Sutton Griggs Essay - Critical Essays

Griggs, Sutton


Griggs, Sutton 1872-1930

(full name Sutton Elbert Griggs) American novelist and nonfiction writer.

On the strength of his five novels, Griggs became an influential figure in African-American fiction during the period between Reconstruction and the Depression. His influence rests not on his ability as a craftsman—critics have tended to judge Griggs's work harshly for its limits in characterization and plot—but on his political foresight. Written in an age characterized by "Jim Crow" laws and militant white supremacy, works such as Imperium in Imperio (1899) called for blacks to take action against whites in order to establish a separate nation in the Southeast. Few were prepared to take the steps demanded by Griggs; only in a later era would African-American critics pay homage to an author who, in spite of his shortcomings as a stylist, offered sometimes uncannily accurate political prophecies.

Biographical Information

Born the son of a Baptist minister, Griggs grew up in Texas, and graduated from Bishop College in the town of Marshall in 1890. He attended Richmond Theological Seminary, finishing in 1893. Following his ordination, he assumed his first pastorate in Berkley, Virginia. In 1895 he moved to Tennessee, first to East Nashville and then Memphis, and in 1897 married Emma Williams. The couple had no children, and for the next three decades Griggs would devote himself to his church and his writing. Griggs wrote five novels and published them—at his own expense—over a period of nine years. As a selfpublished author with a high personal stake in his books' success, he sold them door-to-door, which one critic has cited as a reason for the greater impact of his work over that of contemporary Charles Chesnutt. But Griggs turned to nonfiction following the publication of his last novel in 1908, producing a number of full-length books and tracts on issues of concern to African Americans. His philosophy had mellowed over the years, and whereas he had begun by implicitly advocating armed struggle against the white government of the United States, he ultimately became more accommodationist in his views. His financial losses from his books ended a plan to rebuild his Memphis church, and in the latter years of his life Griggs returned to Texas. There he became pastor of his father's old church in Denison, then moved to a position as leader of a Baptist organization in Houston just before his death.

Major Works

Griggs's primary impact came through his novels, and secondarily by means of nonfiction works such as Wisdom's Call (1911). Among the themes of his fiction are racial violence; the need for a separate black nation; questions of racial purity arising from the mixing of bloodlines because of white men raping black women; and the endurance of suffering by patient black characters, usually women. By far the most significant of his novels is his first, Imperium in Imperio, whose two central figures are the dark-skinned and poor Belton Piedmont and his friend Bernard Belgrave. Bernard is lightskinned, and he lives well because his mother is "kept" by a white man—presumably his father—yet he proves the more politically radical of the two friends. He becomes leader of the "Imperium in Imperio" (Empire within the Empire), a black nationalist movement, whereas Bernard dies of execution by the Imperium for his failure to support its radical plan to wage war on the United States. The novel is filled with improbable events, including Belton's miraculous survival of hanging, shooting, and an attempted dissection; or the suicide of Bernard's fiancee Viola, who kills herself rather than contribute to further miscegenation by marrying a mulatto. Belton, Bernard, and Viola—respectively the cautious conservative, the hot-headed revolutionary, and the longsuffering woman who accepts death before dishonor—reappear in other Griggs novels. In Unfettered (1902), for instance, there is the passive Harry Dalton, the "ebony-like Apollo" Dorian Worthell, and the woman they both love, Morlene. White characters are often vicious race-baiters like Horace Christian in Overshadowed (1901), who keeps a black mistress; but in The Hindered Hand (1905) a white prosecutor risks his reputation in an unsuccessful bid to bring a lynch mob to justice. Pointing the Way (1908), Griggs's last and least critically acclaimed novel, was also his most accommodationist in tone. It involves a wide array of characers and a confusing plot, but at the center of it are familiar Griggs characters such as the heroic Baug Peppers, who ultimately brings a case before the Supreme Court, and his mixed-race bride, Eina. After Pointing the Way, Griggs turned to nonfiction, producing works such as Wisdom's Call, in which he developed themes of black self-reliance that had appeared in his novels. The Story of My Struggles (1914) presented those ideas in an autobiogrphical light; and in works such as Life's Demands (1916) and Guide to Racial Greatness (1923), Griggs applied his considerable learning in the natural and social sciences to questions that concerned African-Americans of his day.

Principal Works

Imperium in Imperio (novel) 1899

Overshadowed (novel) 1901

Unfettered (novel) 1902

The Hindered Hand; or, The Reign of the Repressionist (novel) 1905

Pointing the Way (novel) 1908

The Race Question in a New Light (nonfiction) 1909; enlarged as Wisdom's Call, 1911

The Story of My Struggles (autobiography) 1914

Life's Demands; or, According to the Law (nonfiction) 1916

Guide to Racial Greatness; or, The Science of Collective Efficiency (nonfiction) 1923


Hugh M. Gloster (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "The Negro in American Fiction," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter, 1943, pp. 335-45.

[In the following essay, Gloster profiles Griggs as a leader among those African-American novelists whose work challenged racial stereotypes portrayed in the writings of white Southerners such as Thomas Dixon.]

During the period of disfranchisement Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, Jr., were outstanding among those Southern writers who abetted anti-Negro legislative action by showing the black man to disadvantage before the American reading public. Page was preeminently the perpetuator of the plantation motif which had received emphasis before the Civil War in the works of such writers as John Pendleton Kennedy, W. A. Carruthers, John Eston Cooke, and James W. Hungerford. In the opinion of Page, the ante-bellum South enshrined the "sweetest, purest, and most beautiful civilization" the nation has ever known; and in such works as In Ole Virginia, or Marse Chan and Other Stories (1887), The Old South (1892), and Social Life in Old Virginia (1897) he paints a gorgeous plantation scene peopled by chivalric, benevolent aristocrats and contented, doting slaves. But Page was more than the retrospective romancer of a vanished feudal society: he was also the ardent sponsor of a reconstructed South in which the Negro would be kept in a subordinate position. In this latter capacity he helped to expedite disfranchisement and other legalized handicaps applied to freedmen. His novel Red Rock (1898), for example, is chiefly an apotheosis of Southern bluebloods and a disparagement of scalawags, carpetbaggers, Negro politicians and Northern missionaries. A more forthright statement of his racial attitude, however, is given in "The Negro Question," an essay in which he, after marshaling arguments to prove the backwardness and inferiority of the black man, states

These examples cited, if they establish anything, establish the fact that the Negro race does not possess, in any development which he has yet attained, the elements of character, the essential qualifications to conduct a government, even for himself; and that if the reins of government be intrusted to his unaided hands, he will fling reason to the winds and drive to ruin.1

Though demanding Anglo-Saxon supremacy, Page at least approved educated Negroes who "knew their place," and never attempted to exculpate the Ku Klux Klan of all guilt for lawlessness. On the other hand, Dixon voiced the very epitome of Negrophobia in two novels which he describes as follows

. . . . The Leopard's Spots was the statement in historical outline of the conditions from the enfranchisement of the Negro to his disfranchisement.

The Clansman develops the true story of the "Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy," which overturned the Reconstruction régime.2

As a matter of fact, neither of the two works is a realistic rendering of history. Betraying its incendiary sensationalism by such chapter titles as "A Thousand-Legged Beast" and "The Black Peril," The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865-1900 (1902) is mainly concerned with complimenting the slaveholding landlords; attacking the carpetbaggers, scalawags, Freedmen's Bureau, Northern missionaries, and Negro politicians and intellectuals; ridiculing Yankees whose liberal racial theories do not obtain in actual social situations; establishing the Negro as a degenerate, inferior, irresponsible, bestial creature, "transformed by the exigency of war from a chattel to be bought and sold into a possible beast to be feared and guarded";3 decrying intermarriage because it would destroy through Africanization the racial integrity of the Anglo-Saxon; and extolling the Invisible Empire as the defender of the weak, the expeller of thieves and parasites, the preserver of Aryan culture, and "the old answer of organized manhood to organized crime."4 The eulogy of the Invisible Empire is continued in The Clansman; An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), dedicated to the author's uncle, a former Grand Titan of the hooded order, and converted in 1916 by D. W. Griffith into The Birth of a Nation, one of the most popular and inflammatory box-office attractions in the history of the American motion picture industry.

Aroused by the literary libels of the schools of Page and Dixon as well as by political, social, and economic discrimination and persecution, Negro authors undertook to offset the misrepresentations of Southern propagandists by defending and glorifying the black man. Among the Negro fictionists of the fin de siécle and of the first decade of the present century, who participated in this campaign of racial apology and extollrnent were Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Charles W. Chesnutt, J. McHenry Jones, Pauline E. Hopkins, Charles Henry Fowler, G. Langhorne Pryor, George Marion McClellan, J. W. Grant, and Sutton E. Griggs. In this group Griggs was outstanding because of his productivity and influence.

The author of five race-motivated novels—Imperium in Imperio (1899), Overshadowed (1901), Unfettered (1902), The Hindered Hand (1905), and Pointing the Way (1908)—Griggs not only operated his own publishing company but also, during his travels as a prominent minister and orator, promoted an extensive sale of his works among the black masses of the country. Though virtually unknown to white American readers, his novels were probably more popular among the rank and file of Negroes than the fiction of Chesnutt and Dunbar. Militant and assertive, Griggs chronicled the passing of the servile black man and hailed the advent of the intellectually emancipated Negro

The cringing, fawning, sniffling, cowardly Negro which slavery left, had disappeared, and a new Negro, self-respecting, fearless and determined in the assertion of his rights, was at hand.5

In view of Griggs' active literary career and forthright demands for racial justice, it is somewhat surprising that but one historian of twentieth century Negro literature6 has mentioned his work as a novelist and that no scholar in this field has treated at length the significance of his contribution.

Griggs' first novel, Imperium in Imperio, is a fantastic account of a national Negro political organization. The main characters are dark-skinned Belton Piedmont and mulatto Bernard Belgrave, graduates of Stowe (Roger Williams?) and Harvard universities respectively. Invited by Piedmont, Fairfax joins the Imperium in Imperio, an agency secretly formed "to unite all Negroes in a body to do that which the whimpering government childishly but truthfully" said it could not do. Elected president of the Imperium, Fairfax urges the open revolt of the Negro and proposes a demand for the surrender of Texas and Louisiana, the former to be retained and the latter to be ceded to foreign allies in return for aid. Opposing Fairfax, Piedmont advocates that Negroes voluntarily segregate themselves in Texas to work out their destiny. The Imperium adopts Fairfax's plan and offers Piedmont a choice between cooperation and death. At the expiration of his time limit Piedmont offers himself to be shot, and Griggs asks

When will all races and classes of men learn that men made in the image of God will not be the slaves of another image?7

Though weakened by melodramatic situations, idealized characters, and stilted conversation, Imperium in Imperio is the first American Negro novel with a strictly political emphasis. Besides exposing miscegenation, oppression, and Jim-Crowism, it attacks the exploitation of the black man in American politics and stresses the need for an agency to protect Negro interests not safeguarded by the government. While extravagant in conception, Imperium in Imperio exhibits the racial outlook that produced the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations striving for the full participation of the Negro in American democracy.

In Overshadowed, his second novel, Griggs surveys the national scene with a feeling of futility. In the preface he foresees a hard road ahead for the Negro, "whose grandfather was a savage and whose father was a slave," in a social order evolved and dominated by the Anglo-Saxon. With Richmond, Virginia, as its main background, Overshadowed traces the love of Erma Wysong and Astral Herndon. While Herndon is in college, John Benson Lawson, an ex-governor's son, engages Dolly Smith to procure Erma as a mistress. Unknown to young Lawson is the fact that Dolly is the sister of Erma's mother, the unfortunate victim of an earlier liaison with his father. To obtain revenge, Dolly eventually brings young Lawson to court, where she makes public the illicit affairs of the father and son. As a result of the trial, the ex-governor loses his mind, Dolly is tarred and feathered, and young Lawson receives a jail sentence. Later Herndon and Erma, having married and become the parents of a boy, are surprised one winter night by the coming of Erma's brother John, who had been placed in the chaingang for the murder of a master workman who insisted that labor unions bar Negroes. Soon after his arrival John dies of exposure, and Erma quickly succumbs to shock and grief. A white friend subsequently advises the grieved husband that the adoption of a Booker T. Washington racial philosophy would ease his burden

Your status here is but due to conditions inherent in the situation. Why not bow to the inevitable, accept conditions as you find them, extract from life as much good as can come from well-directed efforts, and beyond this point have no yearnings? Develop character, earn money, contribute to the industrial development of the country, exercise your wonderful capacity for humility, move continuously in the line of least resistance and, somehow, ail will be well.8

Rejecting this counsel and later discarding the idea of emigration to Africa because "it, too, is overshadowed," Herndon buries his wife in mid-ocean, where "there abides no social group in which conditions operate toward the overshadowing of such elements as are not deemed assimilable."9

The thesis of Overshadowed is that the Negro must face a racial handicap in all parts of the world and particularly in the United States and Africa. Attention is focused, however, upon the American scene, where miscegenation causes the death of Erma and her mother, the suicide of Dolly, the insanity of ex-Governor Lawson, the imprisonment of his son John, and the loss of Herndon's wife and mother. The novel also exposes the instability of Negro employment, the exclusion of the Negro by labor unions, and the maladministration of justice in Southern courts. Especially interesting is the subtle attack upon the racial platform of Booker T. Washington. It is after an optimistic speech by Washington, for example, that Erma persuades her brother to make a confession which eventually results in his miserable death. A further veiled thrust at the Tuskegee educator's program is made when Herndon rejects Washingtonian arguments for remaining in America and severs relations with all lands in which the Negro is...

(The entire section is 4771 words.)

Robert Bone (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Novels of the Talented Tenth," in The Negro Novel in America, Revised Edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 29-50.

[In the following excerpt, Bone looks at Griggs's novels within the framework of African-American political conditions at the time of their writing. ]

Griggs was a prominent Baptist minister and a popular lecturer on the race problem. Having written five novels in the space of ten years (1899 to 1908), he organized his own publishing company in Nashville, Tenn., to promote their sale and distribution. The novels are badly written and tractarian in the extreme, but Griggs' very militancy represents something of a culmination. This militancy...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)

Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Sutton E. Griggs: Militant Black Novelist," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, March, 1973, pp. 73-7.

[In the following essay, Fleming explores aspects of violencereal and imaginedin Griggs's novels.]

Sutton E. Griggs has customarily been held up as an early example of the militant black novelist, especially in his first novel, Imperium in Imperio (1899). The most vigorous promoter of this point of view has been Hugh M. Gloster; Robert A. Bone, while differing with Gloster on the degree of militance which Griggs displays, is in basic agreement with his view of Imperium in Imperio....

(The entire section is 2288 words.)

Campbell Tatham (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Sutton Griggs' Imperium in Imperio," in Studies in Black Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 7-15.

[In the following essay, Tatham examines Griggs's Imperium in Imperio as a guide to radical political action.]

Be convinced . . . that the past is no forbidden vista upon which we dare not look, out of phantom fear of being, as the wife of Lot, turned into pillars of salt. Rather the past is an omniscient mirror: we gaze and see reflected there ourselves and each other—what we used to be, what we are today, how we got this way, and what we are becoming. To decline to look into the mirror of Then .. . is to refuse to view the...

(The entire section is 7028 words.)

Roger Whitlow (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Revolutionary Black Novels of Martin R. Delany and Sutton Griggs," in Melus, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1978, pp. 26-36.

[In the following essay, Whitlow compares and contrasts Imperium in Imperio with Martin Delany's novel of slave revolt, Blake.]

From the outset of the Black experience in America there has existed a plethora of interpretations of what role blacks do have in the operation and values of the country, as well as of how blacks should respond to the country and its laws and institutions—and ambivalence has always prevailed. The early arguments (white initiated, but, in part, black endorsed) ran: slavery is not the best of conditions, and it...

(The entire section is 4783 words.)

Wilson J. Moses (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Literary Garveyism: The Novels of Reverend Sutton E. Griggs," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XL, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 203-16.

[In the following essay, Moses evaluates Griggs's place within the tradition of the nationalist novel adn discusses his use of African-American literary conventions.]

The distinguished black American scholar arna bontemps was once heard to express his objections to white critics making more of the novels of Sutton Griggs than Bontemps felt they deserved. Perhaps Bontemps suspected the motives of his white colleagues and intended to halt, at the outset, a subterfuge that would ultimately lead to the...

(The entire section is 7172 words.)

Wilson J. Moses (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Literary Myth and Ethnic Assimilation," in The New Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 80, Winter, 1980, pp. 131-36.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented as a lecture at an American Studies conference, Moses contrasts Griggs's views on ethnic assimilation in America with those of the Jewish writer Israel Zangwill.]

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was a man of two souls. As one biographer contends, "He was passionately devoted to the values of the Jewish past as enshrined in the ghetto, but at the same time, he sought to escape from what he felt to be the ghetto's restrictiveness." He was born in London of a poor Russian immigrant family, educated...

(The entire section is 2819 words.)

John Vassilowitch, Jr. (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Example of 'Horace Christian': A Central Irony in Overshadowed," in American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 60-9.

[In the following essay, Vassilowitch examines the rise and fall of the white racist Horace Christian, a character in Overshadowed.]

Overshadowed (1901) is the second novel written by turn-of-the-century black author Sutton Griggs. Historian S. P. Fullinwider calls the book, correctly, "In part . . . a sermon against assimilation; against the degrading effects of the white man's values."1 While overstating his case somewhat, Hugh Gloster is also correct in emphasizing the destructive...

(The entire section is 4381 words.)

Jane Campbell (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "A Necessary Ambivalence: Sutton Griggs's Imperium in Imperio and Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition," in Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History, The University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 42-63.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell explores the ways in which Griggs's Imperium in Imperio and Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition reflected the moral climate of their time. ]

The fiction of Sutton Griggs and Charles Chesnutt emerges from post-Reconstruction despair, both writers crafting romances that bespeak vast promise, that give voice to black heroism in the face of devastating odds. Both resort to the...

(The entire section is 8320 words.)

Stephen C. Tracy (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Saving the Day: The Recordings of the Reverend Sutton E. Griggs," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XLVII, No. 2, June, 1986, pp. 159-66.

[In the following essay, Tracy offers a look at Griggs's style as a preacher.]

Although critics as early as Sterling Brown in 1937 recognized the artistic deficiencies of Sutton E. Griggs, they have also recognized that Griggs at times transcended these artistic limitations by striking an early, semi-militant stance in literature—as a political novelist, adversary of Thomas Dixon, and champion of fictional heroes with black pigmentation.1 Hugh Gloster wrote that "American...

(The entire section is 3766 words.)

Further Reading


Inge, M. Thomas; Maurice Duke; and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. "Bibliographies." In Black American Writers: Bibliographic Essays, Volume I: The Beginnings Through the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes, pp. 133-60. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.

Writings by and about Griggs and his contemporaries such as Charles Chesnutt, with listings of reference books and other works on the African-American literature of the era.

Page, James A., and Jae Min Roh. "Griggs, Sutton E." In Selected Black American, African, and Caribbean Authors: A Bio-Bibliography, pp. 111-12. Littleton, Col.: Libraries Unlimited, 1985.


(The entire section is 391 words.)