Black Empire

The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962

Black Empire

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: 5 b&w photos Published: July 2005

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Gender and Sexuality

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.


Black Empire advances an argument arced with poetic political justice: the isles that endured the most sustained suffering at the hands of a racist imperialism cultivated its most biting critics.” — Harvey Neptune, Small Axe

“[T]his impressive volume is both wide-ranging and intellectually challenging as Stephens interrogates the contribution of a range of under-researched authors and works to the creation of a ‘black federation’ within a transnational framework.” — Celeste-Marie Bernier, Atlantic Studies

"[A] remarkable overview of visionary black leadership in the early 20th century. . . . Recommended." — A. J. Guillaume Jr., Choice

Black Empire is a remarkable achievement, a comprehensive account of the global cognitive remapping of the Atlantic world by its travelling black subjects. This is a theoretically sophisticated and conceptually innovative study of West Indian intellectuals who confronted and shaped the geopolitical realities of the modern and modernizing world and refused to be limited by the historical terms, conditions, and discourses of national identity. Michelle Ann Stephens has produced a pathbreaking account of their response to migrancy, transnationalism, gender and empire. An invaluable book for everyone in Atlantic studies, the study of the Americas, black studies, ethnic studies and gender studies.” — Hazel V. Carby, author of Race Men

“In this strikingly original and rich study, Michelle Ann Stephens makes wonderful use of geography to remap early-twentieth-century black nationalism beyond the confines of national boundaries. With great acuity, she shows how three different radical Caribbean intellectuals imagined an international black empire that extended from the Americas to Africa and Europe. Black Empire brings a genuinely new perspective to bear on the complex interconnections of citizenship and Diaspora, gender and freedom, race and sovereignty.” — Amy Kaplan, author of The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: The Isles and Empire 1

Part I: Blackness and Empire: The World War I Moment 33

1. The New Worldly Negro: Sovereignty, Revolutionary Masculinity, and American Internationalism 35

2. The Women of Color and the Literature of a New Black World 56

3. Marcus Garvey, Black Emperor 74

4. The Black Star Line and the Negro Ship of State 102

Part II: Mapping New Geographies of History 127

5. Claude McKay and Harlem, Black Belt of the Metropolis 129

6. "Nationality Doubtful" and Banjo's Crew in Marseilles 167

7. C. L. R. James and the Fugitive Slave in American Civilization 204

8. America is One Island Only: The Caribbean and American Studies 241

Conclusion: Dark Waters: Shadow Narratives of U. S. Imperialism 269

Notes 283

Bibliography 337

Index 353
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3588-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3551-1
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