(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Sport of the Gods is Paul Laurence Dunbar’s last novel and in many respects his best. It is the story of the destruction of the Hamilton family, who fall from their status as relatively stable sharecroppers in an unnamed southern city to imprisonment and degradation in New York City. The novel combines the conventions of naturalism and sentimental fiction to give readers one of the first descriptions of the effect of city life on African Americans.

The first chapters of the novel describe the idyllic life of Berry and Fannie Hamilton and their two children, Joe and Kitty. Berry and Fannie are the trusted servants of the wealthy white Oakley family, former slave owners who have managed to regain some of the wealth they lost during the Civil War. The happy arrangement is soon lost, however, when Francis Oakley, the dilettante artist half brother of Maurice Oakley, reports the theft of nearly a thousand dollars from his room. Suspicion immediately falls on Berry, who has recently deposited a large sum of money in the bank. The narrator reports caustically the observations of many of the local whites, who believe that African Americans could become wealthy only through theft. After a speedy trial, Berry is sentenced to ten years of hard labor in prison.

This sudden overturning of the southern romance plot is continued through the relocation of the three remaining family members, Fannie, Joe, and Kitty, to New York City. Hoping to...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

The Sport of the Gods Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After the Civil War, Maurice Oakley, a southern businessman, was able to recover his fortune quickly because of his prudence. Maurice is more than generous in supporting his younger half brother, Frank, who is studying art in Paris; he is also generous to his African American servant, Berry Hamilton.

On the last night of one of Frank’s brief visits home, a jolly going-away party is held, but the party is spoiled for the brothers when Frank discovers that the money for his trip has been stolen; he had left the money, $986, in his room. Maurice says that the crime does not embarrass him financially—he can resupply Frank with funds—but he is hurt by the fact that a friend or employee would steal from his house. Suspicion falls on Berry, who is the only person other than Frank who had been alone in the room. When it is discovered that Berry deposited a large sum in the bank on the day after the theft, Maurice and the police feel that the case against Berry is proved. Although Berry’s years of loyal service show that such stealing is very out of character for him, the servant receives a ten-year prison sentence.

Among the town’s whites, Berry’s alleged criminal behavior confirms their belief in the natural depravity of blacks. Ironically, the town’s African Americans are almost as prejudiced against Berry as are the whites. Berry’s son, Joe, is fired from his barbershop job, and no one else will hire him because of the family disgrace. For the same reason, no fellow African American will rent rooms to Berry’s wife, Fannie, when she needs quarters. Berry’s family members make the momentous decision to relocate to New York City. Although Fannie is afraid that her children might succumb to the temptations of urban life, the family has to start anew in order to survive.

Fannie’s fears prove all too justified. Joe is the first to fall. As a first-class barber in a whites-only establishment in the South, he had listened enviously as the town’s young blades had recounted their high-living exploits. In New York, he finds that even African Americans can aspire to such aristocratic dissipation. Becoming friends with the sporting character...

(The entire section is 894 words.)