Agency, Race and Utopia

Agency-the belief that one’s actions can have an effect on political outcomes-is vital to any striving group.1 What agency are Blacks given by utopian authors and what solutions to the problems faced by blacks do these authors propose? This paper will compare George Schuyler’s Black Empire (1938) with Edward Bellamy’s 1888 classic, Looking Backward and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). The objective here is to ascertain the agency attributed to Blacks, and to illuminate the manner in which the authors visualize long-term, macro-level intercourse between persons of African and of European ancestry.

Although scholars have addressed themes such as feminism in utopian writings, no work has approached these writings to determine how their authors have constructed the continuation of racial difference within the utopian society. Two articles have taken on this task in a very limited way. Social scientists William Nichols and Charles P. Henry2 say one reason for this dearth of attention is that utopian authors have neglected the dimension of race in their fictional creations. Another reason they point to is that non-white authors, African Americans specifically, have produced very few utopian works. More recently, however, Giulia Fabi3 has compared the use of Race in Edward Bellamy’s influential Looking Backward, with recently discovered African American works of the late 1800s, Iola Leroy and Imperium in Imperio.

Neither of these articles, however, is designed to trace the development of Race in utopia over the long haul, or to compare it with the political aspirations of real-world minorities. Utopias are generally thought to be flights of fancy rather than blueprints for policy making. Their power, however, lies in their ability to stir the imagination and point it in the direction of sustained, structural, society-wide improvement in living conditions. Herein lies the significance of utopian imaginings for African Americans.

Utopian imaginings have much in common with “blue sky” imagining found in the business community. In big business, “blue sky” projection of a company’s hopes for the next hundred years or so is not fantasy. Blue sky asks, if there weren’t a cloud on the horizon what would be the company’s best situation at a given time? In Reason Enough to Hope, MIT physicists Philip Morrison and Kosta Tsipis describe “blue sky” as “what is possible within the broad objective constraints that delimit our options: the laws of physics, energy, and food availability, population, global wealth, geography, weather.”4

From the 1950s and well into the 1990s the challenge posed by attacks and counterattacks on America’s racial order played large among white and African Americans as the Civil Rights Movement built then lost momentum. Perhaps the earliest work of the period to address this issue at a mass level was the 1960s television series, Star Trek. The original television series regularly integrated three races-Caucasian, African and Asian-on the bridge of the starship, Enterprise. These disparate character roles challenged the centuries- old, near total cultural and media dominance of the Anglo-Saxon, a Caucasian subgroup. For the first time regular, salutary, non-white peoples appeared before a majority white audience. The earliest white-authored utopian novel known to me showing whites and Blacks living under conditions of mutual respect and admiration is Edward Johnson’s, 1904 book, Light Ahead for the Negro.5

In the 1970s, following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder and during the subsequent rebellions in poor, Black neighborhoods, it became common-place for white-authored utopias to prominently query race relations. Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, for example, shows Blacks in America establishing independent city-states in the San Francisco Bay area. Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You presented an island where persons of various racial backgrounds co-mingled without atavistic racial prejudice. These works depict relatively happy relations between different ethnic groups. However, for at least one “group,” broadly defined, the goal in construction of a utopia is the elimination of problems caused by unhappy relations with some other group or groups. Can the unhappy group leave its traditional home or must it remain in place and assimilate the values and worldview of a more dominant group?

I take my definition of utopia from Lyman T. Sargent, editor of Utopian Studies (journal of the Society of Utopian Studies):

The word utopia, as coined by [Thomas] More [in 1516], means nowhere and implies nothing relevant to the quality of that nowhere. Utopia may be used as the general term covering all the various classes of utopian literature. Eutopia-although the word has unfortunately fallen out of favor-or the positive utopia refer to presentations of good places. Dystopia or the negative utopia refers to presentations of bad places.6

Many analyses of utopian fiction emphasize the normative, political, and even pedagogical bent of these works as they suggest and project imagined solutions to extant social problems onto a mythical temporal or geographic reality. A major consideration in conceptualizing social problems addressed in a utopia is what Charles Garard refers to as the narrative voice or the point-of-view rendered. In fact, says Garard, POV “determines the structure of novels and films.”7 Different groups, and indeed different individuals, will often disagree as to what things are or are not the most important problems for a society, and their writings will reflect these differences. Utopian imaginings are rooted in divergent evaluations of both the past and the present. And “attempts to imagine the future-or to predict alternative futures,” say Nichols and Henry, “are closely linked to how we understand the past; and the vantage point from which the observer looks either forward or backward is crucial.”8

We know, for example, that at the turn to the 20th century W.E.B. Du Bois, saw the “color line” as the most important of America’s and the world’s problems. Yet Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in the same period as Du Bois’s pronouncements and fewer than 30 years after the Emancipation of America’s slaves, virtually ignores this issue in favor of class within the white race. Regarding Bellamy’s POV, say Nichols and Henry, “The ‘racial’ conflict and oppression that characterized the decades following the Civil War did not figure in [his] vision of the evils that would bring a new day.”9

Looking Backward tells the story of conservative thinker Julius West’s adventure around 1900. After heated debate on the dangers of trade unionism and on the stench of Boston’s workers’ quarter, West takes a newly formulated sleeping draft. The draft is so powerful, however, that he awakens not the next day but 100 years later, in the year 2000. He is immediately perplexed at not having been awakened sooner because his “One servant, a faithful colored man by the name of Sawyer, [who] lived with me and attended to my few wants… would never have betrayed me…”10

Race was no problem when protagonist Julian West fell into a century-long sleep. When he awakens in Boston of the year 2000, the trust placed in Sawyer-and the assurance of Sawyer’s fidelity-is important in establishing the credibility of West’s tale to the reader. This assurance is given greater force by associating it with race. Sawyer is positioned in the same manner later portrayed in the dichotomy between Gus, the black rapist, and the faithful mammy in D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation (1915). Sawyer’s race is pointed out because the vaunted, stereotypical faithfulness of the house slave supports the veracity of the slave master’s claims. As Sawyer is the only individual person of color mentioned in Looking Backward, it would be presumed by Bellamy’s contemporary reader that something terrible must have happened to prevent Sawyer carrying out the charge to awaken his master/employer. The limit of Sawyer’s agency is the extent of his fidelity to West, his master/employer.

West provides an example that events happen quickly “when their time has come”:

In 1832, the original Anti-slavery Society was formed in Boston by a few so-called visionaries. Thirty-eight years later, in 1870, the society disbanded, its programme fully carried out.11

However, 1870 was also the year President Andrew Johnson pulled Federal troops out of the south and left the Reconstruction of southern life-both Black and white-in the hands of the very people who had fought to uphold slavery. The chapter entitled “Back Toward Slavery,” in Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, speaks volumes on the repression of Blacks after 1870. Forced return to semi-slavery was popularized among the mass of African Americans in Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier’s 1972 film, Buck and the Preacher. The character Buck’s struggle to lead a group of former slaves to the utopia of a Black town “out west” nearly ended in the debt peonage and lynchings experienced by “real” Blacks in the thousands. After Reconstruction, whites’ debt to Blacks only increased. If Sawyer’s job with West is indicative of the successful completion of the Anti-slavery Society’s program, Bellamy clearly ignores the plight of the majority of Blacks then still suffering in the south.

Not even by the novel’s fictional year 2000, however, does Bellamy envision that non-white peoples have agency. West’s host, Dr. Leete, in the utopia informs him that…

The peaceful relations of [industrial nations] are assured by a loose form of federal union of world-wide extent. An international council regulates the mutual intercourse and commerce of the members of the union and their joint policy toward the more backward races, which are gradually being educated up to civilized institutions.

In fact, from Bellamy’s point of view, real-world white prejudice toward Blacks would continue in the utopia. In Bellamy’s later novel, Equality, West recalls that “In my day, a peculiar complication of the social problem in America was the existence in the Southern States of many millions of recently freed slaves as yet unequal to the responsibilities of freedom.”13 Dr. Leete replies that Blacks were disciplined members of year 2000 society’s industrial army, which would “enable them to elevate themselves to the level of civilization already achieved by whites.” To the question of white racism toward Blacks, Dr. Leete replied that “there was absolutely nothing in the system to offend that [racist] prejudice… Even for industrial purposes the new system involved no more commingling of races than the old had done. It was perfectly consistent with any degree of race separation in industry which the most bigoted local prejudices might demand.“14

Nearly 40 years later, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presents a more dystopic view of the future, but his views on race remain consistent with Bellamy’s. Bellamy was quite explicit in pointing out that Blacks in utopia remain servants. Huxley does the same in his sexually promiscuous society, which is genetically engineered into rigid human class categories from Alpha, the freewheeling thinkers, down through Epsilon porters, and to grunge-working Gammas. The narrative centers around the return of Bernard and Lenina from a Native American “savage reservation” from which they rescue a young white man long stranded there and now virtually a savage himself.

In this London of the future, Huxley points out Blacks only four times: (1) The helicopter hangars, he writes, “were staffed by a single [Delta-minus] Bokanovsky Group, and the men were twins, identically small, black and hideous.”15 (2) “An Epsilon-Plus negro porter took in Bernard’s card, and they [Bernard and Lenina] were admitted [to the Savage Reservation] almost immediately.”16 (3) At the “savage reservation,” Lenina and Bernard’s helicopter was piloted by “An octoroon [very light-skinned negro] in Gamma-green uniform [who] saluted and proceeded to recite the morning’s programme.”17

The fourth mention is the most spectacular and revealing, since it involves a mass media production, which helps create mass public perception. Huxley envisions movies as “feelies,” in which the audience feels what happens on screen. He writes that, in London, the feely, Three Weeks in a Helicopter, assailed the newly returned white “savage” with images, incomparably more solid-looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality…locked in one another’s arms…a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female…The scent organ, meanwhile, breathed pure musk.” But then “the negro had a helicopter accident…the [resulting] concussion knocked all the negro’s conditioning into a cocked hat. He developed for the Beta blonde an exclusive and maniacal passion. She protested. He persisted. There were struggles, pursuits, an assault on a rival, finally a sensational kidnapping. The Beta blonde was ravished away into the sky and kept there, hovering, for three weeks in a wildly anti-social tête-à-tête with the black madman.18

Revulsion the white savage felt for “civilized” sexual liberality is symbolized by what he felt watching Three Weeks in a Helicopter:

Ooh! ooh! the stereoscopic blonde and aah! the more than real blackamoor. Horror, horror, horror…19

As with Bellamy, this image of the Black rapist-even in a sexually open society-dovetails nicely with Griffith’s construction of Gus in Birth of a Nation. Huxley seems to have bought into all the sexual stereotypes of Blacks then prevalent among racist whites. For example, Mr. Foster, a worker in a reproduction plant, explained to new students that the “record for single ovary” production of identical twins was:

sixteen thousand and twelve in this [London] Centre… But of course they’ve done much better in some of the tropical Centres. Singapore has often produced over sixteen thousand five hundred: and Mombassa has actually touched the seventeen thousand mark. But then they have unfair advantages. You should see the way a negro ovary responds to pituitary! It’s quite astonishing, when you’re used to working with European material. Pilkington, at Mombassa had produced individuals who were sexually mature at four…20

Both Bellamy and Huxley view their utopias from the dominant, white group’s point of view. The contrast is striking when seen from a point-of-view that considered Black agency, as in George Schuyler’s Black Empire,21 which appeared as a serial in the Pittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938. Schuyler envisaged a Black Internationale, composed of highly skilled Africans, African Americans, Caribbeans and others under the dictatorial command of Dr. Henry Belsidus, all committed to destruction of global white supremacy. Where the Bellamy/Huxley POV assumed a white hegemony peppered with savage, servile, complacent non-whites, Schuyler’s POV represents the danger for whites of such an assumption. He showed that Blacks at least could be angry, talented and, ultimately the rulers of the day.

The plot and construction of Black Empire mirrors that of “Buck Rogers” and other serials of the 1930s and 1940s. In Harlem, journalist Carl Slater is captured by and then employed as secretary to the diabolical medical doctor, Henry Belsidus. In this capacity Slater is witness to and, later, willing participant in the Black Internationale’s reconquest of the African continent, introduction of plague to wreak havoc in Europe, and defeat of the combined European forces’ attempts to retake Africa. Slater works with courageous Black men and women who invent new generators powered by the sun and electronic weapons that cause planes to fall from the sky. He marries fearless, independent-minded Patricia Givens, the chief of Dr. Belsidus’s air force and they together endure harrowing experiences in the interest of defending the Black Empire.

Unlike Bellamy’s and Huxley’s utopias, Schuyler’s is not ready made. The reader sees both the design and fight to create the ideal world, as specific grievances of the real world are dispatched by the fictional Dr. Belsidus. Early on he says to the assembled Black Internationale leaders…

I have brought you all here [to Harlem] at great expense that you … may receive your instructions personally and meet your colleagues. It is unnecessary for me to dwell at great length on our program. You know what it is. It can be summed up in a few words: For four hundred years our race has been in eclipse. For four hundred years we have been victims of superior forces. For four hundred years we have seen our civilizations crushed and controlled one after the other by the white man. We have suffered every degradation his fertile mind could invent. We have not only been enslaved in body, but in spirit and mind as well. We have been demoralized.. We shall run him out of Africa, out of India, out of the West Indies, out of the South Seas. We shall elevate the Negro people to the proud estate they once occupied four hundred years ago.22

This condition justifies the most extreme means to achieve victory. For example, the doctor says to Slater of his former secretary: “Oh, he was so indiscreet as to say things he should not have said. He discussed my business with others, and, of course, then we had to do away with all concerned. We must get used to bloodshed, Slater. We must be hard.”23 And Belsidus kills at least one person, a white, female lover, with his own hands.

This is in stark contrast to the Bellamy/Huxley race paradigm, which presents Blacks with no agency-except for a deranged sexual ravaging of a white woman in a liberal society where sex is freely and openly available. The cruelty of white domination is also absent in Bellamy and Huxley but is up front in Schuyler. Belsidus says of Jim, his chauffeur, “He hates white people worse than I do, which is saying a whole lot. They burned off his tongue with a poker one day in Georgia…”24 The doctor did not counsel meekness in the face of such outrages. When a lynching occurs in a predominantly Protestant Mississippi town, Belsidus sends Givens and Slater to bomb the offending town’s white citizens. In so doing, however, he sows discord among whites by having Givens and Slater distribute leaflets, which displace blame for the bombing onto white Catholics.

It is the change in point-of-view that allows Blacks agency in Black Empire. Neither Bellamy nor Huxley found it important to show the new society from an African descended person’s point of view. Schuyler has written about his rejection for a job by a white classmate’s parents despite his qualifications; while he was not a Garveyite, he did endorse a Garvey-like predisposition supporting the end of Europe’s colonization of Africa. The racial aspect of the utopias described by Bellamy and Huxley is completely incompatible with that of Schuyler. But this does not mean that it was not smoldering beneath the surface. The myopia through which Bellamy and Huxley view Blacks is a major structural feature of Dr. Belsidus’s design. As long as Blacks appear complacent, whites take little notice of them and their doings. Garvey thwarted his own plan, according to the doctor:

One of the great mistakes made by minority leaders in the past has been ballyhoo. Therefore we have established no newspapers or magazines, given no talks over the radio, staged no parades or demonstrations. Consequently the enemy has no inkling of what we are doing… If we had a newspaper and boasted in it about our far-flung efforts, white people would know all about it and crush us before we were ready.25

Schuyler was aware of the blind eye that whites, like Bellamy and Huxley, directed at Blacks, and he used it as perhaps the major pillar of the success of Dr. Belsidus and his Black Internationale.

While within any ethnic or “racial” group there exist differences of opinion and, in fact, individual traitors to the group’s best interest, it seems unlikely that members generally would argue against group agency. Schuyler himself not only voiced views opposed to nationalist, communist and Black religious leaders of his day; he even found Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts wanting at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, Schuyler says that he wrote Black Empire on a lark and to profit from then current popular interest. Schuyler’s 1931 novel, Black No More, presents a scenario opposite that of Dr. Belsidus, wherein a treatment invented by another African American medical doctor, Dr. Junius Crookman, allows Blacks to self-annihilate by turning themselves white. Even this, however, is an example of Black agency since Blacks invented the treatment, established the means to distribute it and individually selected Crookman’s treatment as a personal solution to America’s race problem.

Bellamy’s and Huxley’s approach to race relations in their utopias is placed in greater relief when juxtaposed against Johnson’s utopia, Light Ahead for the Negro, in which 1906 Yale graduate, Gilbert Twitchell lands 100 years later on the lawn of Dr. Newell and is told by Newell’s associate, Miss Anita Davis, that she is a teacher in a Sunday School for Negro children and a member of a Young Ladies Guild which was organized expressly for reaching Negro children that may need help.I am really fond of these people and the happiest moments of my life are spent with them-they are of a different temperament from us, so mild and good natured,-so complacent and happy in their religious worship and their music is simply enchanting!26

Davis even uses the former slaves’ preferred self-appellation saying that is because these people themselves prefer to be called Negroes. They are proud of the term Negro and feel that you are compromising if you refer to them as “colored people.”27

Johnson’s utopia includes analysis of the racial dichotomy that is consistent with that offered by Du Bois. Twitchell observes that the question of color cut no small figure in this problem. The Negro’s color classified him; it rang the signal bell for drawing “the color line” as soon as he was seen, and it designated and pointed him out as a marked man.28

Johnson even imagined African Americans in positions of considerable responsibility. Twitchell notes his surprise on seeing that Dr. Newell’s private secretary was a Negro; not full black, but mixed blood-in color, between an Indian and a Chinaman. I ascertained from this young man that it was now “quite common” for Southern white men of large affairs to employ Negroes for higher positions in their offices, counting rooms, and stores. (They had a precedent for this in the custom of the Romans, who used their Greek slaves in this way.) He also told me that the matter of social equality was not mentioned. He naturally associated with his own people. He simply wanted to do his work faithfully, and neither expected nor asked to sit by his employer’s fireside.29

In addition to working for “white men of large affairs” Blacks were full members of the labor unions and were substantial landowners. Newell observed that the National Government…came to the relief of the South in quite a substantial way (at the same time that it assumed control of all coal and iron mines, and oil wells) by buying up the cotton lands and parceling them out to young Negroes at a small price, accompanied with means and assistance for the production of the crop.30

Twitchell visited Chattahoochee farm, noted for its picturesqueness and “up-to-dateness,” a paying institution entirely under the management of Negroes. The superintendent was a graduate from the State Agricultural College for Negroes, near Savannah…a majority of the landowners of the state had found it profitable to turn vast tracts of land over to these young Negro graduates, who were proving themselves adepts in the art of scientific farming, making excellent salaries, and returning good dividends on the investment.31

These imaginings of the future, written by a late 19th-century white person, indicate clearly that it was not because they were white that Bellamy and Huxley attributed limited agency to Black people. In any historical period a given culture will reflect a range of opinion on issues of the day. Just as prior to the Civil War white opinion on slavery ranged from abolition to the continuation of Black enslavement, so early 20th-century white opinion ranged from Communist egalitarianism to lynching of Blacks as means to address racial discord. Bellamy’s and Huxley’s acceptance of the period’s mainstream racial opinion is graphically buttressed by D.W. Griffith’s rabidly racist Birth of a Nation, which was enthusiastically accepted by one white representative of the mainstream, America’s President, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson screened this film at the White House and called it “history written with lightning.” What Light Ahead for the Negro reveals is that this is only one pole in the range of opinion. We are indeed fortunate to have Johnson’s work as representative of the other pole.


1. See Cathy J. Cohen and Michael C. Dawson, “Neighborhood Poverty and African American Politics,” in American Political Science Review,” Vol. 87 no. 2 (June 1993), p. 292.

2. William Nichols and Charles P. Henry, “Imagining a Future in America: A Racial Perspective,” Journal of Utopian Studies, Spring 1978.

3. Maria Giulia Fabi, “‘Race Travel’: Towards a Taxonomy of Turn-of-the-Century African American Utopian Fiction,” in Viaggi in Utopia, ed. Raffaella Baccolini et al. (Ravenna: Longo Editore 1996).

4. Philip Morrison and Kosta Tsipis, Reason Enough to Hope, Cambridge: MIT, 1998, p. x.

5. Edward Augustus Johnson, Light Ahead for the Negro [1904] (New York: Grafton Press AMS, 1975).

6. Lyman Tower Sargent, British and American Utopian Literature, 1516-1975 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979), pp.x-xi.

7. Charles Garard, Point Of View in Fiction and Film (New York: Peter Lang, 1991),
p 2.

8. Nichols and Henry (n. 2).

9. Ibid., p. 41.

10. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (New York: Random House, 1917), pp. 14, 22.

11. Ibid., p. 274.

12. Ibid., p. 112.

13. Sylvia Strauss, “Gender, Class, and Race in Utopia,” in Looking Backward, 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, Daphne Patai, ed. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 82.

14. Ibid, p. 82.

15. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited [1932] (NewYork: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 50.

16. Ibid., p. 77.

17. Ibid., p. 80.

18. Ibid., p. 128.

19. Ibid., p. 147.

20. Ibid., pp. 5, 10.

21. This refers to the 1991 joint publication of “The Black Internationale” and Black Empire.

22. George S. Schuyler, Black Empire [1936-38] (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), pp. 30-31.

23. Ibid., p. 14.

24. Ibid., p. 16.

25. Ibid., p. 88.

26. Johnson (n. 5), p. 15.

27. Ibid., p. 18.

28. Ibid., p. 27.

29. Ibid., p. 78.

30. Ibid., p. 96.

31. Ibid., pp. 108-109.

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