Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Contending Forces is a significant piece of nineteenth century African American fiction. It is not only a well-told tale (if filled with typical nineteenth century melodrama) but also contains significant social commentary on the life of African Americans both before and after the Civil War.

The first part of the novel, set in Bermuda and North Carolina in the 1790’s, shows the corrupting influence of the slave system, a system based on greed and selfishness. A so-called decent human being, Charles Montfort, is so permeated by the evils of slavery and the wealth it brings him that he is willing to risk everything rather than free his slaves in compliance with British laws governing Bermuda. The needs and wishes of his slaves are inconsequential to him; he moves them to the United States, where his accumulation of wealth can continue. Montfort is a thoughtful, kindly person in many respects, but the institution of slavery has placed blinders before his eyes; he is not able to think rationally or objectively when it comes to slavery. Like many others of his time, Montfort believes that slaves are not his equals and that therefore he has the right to do with them as he pleases. Through the very act of owning slaves, he is abusive; furthermore, he exposes his slaves to the possibility of worse brutality in the event of his death. Hopkins successfully makes the point that, by definition, there can be no such thing as a “good” slaveholder.

A second important point that Hopkins makes in the first part of the novel deals with the whole issue of skin color. The institution of slavery allowed white slave masters free rein over their slaves, and the sexual liberties some masters took with their female slaves was evident in the many biracial slaves born during the slave era. A sizable percentage of these slaves could clearly “pass” as white, but southern law held that such children belonged to the race of the mother; as a result, white-skinned people were not infrequently remanded to slavery. In short, Hopkins points out that in a slave society in which rape and seduction were prevalent, skin color alone was no protection against being enslaved. All that was necessary to identify a person as “black” was the rumor mill. Once a person was identified as black, slavery was often not far away, as in the case of Grace Montfort.

The second half of the novel focuses on post-Civil War life for African Americans in the northern United States, specifically in Boston, where Hopkins spent most of her life. Hopkins sums up the influences on African Americans of her day in the following passage:. . . conservatism, lack of brotherly affiliation, lack of energy for the right and the power of the almighty dollar which deadens men’s hearts to the sufferings of their brothers,...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)