Book Review: The Siege of Harlem, Warren Miller (1964)

2/5 (Bad)

Over the last year, I acquired three near-future SF novels exploring issues of race conflict in New York City written by authors of different racial backgrounds (White, African American, and Chicano): Warren Miller’s The Siege of Harlem (1964); John A. Williams’ Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light: A Novel of Some Probability (1969); and Enrique Hank Lopez’s Afro-6 (1969). I’ve decided to review them in chronological order.

Warren Miller (1921-1966), best known for The Cool World (1959) and Looking for The General (1964), wrote fiction that often dealt with issues of race. The Cool World attempted to “capture the argot of the streets of Harlem in the late 50s” and give a sympathetic look at the realities of black urban life. Considering his output, I was excited to track down a copy of The Siege of Harlem (1964), his final novel before his premature death.

A generation after Harlem declares its independence as a separatist black Islamic state, a narrator retells the struggle to his grandchildren: “I will now pursue the tale of the most significant occasion I have ever seen in the history of the world, which was the day that Harlem turned a blind face to the city of New York and originated itself as one of the great black capitals of this earth” (7). Intended as a comedy, the tangential narrative threads and a muddled critique (if intended) of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus and/or Disney’s Song of the South (1946) glosses over the systemic racism of the 50s and 60s that led to Malcolm X’s brand of Islamic black nationalism within the Civil Rights movement.

I found The Siege of Harlem a bizarre reading experience. The romance between the new President of Harlem Lance Huggins (a former U.S. Congressman) and Miss Brindle takes up at least half the short volume. The story of the revolt and its aftermath are the most compelling elements. Maybe Miller chose the focus as commentary on the creation of a triumphalist national narrative–the heroic figure of Lance and the wooing of his love. If so, it should be more overt.

What are we supposed to be laughing at? The intended target would reveal Miller’s own take on the scenario. Is it a meta chuckle at the narratological act reducing a violent uprising due to systematic racism to a trite love story? Is it a belly rumble aimed at the old African American man (a re-imagined future Uncle Remus figure) trying to tell a story to his grandchildren without precocious interruptions? Are we supposed to laugh at the unsubstantiated causes and reasons for the rebellion waged with “sly and cunning hands” (11) and pathetic attempts by the “Privileged People” (14) to reconquer Harlem? Or a combination of the above?

Miller’s target and his political aims are unclear and muddled by the structure and telling of the story. Often framing narratives serve as commentaries on story telling. If that is the case, is this a meta meta parodic laugh at the deeply problematic Uncle Remus stories themselves? i.e. imagine if the contemporary struggles of the early 1960s were reduced to whimsy and fun that covers up all the trauma and scars. The Remus stories, compiled in 1881 by the white southerner Joel Chandler Harris after the end of Reconstruction, focused on a narrator of African American folktales and attempted to reproduce a Deep South Black dialect (Wikipedia). Disney adapted them as the Song of the South (1946). I’m not sure this makes the novel more successful. While far from as egregious as the critical reception of Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin (1975), an animated satire of Song of the South (1946) set in Harlem, it’s hard not to conclude the caricature of the narrator and the use of dialect isn’t racist. At the time, reviewers such as John Baldwin praised his use of dialect in earlier novels (obituary).

But just like Uncle Remus obfuscated the real suffering of sharecropping in the Reconstruction South, the human toll and reasons for the revolt in Harlem revolt are hidden and re-conceptualized as silly tales of love and daring and triumph. An Uncle Remus parody simultaneously cheapens the topic itself–the real suffering of African American communities in the 1960s that led to protest, the urban riots of the 1964, and Malcolm X’s brand of Islamic black nationalism. The brutal reality of the revolt does creep out at moments from the humorous way of telling. The participants are impoverished, starving, and their new nation has little resources. The soldiers of the “Privileged People” attempt to convince black militia members to desert by offering them emblems of suburban middle-class life: “a color teevee set; a complete set of forty copper-bottomed pots and pans; an electric swizzle stick; a lifetime subscription to House & Garden magazine” (14). Despite its moments, I can’t help but conclude that The Siege of Harlem is a misguided and muddled satire.

I can only recommend Miller’s novel to those interested in race and science fiction. A worthwhile artifact of the era rather than an engaging/powerful reading experience.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Siege of Harlem, Warren Miller (1964)

    • It’s very confusing. My impression from his larger output is that it’s well-intention but… misguided (and that might be putting it mildly). If it’s intended as a satire of the creation of nationalists narratives, why make it about the creation of a black separatist state?

      None of it makes sense.

  1. Thanks for the hyperlink to the PorPor Books review of ‘Cool World’.

    I have a copy of ‘The Siege of Harlem’ stored away somewhere, I may have to dig it out and give it a whirl………

    • No problem. I get the sense from your review of The Cool World that it’s a gritty slice-of-life type tale — and sympathetic to its characters and their struggles. That approach would have served this similarly gritty subject matter far better than its weird attempt at trite comedy.

  2. I keep coming back to your blog because you’ve read/catalogued so many stories that you are able to compare books by theme this way. Looking forward to the next two posts.

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