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...
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