Sutton E. Griggs's Imperium in Imperio as evidence of black Baptist radicalism.
This article will rectify this neglect, at least to some small extent. Specifically, this paper will examine the historical background that led to the need for someone like Sutton Griggs. Biographical information concerning Griggs will be presented. By looking more carefully at Griggs's first book, Imperium in Imperio, the most common interpretations of Griggs will be examined and challenged. The themes of that book fail to reflect what one taking the common interpretation as his or her guide might expect. This paper will then suggest that Griggs's background as a black Baptist could have informed his writing of Imperium more directly than most interpreters contend.
Claiming the fruits of freedom and equality that many African Americans expected following the Civil War proved to be a longer and more difficult process than the war itself. Following the Confederate surrender, the federal government was divided concerning what to do with the former Confederate states. Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, favored a more lenient position toward the southern states. Radical Republicans felt that the South should be forced to come to terms with her defeat. Also they wanted to insure that the liberty of black Americans would be guaranteed in these states before readmitting the states into the Union. The Fourteenth Amendment was the congressional attempt to protect the fundamental rights of all citizens. When the southern states refused to ratify this amendment, Congress responded in 1867 with a series of Reconstruction Acts that placed the South under temporary military control. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, giving black males the right to vote. Within just five years after the end of the war, the federally supported state governments in the South were enacting progressive measures of reform, and black Americans were taking an active part in the government of the state and nation.
Yet, all was not well. White Southerners smoldered beneath what they believed to be the unfair terms of Reconstruction. The presence of Union troops on Southern soil and the mandated reforms that were forced on the South by Congress increased southern resentment. They felt hounded by the hordes of carpetbaggers and scalawags who, in the opinions of Southerners, were using political privileges to fleece the South. They resented being forced to allow African Americans to vote and to elect fellow persons of color to elective office. Feeling pushed to the point of desperation, white Southerners formed groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia with the aim of intimidating black Southerners. Their reign of terror frightened many African Americans from the political process.
During the mid-1870s, congressional support of Radical Reconstruction began to falter. The federal government abandoned its position as the protector of freed blacks, leaving the South to work out its own formula for the resolution of the race issue. The Civil Rights Act that was passed in 1875 was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883. Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes removed what remained of the Union occupational forces in 1876. Eventually, the state governments established by Congress crumbled and power began to shift back to white southern Democrats. This process was known as Redemption to most white Southerners. The mirage of a racially integrated South evaporated as quickly as it had materialized. Now black Southerners and especially--including the black churches--were on their own. (1)
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, white Southerners systematically dismantled the political and social gains that had been made by black Southerners. Legal restrictions such as the Jim Crow laws relegated African Americans to separate trolley cars, rest rooms, and schools. Many parks in the South were posted with signs that prohibited blacks and dogs. Literacy tests and poll taxes prohibited black participation in the political process. Any loopholes within these restrictions were filled by violence and intimidation. Lynching and mob violence were the most effective tools in the arsenal of white bigots. Partly as a result of the federal government's "hands-off" policy in regard to the South, black Americans were beaten, burned, hanged, and shot to death at a rate of more than 100 a year during the 1880s. Many times, execution was not enough. The bodies of black men and women were mutilated and beaten. Fingers, toes, and genitals were cut from the body and taken as souvenirs. According to one source, "The hideous mutilations that accompanied the lynchings were graphic evidence of the hatred and determination to degrade blacks." (2)
These acts of violence grew from the racial prejudice and hatred that many white Southerners felt toward the entire black race. This hatred was expressed by Southerners from every segment of the population and was encouraged by the stereotypes used to define black people. These stereotypes were promoted by the publication of antiblack propaganda. This literature utilized the philosophy of Social Darwinism and other pseudoscientific interpretations of race that proposed the innate inequality of the races, thus fueling the imaginations of American racists. The two most prominent authors of this literature were Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon Jr.
Page was the more intellectual and persuasive of the two. In The Negro: The Southerner's Problem (1904), Page suggested that slavery had actually been the salvation of the Negro. Dixon was more blunt. This former Baptist minister attended a 1901 stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The experience prompted him to write a novel in response. He believed that it was his evangelistic calling to spread the true gospel concerning the nature of African Americans. To him, the idealized vision of Uncle Tom had been spread long enough. (3)
In sixty days, he completed The Leopard's Spots, which was published in 1902 and promptly sold nearly a million copies. As an example of the content of this publication, one segment refers to the Radical Reconstruction as "a huge preposterous joke, this actual attempt to reverse the order of nature, turn society upside down, and make a thick-lipped, flat-nosed negro but yesterday taken from the jungle, the ruler of the proudest and strongest race of men evolved on two thousand years of history." (4) Not surprisingly, rhetoric such as this led the African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Henry M. Turner to regret only "that there will be a host of Negroes that will have to spend eternity in hell with Tom Dixon." (5)
Dixon followed The Leopard's Spots with the 1906 publication of The Clansman, which eventually was made into D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Those books and the perspectives they articulated provided Southerners with a way to have what they wanted most: "a clear conscience, a way back into the national mythology of innocence, a way to see the violence against Reconstruction and the continuation of lynching as a means to racial and national redemption." (6)
These novels promoted certain themes. First, among these themes was the beneficence of slavery. Without this institution, the former slaves were separated from the civilizing influences of white culture. The slave owners of the South had rescued black men and women from the grip of barbarism under which the Africans labored in their native land. African tribalism was disparaged in favor of the glories of southern civilization. Before the intervention of the white man, the African had "lived as his fathers lived--stole his food, worked his wife, sold his children, ate his brother, content to drink, sing, dance, and sport as the ape." (7)
Second, the novels promoted the supposed innate inferiority of African Americans, spending much time in describing the "subhuman" physical appearance and moral character of black Americans. Black men were pictured as violent criminals who, without the soothing influence of slavery, had no control over their sexual passions. This loss of control was especially true in relation to white women. According to Page, the black man did not believe in the virtue of women, nor did he recognize the immorality of assault. He concluded, "It is beyond his comprehension. In the next place, his passion, always his controlling force, is now, since the new teaching, for the white women." (8)
Antiblack propaganda also included: statements of overt opposition to whites who would befriend blacks, contentions that blacks were being tricked by scalawags into participating in the enslavement of the South, and the affirmation that the formation of the Ku Klux Klan was a defensive measure. (9)
Obviously, black Americans needed to defend themselves against the assumptions that were foundational to American racism. Specifically they needed someone to respond to the literary attacks of the antiblack propagandists. According to Walker, "Without a written defense, others and African Americans themselves would look upon anything black or African as evil and undesirable." (10) Thus black Americans responded with the "greatest literary and legal offensive" in the history of America. (11) Several key figures arose to challenge the negative stereotypes and to project an image that would improve African-Americans' self-perception.
Persons like W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), participated in the literary debate. He edited the magazine of the NAACP and reinterpreted history from an African-American perspective with his publication of Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. His most important contribution was The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which Du Bois rejected Booker T. Washington's "accommodationist" approach to the white South. Not surprisingly, this book was considered by southern newspapers to be dangerous reading for African Americans. (12)
Charles W. Chestnutt, another prominent black writer of this age, was motivated to write novels that presented black persons in their best light. He intended to change white minds concerning black people. Yet, he did not directly confront white racism. To him, white Americans had to be led to the point where they realized that black Americans shared the same emotions and aspirations. As the child of racial mixing, he promoted miscegenation as the best way for blacks to participate fully in the life of the nation. The House Behind the Cedars (1900), his most popular novel, dealt with the hardship of being a person of mixed race in the South. (13)
Sutton E. Griggs belonged to the group of African-American writers who opposed antiblack propaganda. He had similar goals but different methods. His was a more direct reaction to antiblack propaganda. In his early novels, he challenged negative stereotypes and presented a world in which the African American was educated, competent, and fully capable of solving the race problem with or without the approval or assistance of the white South.
Sutton Elbert Griggs was born in 1872 in Chatfield, Texas. His father, Allen R. Griggs, was a pioneer in black Baptist work in Texas. (14) The younger Griggs attended the public schools of Dallas and then graduated from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, in 1890. In 1890-93, Griggs attended Richmond Theological Seminary (now Virginia Union University) in Richmond, Virginia. Following his graduation from seminary, Griggs took his first pastorate in Berkely, Virginia. During this first pastorate, he married Emma J. Williams. His next pastorate was at the First Baptist Church of East Nashville, Tennessee. In 1913, he was called to the pastorate at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
By the time he arrived at Memphis as a forty-one-year-old pastor, Griggs's reputation as a radical novelist had already been established. His first, and possibly best-known novel, Imperium in Imperio was published in 1899. Four more novels followed the publication of Imperium. Overshadowed (1901) tells a tale of sexual violation, lynching, and wrongful imprisonment, reflecting the reality to which blacks were submitted in the United States. Unfettered (1902) is a love story between a mulatto woman and a black man, Dorian Worthell. She agrees to marry him if he can devise a plan to "unfetter" the black race. This plan is included as an appendix to this novel as "Dorian's Plan." The Hindered Hand (1905) is Griggs's response to Thomas Dixon. The novel tells of the fate of a black family which is terrorized by a gang of white bigots. In Pointing the Way (1908) the characters debate the propriety of marrying outside of the race.
Griggs was concerned with refuting the untruths being promoted by antiblack propaganda. In doing so, he directly confronted Dixon and Page. Directly confronting influential white authors was not a common practice of black writers. In fact, Griggs might be unique in the fervor with which he launched his counterattack on these men. What made Griggs more unique was that he was a black Baptist minister who lived in the South throughout his career as a novelist. He wrote these novels during the height of the lynching frenzy, and he did not receive the protection of being comfortably ensconced in a northern ivory tower.
As a result of their radical nature, Griggs's novels received little of the national attention showered on works like Uncle Tom's Cabin. Mainly because he published and distributed them himself, his early novels were all financial failures. According to Griggs, sales of his novels were generated by personal contact. Even then, Griggs was discouraged at the lack of support from the black community. All of these factors produced a reduced sphere of literary influence. Seldom did his early works emerge from the world of black, southern, Baptist life.
Griggs's disillusionment at the lack of support from the black community and his financial problems reached their height with the publication of The Hindered Hand. This novel was written in response to the unanimous recommendation of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) at a meeting in 1903. The convention's request was that Griggs respond to the antiblack propaganda of Thomas Dixon. Griggs was to be the champion for the black Baptists and meet Dixon on the field is a literary duel. Griggs used the support of the denomination to encourage investors and invested his own money in this project to the point of near bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the convention's support never materialized, and Griggs was left in more dire financial straits.
Griggs's financial condition continued to worsen until his 1911 publication of Wisdom's Call. This book marked what many believe to be the beginning of Griggs's transition toward a more accommodationist, gradualist position. While he remained disillusioned by the lack of financial support from among his own people, Griggs was encouraged by the positive reception given to this book both by northern and southern whites. Some have suggested that Griggs's espousal of the philosophy of interracial cooperation was the result both of his financial difficulties and the positive experience of working and dialoguing with white Americans during the publication of this book. Thus Griggs emerged as the champion of interracial cooperation and the "Negro Apostle to the White Race." (15)
Griggs's involvement in the founding of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, Nashville, Tennessee, has been suggested as another factor in leading him to a less radical position. In the process of securing support for the seminary, Griggs made a personal appeal to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). His address to the 1913 session of the SBC was a rare opportunity for an African American of that or any time. Following Griggs's address, the SBC decided to join in the cooperative effort with the NBC. Seeing blacks and whites working together in a common cause could have changed the way Griggs viewed interracial relationships. Regardless of the reason, most believe that a change had taken place. "His epoch of protest had been abandoned in favor of an open advocacy of mutual co-operation between the two races. He put the brunt of the burden of this co-operation upon the Negro." (16)
Following the beginning of his ministry at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Memphis, Sutton Griggs became more involved in activities designed to assist the African American in the process of assimilation into southern culture. Also, he shifted from writing novels to writing social and political tracts. In these tracts he proclaimed his belief in the possibility of cooperation between black and white Americans on projects for the benefit of African Americans. At Tabernacle Baptist Church, Griggs led in the building of an impressive church facility that was designed to be a model for other African American churches. The facility featured a gymnasium, a swimming pool, and an employment bureau. He promoted the church plant as a facility that would benefit both the black and white citizens of Memphis. Along the lines of the Booker T. Washington model, the church would offer instruction in the "domestic sciences," thus enabling African Americans to be more productive members of society.
Yet, the situation in Memphis was not all pleasant. Some of the members of Tabernacle Baptist resented the time that Griggs spent away from the church. He had speaking engagements and book promotions, thus weakening his foundation with his church. The financial disaster of the Great Depression destroyed what little foundation Griggs had left. Many black churches were forced to sell their property to meet the demands of mortgage companies, and the great Tabernacle Baptist was not immune to this. So on October 30, 1930, the facilities of the church were sold at public auction for $15,000. The church moved to a different facility, but they did not take Griggs with them. He left town in disgrace and took the pastorate at his father's former church, Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, Texas. In 1932, he moved to Houston to begin a religious and civic affairs group. Within a month of his arrival in Houston, on January 2, 1933, he died.
Interpretations of Griggs
The literary career of Sutton Griggs is divided by most interpreters into two distinct eras. The pre-1913 Griggs authored a series of radical novels that rejected any form of racial discrimination. According to these interpreters, Griggs was influenced mainly by natural theology and Darwinism. He affirmed the self-evident truths of natural theology, especially as framed by Thomas Jefferson. Foremost among these natural rights was that of equality. He affirmed the natural endowment of behavioral and personal characteristics and believed that each class and race inherited certain characteristics. As a result, the only way to change human behavior was by selective breeding. Darwin's theory of the natural selection of the species prompted Griggs to affirm that natural selection along with human assistance in selective breeding was the only way to rid humanity of its undesirable elements. (17)
Politically, Griggs rejected the gradualist philosophies of Booker T. Washington and embraced the more radical opinions of Du Bois. Griggs believed that "economic success without political power is an illusory hope upon which to rest racial progress." (18) Thus the most worthy elements of black society must band together and use the means necessary to bring about the social and political realities that would be most conducive to the promotion of racial equality. If open revolt was needed to bring these goals to fruition, then Griggs was in support of that activity. (19)
Following 1913, Griggs moved to what is seen as a more accommodationist position. Either out of financial necessity or a revelation of the possibility of cooperation with whites, he began to preach the gospel of self-help. He was more accepting of Booker T. Washington and moved away from the world of W. E. B. Du Bois. He abandoned the naturalist, Darwinist aspects of his earlier philosophy and began to believe that individuals could improve themselves and that the weak of the society could survive and actually contribute to society. He turned to the Bible to support his philosophy of social efficiency and relied more on theories of social inheritance rather than genetic inheritance. (20)
His philosophy of social or collective efficiency is the most important aspect of the thought of the mature Griggs. To him, people must be collected into a unified whole. Group unity was of paramount importance to this concept. The vain pursuit of self-interest was to be subordinated in favor of the needs of the group. He affirmed the importance of the individual. Through the grouping of individuals, the group found its strength, and through the selfishness of individuals, the group met its destruction. Thus the individual must be replaced by the citizen. He used Christian teachings to justify the need for this transition, but this philosophy was not primarily metaphysical. Collective efficiency was a pragmatic, social theory. According to the theory, African Americans as a race must exhibit social efficiency before they can expect to be accepted by the larger society. This aspect of the philosophy has led some scholars to label Griggs as an accommodationist who accepted the innate inferiority of black Americans. (21)
Thus the general interpretation of Griggs has him moving from a radical, aggressive position to a more accommodationist, conservative position. These interpretations present a fairly clear dichotomy between the early and the late Griggs, and for all of his publications this interpretation might hold true--except when one examines Griggs's first novel. Imperium in Imperio lacks many of the characteristics, theories, and motivations presumed to distinguish Griggs's early work. References to Darwinism or selective breeding are absent, and contrary to the dominant interpretation, this book favors cooperation and gradualism over revolt. References to natural theology are rare, while scriptural and religious perspectives abound. Since Imperium in Imperio lacks those characteristics that are thought to be foundational to the early Griggs, one wonders what influences might have inspired or informed this work. Also, can this alternative influence explain the presence of those characteristics of the early Griggs that do appear in Imperium? This article contends that the emphases of Imperium are just as easily attributable to Griggs's background as a black Baptist as to his supposed background as a radical thinker, Darwinist, or natural theologian.
Synopsis of Imperium in Imperio
Imperium in Imperio, as the title suggests, is the story of a smaller power within a larger power, but the story leading up to the realization of the Imperium occupies the majority of the novel. The story, which begins in October of 1867, follows two young men who come from the same small town, but who shared little more than that. Belton Piedmont was from a poor black family in Winchester, Virginia. His mother was dedicated to providing Belton with the education that she never received, so she took him to the local school for black children and introduced him to the teacher, Mr. Tiberius Gracchus Leonard. Belton immediately became the unhappy object of the teacher's scorn. Bernard Belgrave came to school on that day as well, but he received a different reception. He is the son of a beautiful and wealthy mulatto lady. The teacher took Bernard under his wing, determined to mold him into the brightest student in the school.
Bernard and Belton were the two smartest boys in the school, but the cruelty of the teacher always kept Belton struggling to keep up. Not easily deterred, Belton used the discrimination to make himself smarter and more persistent. At their commencement exercises, the two boys were to give orations, and Belton put all his effort into making his oration the best and into extracting some final revenge on Mr. Leonard. His oration was the best, but due to the discrimination of the judges against the darker of the two boys, the award was given to Bernard. Belton did not realize the first of his two goals, but he did accomplish the other.
The two young men, who had become friends in spite of Mr. Leonard's favoritism, parted ways at this time. The dashing young mulatto went to Harvard, while Belton found himself in a smaller black college, Rowe University. Both students excelled in their studies. Following graduation, Bernard discovered that his white father was actually a United States Senator who had been ensuring Bernard's well-being since his first day in primary school. His father urged him to go back to Virginia and enter into politics, which Bernard did.
After his graduation, Belton went to Richmond to become a school teacher. At the school, he met his true love, Antoinette Nermal, and in an effort to raise the money needed to start a family, Belton began a paper for the African Americans of the city. Unfortunately, some of the material in the paper offended the whites of Richmond, and Belton was fired from his position at the school. The prejudice in the town prevented Belton from finding a job. The despair of poverty and unemployment along with a shocking revelation from his young wife led Belton to abandon her and Richmond.
Belton then accepted the presidency of a small black college in Cadeville, Louisiana. There he encountered violent racism unlike any he had ever seen. Once in Cadeville he was watched closely by the white population, specifically by the "Nigger Rulers," who made it their objective to keep the black population subdued. Unaware of the extreme oppression of this area, Belton made the mistake of encouraging the black men to vote. The final straw occurred when Belton disrupted a white church service by assisting a white lady in finding a hymn. The mob captured Belton that night. He was hanged and shot in the back of the head, but miraculously he was not killed. When a local doctor, who had traded a barrel of whisky for the privilege of dissecting this specimen of the Negro race, took Belton back to his lab, Belton made his escape.
Meanwhile, Bernard was finding success in politics and love. He tried to win the heart of the beautiful Viola Martin. Tragically, following her profession of love for Bernard, she killed herself. Her love for Bernard was strong, but her commitment to maintaining the purity of the black race was stronger. So she opted to kill herself rather than marry and raise children with the mulatto Bernard.
As Bernard mourned the loss of Viola, he received a telegram from Belton Piedmont. In the message, Belton asked Bernard to come to Waco, Texas. Here the reader finally encounters the Imperium. This covert political organization of black Americans had been in existence since the time of the American Revolution. Originally the Imperium was funded by a wealthy, free black inventor who used the organization to educate young black people concerning the true meaning of liberty. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, the organization grew by linking together the existing secret societies of African Americans. In an effort to protect the rights of fellow blacks, the organization developed a General Government with a representative Congress. Branch legislatures and militias existed in all states. The original capital of the Imperium had been wisely invested so that the Imperium was now worth $850 million. In essence, Waco was the national capital of a smaller nation within the United States Of America. Belton brought Bernard to Waco to offer him the position of president of the Imperium. Bernard accepted.
The involvement of the United States in the Spanish-American War brings the plot to its denouement. Incensed that the federal government would fight to "free" those who are oppressed under the rule of Spain while ignoring those within its own border who are just as oppressed, the Imperium decided to take action. President Belgrave reminded the Congress of every injustice that had been heaped on African Americans by white Americans and urged the Congress to take immediate and violent action. In response to his speech, the Congress erupted in declarations in favor of war.
At this point, Belton rose and presented a dissenting opinion. He preached patience and cooperation with the white citizens of America. While acknowledging the wrongs that have been suffered by black men and women, he also told of the progress that had been made. He proposed that they make the Imperium known to the "Anglo-Saxons" and pledge their commitment to liberty or death. They are then to spend four years in working for a resolution to the race problems. If liberty was not forthcoming, then the Imperium was to move all of its members to Texas where they will have the majority needed to rule the state government. The eloquence of Belton's speech turned the Congress against war.
Bernard's desire for immediate action would not let the issue rest. The next day he reissued a call for action that included the military conquest of Texas and Louisiana, with the eventual secession of Louisiana to foreign allies of the Imperium. Belton was the only member of Congress to vote against this resolution. Since he can no longer agree with the designs of the Imperium, Belton decided to leave the organization. Sadly, the only way of leaving the Imperium was by execution. The book ends with the confession of the traitor who reveals the plans of the Imperium before those designs could be realized.
Themes of Imperium in Imperio
This novel is more than just the sum of its plots. By emphasizing certain themes, Sutton Griggs revealed something of the desires, frustrations, and perspectives of black Americans at the turn of the century. The question remains if these themes might have been derived from Griggs's experience as a black Baptist.
The novel features many references to the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson. The college which served as a front for the Central Government of the Imperium is called "Thomas Jefferson College." In describing the educational goals of the Imperium, Belton told how they used the writings of Jefferson to teach black children to expect more than just release from the shackles of slavery. The black man was not "in the full enjoyment of his rights until he was on terms of equality with any other human being that was alive or had ever lived." (22) President Belgrave relied heavily on Jefferson in his incendiary speech before Congress. He called Jefferson "the greatest and noblest American statesman" and pointed to the way that his words in the Declaration of Independence are held as absolute truth. (23) From this he concluded, "If, as the Bible says, we are men; if, as Jefferson says, all men are equal; if as he further states, governments derive all just powers from the consent of the governed, then it follows that the American government is in duty bound to seek to know our will as respects the laws and the men who are to govern us." (24)
Most have interpreted these references as a sign of Griggs's allegiance to the edicts of natural law which were used by Jefferson, but reverence to the thoughts and writings of Jefferson was common among black Baptists. E. C. Morris, the president of the National Baptist Convention [NBC], once spoke of liberty as the desired state of existence of all creatures. (25) To him, the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence was an emphatic statement concerning the liberty of human beings. He concluded, "The man who wrote it; and those who signed it spoke more wisely than they knew, and have sent rolling down the rugged hills of time, a sentiment which is destined to cover the whole earth." (26)
Connected to the affection for Jefferson were the expressions of patriotism found in the novel. In their early education, both Belton and Bernard were enamored with the study of the American Revolution. They become "immersed in the spirit of that heroic age." (27) During the time of his unemployment in Richmond, Belton began to associate with other young men in the same situation. These educated young African Americans began to doubt the sanctity of their country. They moved from a point of hating the flag to wishing that a foreign power would come and "bury it in the dirt." Belton had no stomach for such talk and instead pursued a more productive venture. (28)
In his speech to Congress, Belton articulated the faithfulness of black Americans to the nation in spite of the abuse they had received in return. He presented the nation as a great eagle that had been spotted in "its glorious flight" by poor African Americans. Seeing the eagle land on a precipice, the black American climbed toward that eagle. Once he reached the eagle and attempted to caress her, the eagle clawed the man's eyes, dug her beak into his heart, and then flew away. The analogy concluded, " ... the Negro, with tears in his eyes, and blood dripping from his heart has smiled and shouted: `God save the eagle.'" (29)
In rejecting Bernard's final solution, Belton concluded, "Soaked as Old Glory is with my people's tears and stained as it is with their warm blood, I could die as my forefathers did, fighting for its honor and asking no greater boon than Old Glory for my shroud and native soil for my grave." (30)
In similar manner, E. C. Morris affirmed the loyalty of black Baptists to the nation. Even though they had been held as slaves in this nation and in spite of the fact that African Americans were not enjoying the full protection of the Constitution, Morris challenged listeners to find a group more loyal `to the flag than the African-American population. He affirmed, "Wherever and whenever [the flag] has been placed in the hands of the ebony-hued sons of America its folds have not been allowed to trail in the dust." (31)
Morris believed that black Americans could look through the current reign of terror and see the day of vindication for those principles that were represented by the flag. The black American supported the Stars and Stripes and the principles represented by that flag and has shown this support during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War. (32) Similarly, during the height of mob violence against black Americans, the NBC proved its support of the country by issuing a statement of allegiance to the country and the Constitution. (33)
The novel contains themes of cooperation and patience, especially between the races. Both Bernard and Belton received assistance from wealthy white men--Bernard from his white father and Belton from a white benefactor who paid for Belton's education. The schoolhouse where they began their education was given to the black community by the white Baptist church. The debt black Southerners owed to the white philanthropists who financed black colleges during the postbellum era was acknowledged.
In return for this assistance, Belton and Bernard were to assist civilization by leading the nation out of the darkness of discrimination. During a college chapel, the speaker warned the students, "Be not a burrowing parasite, feasting off of the world's raw blood. Let the world draw life from you." (34) Bernard was sent by his father into the world of politics with the understanding that he will "scale the wall of prejudice" and bring the nation to a point where Bernard's white father and mulatto mother could live together in peace. (35)
To accomplish these designs, the novel promotes patience and rejects violence and revenge. His benefactor encouraged Belton to seek what is the best in the white race and never regard the race as totally depraved. (36) When faced with an opportunity for revenge, Belton is advised to take the image of the suffering Savior as his example. (37) This warning, against vengeance became a cardinal principle for Belton and was a key point in his argument against rebellion. (38)
In similar manner, black Baptists sought to cooperate with their white counterparts. Morris believed that a congress of the religions of the world should be called "with a view of getting at a oneness of the following of Jesus Christ." He believed that this could be done and that were it not done, the banner of the gospel could never be carried with success to the world. In response to charges of separatism, Morris affirmed that the NBC was an association of independent Baptist churches and organizations and that by common recognition, all of those represented at the convention were black. But should a white church decide to send messengers to a meeting of the NBC, those messengers would be received "on perfect equality with our own." (39)
Realistically, he knew that the lines of race and class had been so divisive as to prevent persons from different groups from worshiping with one another, but he also knew that the commission given by Christ was "without regard to race, color, or condition, but is that the Gospel be preached to every creature.... Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, not white sinners, nor black sinners, nor red sinners, but sinners." (40)
Apart from the proclamations of Morris, black Baptists proved their willingness to cooperate with white Baptists by attempting to work with the American Baptist Publication Society [ABPS]. For many years, black Baptists had purchased their denominational material from the ABPS, but the lack of black representation in the authorship of the material troubled some African Americans. Their first response was to attempt to work with the society in correcting the inequity, and had it not been for the protests of white, southern Baptists, the black Baptist conventions and the white publication society would have been able to cooperate. (41)
The work of Miss N. H. Burrough also presents an aspect of black Baptists willingness to cooperate. She appealed to the white Baptist ladies of the South to assist her in opposing the injustices of the Jim Crow laws. She believed in the influence that white Christian women could exercise over southern politics. Unfortunately, she received little response to her pleas for help. (42)
In contrast to the themes of cooperation, the novel presents the reality of separation and the possibility of violence and rebellion. The novel is full of instances of racism and violence against blacks. Subsequently, black Americans create a government that will protect the rights guaranteed to all persons by the Constitution. The organization and agenda of the Imperium are presented in sufficient detail to suggest that such an organization could actually exist. Thus in this fictional forum and through the words of Bernard Belgrave, Griggs is able to give voice to the real frustrations of black Americans. In his speech, Bernard concludes,
Like lean, hungry dogs, we must crouch beneath our master's table and snap eagerly at the crumbs that fall. If in our scramble for these crumbs we make too much noise, we are violently kicked and driven out of doors, where, in the sleet and snow, we must whimper and whine until late the next morning when the cook opens the door and we can then crouch down in the corner of the kitchen. Oh! my Comrades, we cannot longer endure our shame and misery! (43)
Related to the pain of oppressed African Americans is the affirmation of the ability of African American to rectify the situation. Dixon's images of the inferior black man are countered by the refined and educated images projected by Belton and Bernard. With others of similar mind, they have developed an organization that is prepared to wage war with the United States of America.
Black Baptists also recognized the reality of separation and even suggested a radical solution to racial problems. Morris lamented that black Americans were "made separate in a country for which we have done more, to the man, to build up than any other people in it, and by a people whom we have served for two hundred and fifty years." (44)
Also he recognized that white Christians were not speaking out concerning the injustices being heaped on black Christians, but he affirmed that God had a remedy for all wrongs. He admitted the suspicion of blacks toward whites who came to help black Christians, but when people were subject to the discrimination that had been endured by African Americans, who could blame them for their suspicion? They have been told that they must remain separate from the white race in all things. According to Morris, "If God could be influenced by such tomfoolery there would be a separate heaven prepared." (45)
The response to such racism was increased self-sufficiency. He affirmed that black Baptists prospered because of the refusal of the "other race" to cooperate. Being forced to fend for themselves, black Baptists were "drawn out" and constrained in a struggle for survival to prove their worth. Partly in response to the conflict over publication, the black Baptists banded together in 1895 to form a national convention. (46) Had the white Christians agreed to cooperate,
there would not have been such a host of intelligent, self-reliant, practical, leaders among us, nor would we have been able to show to the world our devotion to God's cause by pointing to the thousands of magnificent and costly church edifices and the scores of high schools and colleges built, supported, and managed by the Negro Baptists in this county. (47)
One black Baptist suggested a solution to the race problem which sounds familiar. Harvey Johnson, the pastor of Union Baptist Church of Baltimore was more pessimistic than most black Baptists concerning racial problems and thought it was foolish to expect white Americans to change their perspectives on black Americans. As a result, he advocated self-help programs, and in the early 1890s, he proposed a plan of separation between the races that was known as the "Texas Movement." The plan included setting aside the entire state of Texas as its own black separatist nation. Since most black Baptists did not favor plans that implied some form of escapism, Johnson's plan did not get far. (48)
The analysis of the contents of Imperium in Imperio and a reconsideration of the sources for the prominent themes of the book have led to a reconsideration of the major paradigm for interpreting Griggs. Clearly, his first book is radical in nature. In fact, Bernard W. Bell considers Imperium to be the "most thematically radical Afro-American novel of the Nineteenth Century." (49) Griggs is open in his opposition to antiblack propaganda, and he suggests the possibility of armed revolt by African Americans. Yet, the book also presents a strong argument for gradualism and patience. Clearly, Belton is the protagonist of the book. In spite of the violence which he had endured at the hands of white Americans, he still pushed for patience and one more attempt at cooperation. Thus, this book can be seen as the struggle within the soul of Griggs himself. He was torn between loyalty to his nation and his faith and his rage at the injustices experienced by the black person in this nation. The book can also be seen as a reflection of the struggle of black Baptists who were motivated by a desire to cooperate with their white brothers and sisters, yet rebuffed by the persistent racism.
Imperium challenges the common interpretation of Griggs by suggesting that his earliest work of fiction be placed in a category by itself. Griggs's career should be analyzed by a pattern that includes three periods as opposed to the normally accepted two. In this interpretation, Griggs is seen as primarily using his experience as a black Baptist to explore the tensions between cooperation and separation. His later novels, then, reflect a greater dependence on theories related to natural theology and Darwinism and a growing emphasis on separatism. The last segment of Griggs's literary career reflects a growing gradualism and accommodationism.
Imperium in Imperio also indicates that room existed in black Baptist life for expressions of radicalism. Scholars have tended to castigate the black churches in the South for abandoning the prophetic call of radicalism. Wilmore takes a step in the right direction by affirming that the role of the black denominations in activities which one would identify with the "liberation stream" contradicts the assertions of those scholars. While Wilmore is correct in asserting that the Southern expression of black religion was more likely to be apolitical and that Sutton Griggs was an example of "Christian radicalism," one would like to see a greater emphasis on Griggs's position within the mainstream of black Baptist life. (50) Griggs was no renegade preacher or theologian. Throughout his life, Griggs never lost his popularity or prominence in the convention as a result of his stand on the race issue. (51) Thus, the evidence from Griggs's early work as a novelist seems to indicate that radicalism was a viable, although minority, position within black Baptist life. The investigation of Imperium in Imperio provides evidence of one Baptist minister who was willing to take a strong stand against racism. Thus the assumption that black Baptists must be accommodationists or that something inherent to black Baptist life insured the conservatism of its members must be discarded.
Sutton Griggs was a capable champion for African Americans in their defense against antiblack propaganda and in their attempt to promote a more constructive self-identity. He was a complex man who was influenced by any number of factors. Yet, the potential influence of his experience as a black Baptist has hardly been considered. This examination of Imperium in Imperio has revealed the lack of those themes that have generally been linked to Griggs's early works. The study has also shown that Griggs's work and life as a black Baptist could have been a substantial influence on his first literary production. If this thesis is accepted, then Imperium can be examined for its insights to the thoughts, hopes, and frustrations of black Baptists in the post-Reconstruction era.
(1.) For a more complete discussion of Reconstruction with a special emphasis on the place of African Americans and African-American religion, see William E. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865-1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 142-90; also Wilson Jeremiah Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 83-102.
(2.) Montgomery, 213.
(3.) George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 280.
(4.) Thomas Dixon Jr., The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden 1865-1900 (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902), 97.
(5.) Quoted in Gayraud Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism, 2d ed. (Mary-knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983), 140.
(6.) Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 372.
(7.) Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1905), 292.
(8.) Thomas Nelson Page, The Negro: The Southerner's Problem (New York: Scribner, 1904), 97.
(9.) For a complete discussion of themes in antiblack propaganda, see Randolph Meade Walker, "The Metamorphosis of Sutton E. Griggs" (Ph.D. diss., Memphis State University, 1990), 3-20.
(10.) Ibid., 22.
(11.) Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985), 246.
(12.) Walker, 25.
(13.) For a full biography of Chestnutt, see Harold Bloom, ed., Black American Prose Before the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994), 21-22; also Ayers, 367-70.
(14.) Biographical information for Griggs was taken from Walker, 32-53; also Betty E. Taylor Thompson, "Sutton Elbert Griggs," in Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1986), 140-48.
(15.) T. O. Fuller, History of the Negro Baptists of Tennessee (Memphis: Hopkins Print Company, 1936), 77.
(16.) Walker, 39.
(17.) Ibid., 54-68.
(18.) Arlene A. Elder, The "Hindered Hand": Cultural Implications of Early African-American Fiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978), 101; also S. P. Fullwinder, The Mind and Mood of Black America: 20th Century Thought (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1969), 74.
(19.) Jane Campbell, Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 43.
(20.) Walker, 71-76.
(21.) See Lester C. Lamon, Black Tennesseans, 1900-1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977), 12.
(22.) Sutton E. Griggs, Imperium in Imperio (Cincinnati: The Editor Publishing Company, 1899; reprint, Salem, N.H.: Ayer Company Publishers, 1992), 192 (page references are to reprint edition).
(23.) Ibid., 217.
(24.) Ibid., 218.
(25.) Morris was the highly respected president of the NBC for the first twenty-seven years of the convention's existence. The following quotes are all taken from various presidential addresses which were presented at annual NBC meetings. The use of his words are not meant to indicate any directly causal relationship between Morris and Griggs, but only to suggest that these ideas were present in the life of the NBC.
(26.) E. C. Morris, Sermons, Addresses, and Reminiscences and Important Correspondence (Nashville: National Baptist Publishing Board, 1901; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1980), 46.
(27.) Griggs, 28.
(28.) Ibid., 131.
(29.) Ibid., 243.
(30.) Ibid., 252.
(31.) Morris, 81.
(33.) See Lewis Garnett Jordan, Negro Baptist History, U.S.A.: 1750-1930 (Nashville: Townsend Press, 1995), 109.
(34.) Griggs, 68.
(35.) Ibid., 92.
(36.) Ibid., 47.
(37.) Ibid., 77.
(38.) Ibid., 234.
(39.) Morris, 79.
(40.) Ibid., 39.
(41.) Jordan, 121.
(42.) Fitts, 249-50.
(43.) Griggs, 219.
(44.) Morris, 71.
(45.) Ibid., 75.
(46.) See Eric C. Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 20-46.
(47.) Morris, 71.
(48.) Fitts, 247.
(49.) Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 61.
(50.) Wilmore, 231.
(51.) See Fuller, 76.
Larry Frazier is a doctoral candidate, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
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|Publication:||Baptist History and Heritage|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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