fascist, even though Belsidus himself doesn’t appear to his followers to make speeches from the balcony. He just leaves that to his naked 50-foot robot. But this doesn’t make Schuyler himself a Fascist or mean that he is calling for a similar Fascist movement. It is questionable, however, whether Hurston’s Moses or Pharaoh are really fascist either. Political scientists have debated the difference between Fascism and other forms of authoritarianism and aggressive, intolerant nationalism. Noel O’Sullivan in his book, Fascism, argues that it possesses distinct features that distinguish it from the militant, dictatorial regimes of some of the nations in Africa and the Developing World. Stenios Vincent was highly authoritarian, but it’s questionable whether his regime can be considered Fascist. This also raises the question of how far Hurston’s Moses and Pharaoh are Fascists, although they certainly act in a way which could be described as fascistic. I find the argument about Wright’s The Outsider rather less convincing. It may be that Cross Damon partakes of part of the psychology of Fascist and Communist dictators through his murders, but it seems to me to be a straightforward piece of existentialist literature rather than an examination of Black American Fascism. It reminds me of Albert Camus’ novel of the same name, about a Frenchman in Algeria who murders an Arab out of boredom. Wright’s outsider is another murderer, but is a Black American rather than French.

Conclusion

I don’t know how far the Black Arts movement could be described as neo-Fascist, but historians of post-War British Fascism have noted the radical revisions of doctrine the BNP went through under its generalissimo, Nick Griffin. But Critical Race Theory does seem very similar to the Communist party’s simplification of race relations in America to Black workers versus White exploiters. My guess is that an examination of the Black Arts movement would uncover clear parallels and influences from European neo-Fascism, as would Black Lives Matter today.

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