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 escape the persecution associated with being related to a convict, they rent rooms in a boardinghouse and attempt to hide their family history. Things go well at first; Joe Hamilton finds employment in his trade as a barber, and Kitty Hamilton’s singing talents soon secure her a prominent role in a musical revue. Despite Fannie’s protests against her children’s habits, Joe and Kitty’s first impression of New York is positive.
Things begin to fall apart, however, when Joe falls under the sway of the hedonistic crowd associated with the Banner Club, a biracial social club and watering hole. True to the tenets of naturalistic fiction, Joe soon changes from a competent young man to an alcohol-soaked parasite tutored by a character named Sadness Williams. He eventually begins living with an over-the-hill performer named Hattie Sterling. Even Fannie Hamilton begins to fall under the morally relativistic influence of the big city. She remarries without even informing Berry, and she watches in horror as Joe finally strangles Hattie during a fit of alcoholic rage.
The only positive outcome of the family’s move to New York is their acquaintance with a white reporter, Mr. Skaggs, another frequenter of the Banner Club. He decides that he will research the decline of the family after Joe is sentenced to life in prison. He soon discovers that Berry was innocent and that there was no robbery. Francis Oakley had gambled away the money in an attempt to support his Parisian mistress, a fact covered up by the Oakley family. Mr. Skaggs publishes his findings in the New York Universe, and the subsequent furor leads to Berry’s release from prison. Berry and Fannie eventually remarry, spending their last years back on the Oakley plantation, happy to escape from the horrors of the city.
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,...
(The entire section is 1,440 words.)