The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home
African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion

John Cullen Gruesser

New insight into how African Americans viewed imperialism


"The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home is a major achievement, a striking contribution to our understanding of African American literary and political history. Gruesser demonstrates authoritatively that literature is not simply a revealing supplement to the down-and-dirty history of empire and race but rather the major means by which that history emerged and took its tangled shape. Along the way, he reminds us that we have barely begun to piece together a just understanding of early-twentieth-century African American writing. Our debt to Gruesser's painstaking research will, I predict, be great."
—John Ernest, author of Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History

"Looking at late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American writers' responses to U.S. imperialist expansion abroad, Gruesser expands our understanding of African American literature of the period and also of U.S. history, showing that African American commitment to antiracism did not stop at the nation's borders. An important book for scholars and general readers alike."
—Elizabeth Ammons, author of Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet

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In The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home, John Cullen Gruesser establishes that African American writers at the turn of the twentieth century responded extensively and idiosyncratically to overseas expansion and its implications for domestic race relations. He contends that the work of these writers significantly informs not only African American literary studies but also U.S. political history.

Focusing on authors who explicitly connect the empire abroad and the empire at home (James Weldon Johnson, Sutton Griggs, Pauline E. Hopkins, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others), Gruesser examines U.S. black participation in, support for, and resistance to expansion. Race consistently trumped empire for African American writers, who adopted positions based on the effects they believed expansion would have on blacks at home. Given the complexity of the debates over empire and rapidity with which events in the Caribbean and the Pacific changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it should come as no surprise that these authors often did not maintain fixed positions on imperialism. Their stances depended on several factors, including the foreign location, the presence or absence of African American soldiers within a particular text, the stage of the author's career, and a given text's relationship to specific generic and literary traditions.

No matter what their disposition was toward imperialism, the fact of U.S. expansion allowed and in many cases compelled black writers to grapple with empire. They often used texts about expansion to address the situation facing blacks at home during a period in which their citizenship rights, and their very existence, were increasingly in jeopardy.

Page count: 168 pp.
1 figure
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Professor of English at Kean University, John Cullen Gruesser is the author or editor of eight books, including Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic (Georgia) and Loopholes and Retreats: African American Writers and the Nineteenth Century.