Alex Zamalin’s book takes us on a tour of utopian thinking in African American thought. Exploring visions of the future unfettered by the limitations of the political realities is an important task because it allows us to imagine new possibilities and horizons. Zamalin makes a compelling case for the power of utopian thinking and outlines a fascinating intellectual history of black utopian thought from Martin Delany in the 18th century to the much more recent work of Octavia Butler.
A strength of the book is that it highlights the competing strands of black utopian thought, from those imagining black capitalist futures that mirror the West to those that embrace socialist futures of equality. Zamalin also explores narratives that embrace blackness across its intersections with gender and sexuality. In terms of adding to the dimensions through which we understand blackness, the queering lens of Samuel Delany’s work is welcome. We also see the politics of the 20th century play out through utopian dreams of black self-rule counterpoised with those that embrace the transcendental individualism of Sun Ra’s musical dreams.
Yet the vehicles with which Black Utopia chooses to navigate black utopian thinking are problematic. Apart from the academic and activist W.E.B. Dubois, whose politics of integration and Third World solidarity are explored through his fictional works The Comet and The Dark Princess, no other major political figures of the 20th century are included. Instead, we explore the absorbing work of a range of thinkers without any clear articulation of why these are elevated above other voices. For instance, there is a chapter on the work of George Schuyler, who was both anti-civil rights and supported the McCarthyist witch-hunts. Zamalin admits that Schuyler‘s book Black Empire was “seen as an act of race treason” because it rubbished the idea of black self-rule and included racist depictions such as people in Sierra Leone who wanted to eat the protagonists alive. In a book that aims to explore radical visions of thinking about new societies, it is unclear why time was devoted to such a regressive figure.
Throughout the book, the issue of gender is repeatedly raised – and the point made about how limited some of the utopic visions have been in this regard. But Black Utopia is itself focused almost exclusively on the work of black men, with Butler the only woman given a dedicated chapter. Excluding other black female writers compounds one of the problems the book highlights. The book also takes “black” to mean African American, ignoring work from the wider African diaspora, even those who settled in the US. I was left wondering why contributions such as Sylvia Wynter’s work were absent. The book also missed a major opportunity to connect the historical to the contemporary by delving into the plethora of work in Afrofuturism, which is impacting on modern social movements.
The challenge Black Utopia sets itself, to explore the utopian visions that can expand our political imaginations of blackness, is an important one. While the book presents some fascinating accounts, too narrow a set of ideas means that it fails to do justice to the importance of utopian thinking in black politics.
Kehinde Andrews is professor of black studies at Birmingham City University and the author of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (2018).
Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism
By Alex Zamalin
Columbia University Press
184pp, £62.00 and £20.00
ISBN 9780231187404 and 7411
Published 20 August 2019
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