Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem A Novel
by Sutton Griggs
We talk about taking it back just about every week over here, and in truth that has always been the intent of Free Reading. Our goal here has always been to bring you works by some of the founding members of Science Fiction, particularly those that are in the Public Domain. In addition to providing you with free books to read, we hope you will embark on this journey into Science Fiction with us. As students of Science Fiction, we hope that you will become students yourselves, so that you can see various iterations and perspectives in the genre. There are many who fear or disparage Science Fiction, I think, unfairly. They have this monolithic view of what it is. In their minds many think it is a bunch of nerds nerding out over science. And much of it is. But there is a difference between what we imagine and what we dream.
Sutton Griggs dreamt something. He was born to a father, a former slave, and represented the first generation of blacks in the United States who weren’t born to chains. We have only to read his book “Imperium in Imperio: A study of the Negro Race Problem a Novel”, to see what he, and others were dreaming of at the time. It gives us some notion of what first generation free men and women might have been thinking or might have wanted. More directly than almost any other genre, and thankfully without an overabundance of sentimentality, Science Fiction tells the reader what the writer is dreaming of. Whether it be a space ship, time travel, or in the case of this novel, a country of one’s own.
Here is where you might disagree a bit. In recent years I have seen this idea that Science Fiction as a genre is incomplete on its own. People who write in other genres, have taken to grafting their narratives to, or inserting them into Science Fiction worlds. Often I see films with components of magical realism that are labeled as Sci-Fi. This does a disservice to Sci-Fi and all those who have spent countless hours mastering the craft. For it is a very specific craft. A more alarming trend I have seen, is this idea that there is some role for Science Fiction in activism. Even the Wikipedia page that details some of the life and works of Sutton Granger refer to him as an “activist”. It made me wonder if he would subscribe to that description of himself were he alive today. Something in me highly doubts it.
I have seen books and collections of essays written under the auspices of “science fiction in activism” or “activism in science fiction”, which in and of itself does not represent any realy offense. It is simply odd. But when spoken of in these terms, it is done so in a way that makes it seem as though Science Fiction needed some activist element since it was merely laying around on a dusty shelf waiting for some nerd to come along and do something with. What’s worse, is that it is spoken of in this way by people who have no real knowledge of what Science Fiction is. They believe that by taking selfies in front of a blue police box, or a red Star Trek uniform, they have somehow gained even a journeyman’s understanding of what Science Fiction is. And I contend that a lack of understanding of what Sci-Fi is means, by extension, they don’t really know what Sci-Fi is. It could, by any standard definition, be considered an appropriation. And a cynical appropriation at that.
Sutton Granger was probably not an activist. To the mind of a person, by virtue of not living in the 19th century, privileged, it may appear to be activism. Granger was likely fighting for his survival, and for the survival of his people. He wrote books for black audiences, and stories in which he dreamt of a country for his people. And he published these works despite the potential to create problems for himself. Don’t get me wrong I am a firm believer in activism (though largely not symbolic protest), but it can do its thing without appropriating the spaces of others as it was designed to prevent, not encourage. And it can be done with creating cheap and thin archetypes whose sole purpose is peddling the new hybridized narrative. The reason I say this is not because I believe that Science Fiction and activism can’t co-exist. I say it because Science Fiction is activism. It doesn’t need the tacit approval or branding of activism to make its point.
Octavia Butler mader her point and told her stories without that brand. She decimated the notion of white, male, Sci-Fi writers, and she didn’t need an activist standing next to her or cheering her on to do it. Samuel Delaney, whose first book challenging mainstream ideas about sexuality and gender identity won a Hugo in 1975. He challenged these ideas largely in the minds of white men, and continues to today. Just as Granger wrote his works, and sold them door to door without the label or the brand. The writing was the brand, and it was the message. It was not some ham handed attempt to insert some [subversive] message into a Science Fiction story. It was subversive.
While this particular work cannot be called hard Sci-Fi, it can definitely be called a utopian novel, and perhaps a Utopian Alternate History. Admittedly I found many of the elements in the book disturbing and quite clearly not Utopian. Griggs tackles racism and disenfranchisement of blacks, as well as colorism within the black community. It is particularly interesting because it is a type of Science Fiction that predates the Golden Age of Sci-Fi by some forty years, was written by a black man in a time when the subject matter could get a black man killed, and he dreamt.
Here is the link to your free e-book!: Imperio in Imperium