Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

These three magazine novels fit into African American literature among the work of the novelist William Wells Brown; Victoria Earle Matthews, who wrote for the story papers in the 1890’s; and detective novelist Chester Himes. Hazel V. Carby, a noted scholar of African American literature, views the writings of those three authors and Hopkins as providing the foundation of African American popular fiction in the United States.

As a high school student, Hopkins won a prize for her essay “Evils of Intemperance and Their Remedy” in a contest sponsored by William Wells Brown and the Congregational Publishing Society of Boston. Later, she wrote musical dramas including Colored Aristocracy (1877) and Slaves Escape: Or, The Underground Railroad (1879), which were performed on stage. She published her first novel, the historical romance Contending Forces, in 1900. Between March, 1901, and November, 1903, she published the magazine novels in Colored American Magazine, for which she also served as a strong voice in editorial decisions.

The purpose of Colored American Magazine was clearly to attempt the creation of an African American renaissance in Boston. It provided an outlet for poetry, fiction, and art, along with expository prose. Although the magazine fell short of its aims, it prefigured the Harlem Renaissance of two decades later.

Hopkins believed that fiction could change people’s lives, particularly if the fiction were published in a mass circulation magazine. In a society that condoned lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and general oppression of African Americans, Hopkins hoped to inform her contemporary readers about their heritage and help them learn to value themselves. Hopkins’s work is highly political, and some noted African Americans disapproved of her political stance. When the management of Colored American Magazine changed, her fiction lost its outlet. At the turn of the twentieth century in the United States, it was nearly impossible for African American authors to get their work published on their own. Without the backing of Colored American Magazine, Hopkins’s voice was doomed to silence.

Long out of print, the magazine novels have been collected and published in one volume. This volume has had an important effect on African American studies and on Hopkins’s reputation as well, bringing scholarly attention to a long-neglected author.