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Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism

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Within the history of African American struggle against racist oppression that often verges on dystopia, a hidden tradition has depicted a transfigured world. Daring to speculate on a future beyond white supremacy, black utopian artists and thinkers offer powerful visions of ways of being that are built on radical concepts of justice and freedom. They imagine a new black c Within the history of African American struggle against racist oppression that often verges on dystopia, a hidden tradition has depicted a transfigured world. Daring to speculate on a future beyond white supremacy, black utopian artists and thinkers offer powerful visions of ways of being that are built on radical concepts of justice and freedom. They imagine a new black citizen who would inhabit a world that soars above all existing notions of the possible. In Black Utopia, Alex Zamalin offers a groundbreaking examination of African American visions of social transformation and their counterutopian counterparts. Considering figures associated with racial separatism, postracialism, anticolonialism, Pan-Africanism, and Afrofuturism, he argues that the black utopian tradition continues to challenge American political thought and culture. Black Utopia spans black nationalist visions of an ideal Africa, the fiction of W. E. B. Du Bois, and Sun Ra's cosmic mythology of alien abduction. Zamalin casts Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler as political theorists and reflects on the antiutopian challenges of George S. Schuyler and Richard Wright. Their thought proves that utopianism, rather than being politically immature or dangerous, can invigorate political imagination. Both an inspiring intellectual history and a critique of present power relations, this book suggests that, with democracy under siege across the globe, the black utopian tradition may be our best hope for combating injustice.


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Within the history of African American struggle against racist oppression that often verges on dystopia, a hidden tradition has depicted a transfigured world. Daring to speculate on a future beyond white supremacy, black utopian artists and thinkers offer powerful visions of ways of being that are built on radical concepts of justice and freedom. They imagine a new black c Within the history of African American struggle against racist oppression that often verges on dystopia, a hidden tradition has depicted a transfigured world. Daring to speculate on a future beyond white supremacy, black utopian artists and thinkers offer powerful visions of ways of being that are built on radical concepts of justice and freedom. They imagine a new black citizen who would inhabit a world that soars above all existing notions of the possible. In Black Utopia, Alex Zamalin offers a groundbreaking examination of African American visions of social transformation and their counterutopian counterparts. Considering figures associated with racial separatism, postracialism, anticolonialism, Pan-Africanism, and Afrofuturism, he argues that the black utopian tradition continues to challenge American political thought and culture. Black Utopia spans black nationalist visions of an ideal Africa, the fiction of W. E. B. Du Bois, and Sun Ra's cosmic mythology of alien abduction. Zamalin casts Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler as political theorists and reflects on the antiutopian challenges of George S. Schuyler and Richard Wright. Their thought proves that utopianism, rather than being politically immature or dangerous, can invigorate political imagination. Both an inspiring intellectual history and a critique of present power relations, this book suggests that, with democracy under siege across the globe, the black utopian tradition may be our best hope for combating injustice.

53 review for Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    A forcefully written, wonderfully precise and articulate, and astonishingly concise literary history of black utopian thinking. Rather than an encyclopedic overview, Zamalin wisely selects a few key works by singular black writers from the 19th century onward, describing in vivid detail and fine nuance the resonance their ideas developed with accumulating histories of black utopias.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mike Croghan

    BLACK UTOPIA By Alex Zamalin A REVIEW AND COMMENTARY By Mike Croghan October 26, 2019 I bought Alex Zamalin’s “Black Utopia” because the title got my attention as I browsed a B&N after a long walk. I don’t normally do corporate bookstores, but I was looking for a place to rest and I was anxious to buy a book long at the top of my to-read list. Naturally, they didn’t have my book, but “Utopia” jumped out at me and there was a Starbuck’s where I could start reading while sipping. Although it came on very BLACK UTOPIA By Alex Zamalin A REVIEW AND COMMENTARY By Mike Croghan October 26, 2019 I bought Alex Zamalin’s “Black Utopia” because the title got my attention as I browsed a B&N after a long walk. I don’t normally do corporate bookstores, but I was looking for a place to rest and I was anxious to buy a book long at the top of my to-read list. Naturally, they didn’t have my book, but “Utopia” jumped out at me and there was a Starbuck’s where I could start reading while sipping. Although it came on very slowly, reading Zamalin turned out to be a strong déjà vu thing. For the first many pages, I just thought I was either thick-headed or he was one of those academics whose primary purpose was to bury his reader in an avalanche of big words and hideously long sentences. After about fifty pages, I decided to set the book aside as much too dense and sloggy. Swimming through molasses might describe the experience. Want to see an example? Though Wright’s association with de Beauvoir emerged him in the world of second wave philosophic feminism, [sic] in which womanhood was dialectically defined and made subservient through its antithesis to manhood, his offhand assessment of sex workers as “the only real democrats within reach” sounded off-key --- less like a 1960s sex –positive endorsement of black women’s agency as workers autonomously controlling their labor and more like an oversight of the unequal status of women’s commodification under patriarchy. (Zamalin, p. 88) That enough for yuh? Immediately after deciding to abandon the read, I noticed the next chapter was going to be about my main man, W.E.B. Dubois. That and the fact that I’ve put plenty of interest, study, and writing into the subject of African American history nudged me on. As often happens, I soon picked up a rhythm and understanding for Zamalin’s language and style. The great irony is that ultimately, I recognized them as my own. See, back in my days in academia, I attached myself to a particular and peculiar niche of research and comrades who shared many of the theories and ideals of Karl Marx. Our focus was more on schooling and education than economics and politics. But we know the three cannot be easily separated. Marxism as applied to education is referred to as Critical Pedagogy. I was deep into it and it influenced my goals and vision for educating children and adults (one of the top three pioneers of Critical Pedagogy was Paolo Freire, an internationally renowned Brazilian educator who formulated his theories about learning after years of work with working class urban and rural adults.) When I first got into Critical Pedagogy, the reading was like reading Zamalin. After some months, however, my pace and comprehension picked up. So did my writing style. It was like acquiring a second language; as you get into it, it becomes part of you and with more exposure and practice, it becomes yours. For the past several years, however, I’ve been away from academic literature generally and Critical Pedagogy in particular and so, like any language, my fluency has atrophied for lack of practice. Along with the murky schlep through Zamalin’s prose, I realized I’d started the book with a mistaken mindset that threw me way off. I expected to learn about Black utopian experiments back in the day. For me, a utopia is a community experiment tried by similar-minded people to share work, social life, and live a separate and independent existence from the larger society. Only after a hundred pages or so did I tumble to the fact that Zamalin’s definition of utopia refers to Black novelists and intellectuals who wrote about their ideal visions of separate, liberated, and Black civilizations led by Black people. He drives more at macro solutions such as fictional and idealistic nation states and colonies proffered by great Black thinkers than tried, actual communities. Zamalin himself addresses his unique and, I would argue, strange definition of utopia when in the first sentence of his Conclusion, he writes, “Over the past several decades utopian imaginings have largely been abandoned.” (p. 137); imaginings, not actual experiments. Zamalin is working off of his rather unique definition of Utopia – different from mine, and, I’d guess, most readers. His utopia is found only in the vision and dreams of idealists and the dialogue of fictional characters they create in their literary works. He’s not about the more common understanding of the word as a real life social experiment in daily communal living. As a case in point, I was hoping to get some insight into the Nation of Islam. Not because I am or was a great fan. My experiences with the Nation were not happy ones. First, I thought their leader, Elijah Mohammad, was a twisted charlatan, a hollow man. I was outraged when he put out a contract on Malcolm. And I had some personal run-ins with members of the Nation that left me feeling threatened and pissed off. Until some of the Panthers stepped in to protect me. But more on that at another time. It was just a small part of a White man’s learning, living, and working in Oakland’s “ghetto” back in the day. Even with my personal disgust with the Nation and Elijah, I was interested in and supportive of the Black Muslims’ ideals and vision to establish a utopia in Black urban communities across America. (Actually, Elijah and The Nation’s thinkers and visionaries held as their ultimate goal a separate and independent Black state carved out of the US.) Their approach to substance abuse helped rescue thousands from their addiction miseries. Moreover, their teachings of pride, brotherhood, and sisterhood inspired many to become active community members, and finally, if you dared to enter, you couldn’t find a better bakery goodie than at the Shabazz. The Nation was, for me, a classic experiment of a Black utopia. Within an urban context no less. So naturally, I was expecting a book called Black Utopia to tell me something about The Nation and/or experiments like it. Nary a word mentioned. Weird, right? All of the examples of Black utopias that Zamalin brings to his book are the writings and public comments of novelists and intellectuals, most of whom, in my experience, are unknown, all of whom are mid twentieth century at the latest, none of whom actually put their ideals to the test. Elijah Mohammad, crooked and contemptible though he was, gave thousands of people a reason to believe in themselves and their individual and collective power. He did what utopians have done throughout the ages, some with more success than others. Even as the Nation dissolved from a force to a shadow, it deserves a mention if not a chapter in any book titled Black Utopia. Of course, it must be said that the opportunity to live in the Black community allowed me to see Black Muslims and their ideals up close. Perhaps my disappointment with Zamalin’s oversight is more about an old man’s nostalgia than his flub. Put more simply, Zamalin is working off of his rather unique definition of utopia found in the vision and dreams of authors who create dialogue for fictional characters in literary works and not about the more common understanding of the word as a real life social experiment in daily communal living. I mentioned earlier contemptible figures. Zamalin DOES provide historical context for some contemporary contemptible figures like Clarence Thomas. A chapter is dedicated to each of two nineteenth century figures Zamalin puts in his pantheon of Black utopians; Martin Robison Delany and George S. Schuyler. Born in 1812, Delaney spent his early writing and political advocacy as a protégé of Frederick Douglass. Soon, however, he went his own way advocating that a genuine liberation of African Americans could only be realized by jettisoning the American part. He became what was known as an ‘emigrationist’ and searched for ways to establish a colony of Black folks in Central or South America. Kicked out of Harvard Med School for being a racist, he re-located to Canada and from there, arranged a treaty with a leader in the Yoruba nation for a chunk of territory in what is now Nigeria It wasn’t Delany’s emigrationist concept that reminds me of Clarence. It’s much more about his crazy racism, dizzying contradictions, and service to White power and control. Follow these if you can: Delany dreams of African American colonies in Central or South America or West Africa, virulently opposes the American Colonization Society (ACS, an organization of White segregationists who opposed slavery and supported the forced deportation of African Americans [free and enslaved] to Africa), enlists to fight in the Union Army, follows that service by strongly supporting the ACS; then advocates for a racist candidate for governor of South Carolina during Reconstruction when White Southerners were gaining traction with their Jim Crow laws, producing organizations like the Klan, and replacing the terror of slavery with the terror of lynching. And, not at all distant from Clarence’s perspective, Delany, “. . . insisted slavery was a civilizing institution which earned him the admiration of white supremacists and conservatives alike.” (Zamalin, p. 20) An even stronger connection between the two is the fact that both ignored and dismissed the creation of wealth among Whites and oppression of Blacks that is in the DNA of capitalism while snapping the whip of hard work and tugging on the bootstraps for young Blacks with calls like, “Let our young men and women prepare themselves for usefulness and business.” (Quoted in Zamalin, p. 23) Delany’s and Clarence’s call isn’t at issue. What’s at issue is that their call sounds more like an admonishment of Black folks, an admonishment that forgets that young Black men and women are already pretty busy surviving the oppressions of slavery and racism. Also at issue is the presence of blame the victim and absence of indict the perps. To conclude, I was glad I stuck with Black Utopia. It wasn’t a Wow! read by any stretch, but I learned from the book. Zamalin presents important factors and features of African American thinkers and advocates for justice. He also gives insight to the thinking and vision of some African American far right conservative thinkers and intellectuals, something I think we all need to know more about. For more information about the book or the author, you can go to these websites. https://www.udmercy.edu/about/people/... https://cup.columbia.edu/book/black-u... Thanks for reading. Mike Croghan 10-31-2019

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jake

    This is a really good introduction to the history of black utopian thought, though Zamalin's analysis is too narrowly focused on utopianism in fiction. Zamalin does analyze black utopianism in some nonfiction, like Richard Wright's books, and in music in the case of Sun Ra. But, for the most part, it is limited to a consideration of black utopian fiction. That in itself is not a bad thing, but the topic begs for a longer story beyond fiction writing, especially considering the Aaron Douglas pain This is a really good introduction to the history of black utopian thought, though Zamalin's analysis is too narrowly focused on utopianism in fiction. Zamalin does analyze black utopianism in some nonfiction, like Richard Wright's books, and in music in the case of Sun Ra. But, for the most part, it is limited to a consideration of black utopian fiction. That in itself is not a bad thing, but the topic begs for a longer story beyond fiction writing, especially considering the Aaron Douglas painting on the cover and many short references to African American music throughout the book. Utopianism in the visual arts is not discussed, and the utopianism in political action is only discussed in relation to the fiction that is being directly considered. So there is no direct analysis of political figures in the Civil Rights movement or Black Panther Party, for example. All that being said, this book is awesome in that it brings black utopianism into the broader discussion of utopianism, which usually focuses solely on Marxism, socialism, or intentional communities. Zamalin shows that black utopianism has been developing since the nineteenth century alongside other strains of utopian thought, though it has had concerns particular to the African American experience and postcolonial experience. Black utopianism has gone through many phases, and Zamalin narrates a similar trajectory commonly applied to socialist utopianism: wholly or partially rejected by the 1980s/1990s, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union. Black utopianism thus hasn't been isolated from other utopian philosophies or politics, it has co-evolved with Marxism, feminism, gender & sexual equality, etc. This book, or the topic itself, would definitely benefit from an extended analysis that broadened the range of sources beyond fiction to include music, painting, nonfiction, political action, and film.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    This is an excellent overview of utopian and antiutopian African American literature. Alex Zamalin uses a selection of Black authors to make the point that utopia has been a useful tool to explore, discuss, and engage with the plight of the African disapora. Sometimes it unifies, sometimes it criticizes, sometimes it divides, and sometimes it celebrates. After a thorough introduction, Zamalin dives into the meat of his argument, using each chapter to closely examine one to a few works by a single This is an excellent overview of utopian and antiutopian African American literature. Alex Zamalin uses a selection of Black authors to make the point that utopia has been a useful tool to explore, discuss, and engage with the plight of the African disapora. Sometimes it unifies, sometimes it criticizes, sometimes it divides, and sometimes it celebrates. After a thorough introduction, Zamalin dives into the meat of his argument, using each chapter to closely examine one to a few works by a single author. He relates the works to the idea of utopia, compares and contrasts to other works by other authors, and explains how it related to its time and continues to relate to the temporally unanchored concepts of freedom, racism, postracialism, socialism, liberalism, and much more. Each chapter moves forward in time, starting in the 1800s and going up until the late 20th century. With each author, Zamalin reveals the importance of his or her work, and how each work influenced that which came later. It is a beautiful exploration of ideas and reveals how much the time and place affects authors and their views, and how much those same authors helped shape the ideas that followed. To see this concept laid out so well brought a unifying power to utopian thought. Even at the end of the argument, when Zamalin talks of the end of utopian interest, there is a sense that utopia is still an important facet of philosophical exploration, and that perhaps it may reemerge as an important communication tool given the current political climate. This academic treatise is thought provoking and well argued. I'd definitely recommend. Four out of five. Only thing limiting its score is that I feel more could have been written yet.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Two things I felt like this book needed: 1. A good editing. This text is very academic. And while I don’t think that it needs to be edited to have lay-person’s syntax, I did think the sentence structure was all over the place. Some sentences had words in them that didn’t make sense. 2. Elaboration. The Zamalin seems to end where figures and their works support his thesis. For example, Schuyler’s early works are examined but Zamalin doesn’t account for Schuyler’s change to a conservative, Republica Two things I felt like this book needed: 1. A good editing. This text is very academic. And while I don’t think that it needs to be edited to have lay-person’s syntax, I did think the sentence structure was all over the place. Some sentences had words in them that didn’t make sense. 2. Elaboration. The Zamalin seems to end where figures and their works support his thesis. For example, Schuyler’s early works are examined but Zamalin doesn’t account for Schuyler’s change to a conservative, Republican outlook later in life. I think other chapters would have benefited from a larger life picture of those portrayed. At only 144 pages, an additional 60 wouldn’t have made the book unwieldy, but could have given great elaboration on terminology and life bios and analysis. Otherwise, I thought this was a good analysis. My library had this in the 305’s - but I think the 800s might be a better placement since Zamalin focuses on close readings of texts (with a deviation of Sun Ra’s chapter). You’ll leave this one with tons on your TBR as you will want to go back and read a lot of the texts mentioned. A great primer on Black Utopianism and Afrofuturism.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Justin

    I really like this project conceptually, but the scope is too broad. It's a gloss on a certain idea of the Black Radical Tradition that covers many figures and a wide temporal breadth, but betrays a shallow engagement with any particularities. Case in point is that in the span of one sentence, Zamalin manages to mispell the names of both "Paul Lawrence Dunbar" and "Charles Chestnutt" (41). (It should be Laurence and Chesnutt, by the way.) It's pretty clear from that level of unfortunate sloppine I really like this project conceptually, but the scope is too broad. It's a gloss on a certain idea of the Black Radical Tradition that covers many figures and a wide temporal breadth, but betrays a shallow engagement with any particularities. Case in point is that in the span of one sentence, Zamalin manages to mispell the names of both "Paul Lawrence Dunbar" and "Charles Chestnutt" (41). (It should be Laurence and Chesnutt, by the way.) It's pretty clear from that level of unfortunate sloppiness as well as how short each chapter is, that Zamalin has only a passing familiarity with many of these figures and is instead just interested in doing a particular close reading. It would be too much to expect more out of a project with such a big scope (and I do sort of like the large scope), but that ends up being the tradeoff. It's still a pretty good book and definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the Black Radical Tradition, but it leaves a lot of room to flesh out some of these ideas.

  7. 5 out of 5

    leni terese

    Full disclosure: I skim-read this as I needed to see if it were relevant to my master thesis. I also excluded three chapters due to lack of relevance. It did feel somewhat general but also specific at the same time. Will have to read this again in the future, which may change the rating given now.

  8. 4 out of 5

    فراس

    excellent book that covers an expanse of time, space, and genre while maintaining a singular focus (who doesn't like a good paradox?) definitely interested in reading more of this author's work, whose style i found reminiscent of the black feminist tradition in clarity and directness. excellent book that covers an expanse of time, space, and genre while maintaining a singular focus (who doesn't like a good paradox?) definitely interested in reading more of this author's work, whose style i found reminiscent of the black feminist tradition in clarity and directness.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Marissa L

    Elegantly written and very informative. This book inspired me to go even further with my reading and understanding of Black Utopian thought.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Suzie Hunt

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Tanners

  12. 4 out of 5

    Josue Acosta

  13. 5 out of 5

    Anusha Pandey

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jaylani Adam

  15. 4 out of 5

    Christelle

  16. 5 out of 5

    Felicity Baines

  17. 4 out of 5

    Devante Tierell

  18. 5 out of 5

    Adam

  19. 5 out of 5

    Dorthe Pedersen

  20. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sean Golden

  22. 5 out of 5

    Andrew De jong

  23. 4 out of 5

    Christy

  24. 4 out of 5

    Third Stone

  25. 4 out of 5

    Alex Smith

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sasha

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lu McFarlane

  28. 5 out of 5

    Morris Jones

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ian Wickstead

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kaela

  31. 4 out of 5

    Molly Roach

  32. 4 out of 5

    Julia Goolsby

  33. 4 out of 5

    Third Stone

  34. 5 out of 5

    Jae Johnson

  35. 5 out of 5

    ONYX Pages

  36. 5 out of 5

    Heather

  37. 4 out of 5

    Jorie W

  38. 4 out of 5

    LaShonda

  39. 4 out of 5

    Rafa Kern

  40. 5 out of 5

    Zoe Dennhardt

  41. 4 out of 5

    Alex Walker

  42. 4 out of 5

    Akia Lang

  43. 5 out of 5

    Jeanne-irene Zimmermann

  44. 4 out of 5

    Emily

  45. 4 out of 5

    Tait Jensen

  46. 4 out of 5

    Johnny

  47. 4 out of 5

    Justin Leroux

  48. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

  49. 5 out of 5

    N Chooms

  50. 5 out of 5

    Ro

  51. 5 out of 5

    Ginger

  52. 5 out of 5

    Drake Bonin

  53. 5 out of 5

    Nia

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