Race-ing toward civilization: sexual slavery and nativism in the novels of Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins and Alice Wellington Rollins.
Both Hopkins and Rollins engage nativist discourse but more prominently deploy slavery as metaphor, either to highlight the ongoing vulnerability of African and Irish Americans in a hostile United States or to expose the roots of tenement poverty. The fraught issue of female sexuality epitomizes such vulnerability; voicing the political desires of under-represented racial and ethnic groups, particularly women, suggests that only pluralism and equal access to government can guarantee equal protection. Certainly, these two authorial agendas resist disavowals of African and Irish American capacity for self-government, not uncommon among Anglo-American politicians of that era. Hopkins, nonetheless, proceeds to empower her African American heroines without hesitation while Rollins proves more likely to appeal to Anglo-Americans on Irish women's behalf. Imitating Harriet Beecher Stowe, then, Rollins's moral logic preserves the distance between middle-class women of her own caste and scenes wherein social boundaries dissipate, leaving women of color vulnerable to sexual exploitation by Anglo-American men.
Anglo-masculine claims to power include a discourse of sexual purity that requires sexual self-restraint. Racist depictions of Irish and African American sexuality, projecting stereo-typically lascivious and disorderly sexual conduct upon racial or ethnic citizens, denied either group the capacity for self-government or participation in American national politics. Hopkins's and Rollins's demand for racial, ethnic, or gender inclusion in national politics, therefore, challenges exclusively Anglo-masculine claims on power. Although they treat the ambiguous racial and ethnic status of African American and Irish American heroines quite differently, Uncle Tom's Tenement, Contending Forces, and Hagar's Daughter exceed the specific interests of Black or Irish Americans. They prescribe standards for civic duty and civilization that apply to the nation as a whole, challenging doctrines of Anglo-masculine supremacy by associating sexual exploitation with Anglo-American political and economic power. Hopkins and Rollins subvert claims made in Anglo-masculine discourse (especially nativism) as they work to include women and non-Anglo-Americans in the pluralistic civilization their literature demands.
The manner in which each writer deals with racial identity is quite telling. As she parallels "Ethiopian" and "Anglo" contributions to "civilization" in a modern America, Hopkins prophesies a great future built on the tradition of Ethiopianism; her critique of Anglo-American exclusivity applies only to the oppression of blacks and does not concern other ethnic groups like the Irish. While Hopkins inverts stereotypical racial categories, frequently vilifying whiteness, Rollins inserts Irish Americans into the discursive place conventionally occupied by black slaves in abolitionist discourse. While white intervention, for Hopkins, does not seem particularly useful, Rollins seems to appeal to a white conscience. In her preface, Rollins writes, "In drawing attention to an existing evil not fully realized among us, it has seemed to me more impressive as a lesson to contrast it with an evil in the past now fully realized and recognized" (n.p.). Hopkins revisits the antebellum and Reconstruction periods to demand civil rights for African Americans during the Nadir while Rollins seems to presume that lessons learned through abolition and emancipation can be easily applied to immigration in the 1880s. Inserting Irish immigrants in the space of abolitionist sentiment once reserved for African Americans, Rollins delves into the complexly triangulated relationship among Anglo-Americans, Irish immigrants, and African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
That Blackness and Irishness prove interchangeable for Rollins is not surprising. Certainly, the centrality of Anglo-American patriotism and power at the turn of the century overshadowed other categories in the racial/ethnic hierarchy. Claiming exclusive purchase on the embodiment of modern civilization, Anglo-Americans justified subjugating other ethnic and racial groups in the name of racial purity. In response, Hopkins and Rollins, two very different women, use a common strategy--a fictive minority woman who represents the future of modern civilization in an American Republic. Both Hopkins's mixed-race Black heroines and Rollins's Irish protagonists are champions of pluralism and spokeswomen for an alternative to Anglo-masculinity. What Rollins does not seem to consider, however, is whether African and Irish Americans would welcome the association. Unlike Hopkins, who writes from the subject position of a black Bostonian woman opposing Anglo-supremacy in a city where Anglo-Americans reserved distinct forms of prejudice for blacks and Irish, Rollins substitutes Irishness for blackness in a way that probably would have troubled Hopkins.
Gail Bederman's study Manliness and Civilization, likewise, yields a literary historical approach to Hopkins and Rollins that explores the connection between middle-class Anglo-American manliness and a discourse of civilization and self-government that actively sought to limit the public sphere of political power and cultural production to Anglo-American men. As Bederman points out, "[C]ivilization, as turn-of-the-century Americans understood it, simultaneously denoted attributes of race and gender. By invoking the discourse of civilization, many Americans found a powerfully effective way to link male dominance to white supremacy" (23). Bederman argues that Anglo-American men sought to exclude racial (and, I would add, ethnic) minorities and women from the public sphere. This action stemmed from the elitist assumption that economic class corresponded with a natural order of evolutionary dominance. Challenging entitlement to resources, both sexual and economic, resists Anglo-masculine dominance. To consider Hopkins's and Rollins's treatment of Anglo-American male characters and compare their strategic insertion of a female heroine to disrupt Anglo-male supremacy illustrates their pluralistic alternative to Anglo-male civilization in a new American Republic.
The first half of this essay addresses the way both authors deploy slavery as metaphor for sexual exploitation and abuses of power. Cast in contrast to the Anglo-supremacist American male, Hopkins's octoroon heroines and (in Rollins) the octoroon's stand-in--a poor yet beautiful Irish American woman--are figures whose sexuality is of primary concern, especially in the context of slavery. Both authors revisit slavery, Hopkins chronologically and Rollins by re-telling the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic, to explore the master/slave relationship that leaves non-Anglo women sexually vulnerable to powerful white men. The discourse of Anglo supremacy relied heavily upon doctrines of racial, social, and sexual purity. In her very existence, the octoroon (a woman of seven-eighths white and one-eighth black ancestry, usually the daughter of a long line of planters and their female slaves) evidences miscegenation and sexual contact between Anglo men and African American women. While Hopkins's octoroon heroines become spokeswomen on their own behalf, Rollins's narrator advocates for bodily integrity on behalf of victimized Irish American women.
The second half of this essay focuses on the 1880s, a historical moment when the ruling class was not at all enamored with the working poor. Hopkins's depiction of the 1880s indicates that any heroine who could not assimilate into the planter class or the upper echelon of America was not considered competent to contribute toward a discourse of American civilization. Hopkins marks women of African descent with potential that exceeds the Anglo-American men with whom they interact. Juxtaposing her poor Irish American heroines with Anglo-American "aristocrats," Rollins similarly interrogates the discourse of civilization associated with Anglo-masculinity as she appeals to Anglo-Americans to change the system of oppression. For Hopkins, women of African descent are the agents of change. Hopkins and Rollins, nonetheless, both use virtuous and honest heroines to address nativist anxieties and ideologies of civilization that disenfranchised all non-Anglo-Americans, black or white. Since elitists believed the poor exemplified their inferiority by means of their economic station, only a woman with access to the superior realm could motivate change within that milieu. To place a racially ambiguous narrative figure in an upper-class scenario, as we see in Hopkins's work, or to cast Irish ethnic minorities in a position to critique Anglo-masculinity, as does Rollins, directly challenges the ideology of Anglo-supremacy and makes an argument for a pluralistic civilization and modern American republic. Racially marked women emerge in public spaces like courtrooms and Congressional offices to demand justice and equal protection that includes women and racial or ethnic "others." According to Andrew Fraser, pluralism is based on the "recognition that human individuals need to appear in public before each other so as to reveal themselves in action and speech" (177). (1) As Hopkins and Rollins give voice to under-represented heroines who use their private experience to comment on the public sphere, they enact a vision of pluralism.
SEXUAL SLAVERY AND SOCIAL PURITY IN AN ANTEBELLUM CONTEXT
Pauline Hopkins's magazine novel Hagar's Daughter inverts the dominant dynamics of racial hierarchy by revealing the "black blood" of a seemingly Anglo-American woman legitimately married to an upstanding man who epitomizes Anglo-masculinity. Similar to the biblical story, Hagar is an exiled "handmaiden" in the sense that she and her baby daughter, child of an Anglo-American patriarch, are remanded to slavery. Hagar's daughter, Jewel, replaces Ishmael and proves herself a chosen daughter, destined to bring about a great civilization. Closely intertwined with the historical narrative of the Civil War, the novel reveals a cadre of Anglo-Saxon characters who prove shamelessly incapable of self-government or the creation of a democratic republic. The novel's villain, St. Clair Enson, a Southern politician and delegate to the Confederate Convention, is the second son of an aristocratic Maryland family. The significance of naming, in this instance, recalls Harriet Beecher Stowe's St. Clare brothers. Economically insecure but with the pretensions of an aristocrat, Hopkins's St. Clair Enson has no conscience when it comes to exploiting African Americans. His brother Ellis Enson, on the other hand possesses an estate but does not hold elitist views toward his slaves, especially when he learns that his wife is African American. St. Clair collaborates with a slave trader, Walker, to sell his own sister-in-law and niece when he learns of Hagar's "negro ancestry." He and Walker first extort thousands of dollars from older brother Ellis, claiming, "[I]f I toted her to New Orleans market, a handsome polished wench like her would bring me any gentleman's seven or eight thou" (55).
St. Clair believes that Hagar's black blood precludes her status as legitimate wife and instead suits her to become an enslaved prostitute. Hagar falls into a fit of hysteria, engendered by the thought that her ancestors were black women, that marks her transition from white femininity to a liminal status of racial identity. She must reconcile her "black blood" and the racist assumptions about black women instilled in her as a white woman with what she knows as her own personal strength and dignity. Hagar endures what Saidiya Hartman calls a ritual of the enslaved through which she might fashion a new identity. (2) Deborah Horvitz locates Hagar's white womanhood in her hysteria; "through expenditure and ravishment of the body," Hagar learns to assert her humanity by recognizing her blackness (95). At first horrified by the prospect that Hagar's Anglo-Saxon purity is tainted with the blood of "naked black savages of the horrible African jungles," she and Ellis decide to run away to Europe and make a new life there (57).
The escape falls apart when, to expedite his inheritance of the family fortune, St. Clair attempts to murder his own brother. Leaving Ellis for dead, St. Clair conveys Hagar and her baby daughter, Jewel, to a Washington, D.C., slave market. Unwilling to submit to the fancy girl auction simply because her "one drop of black blood neutralized all her virtues, and she became, from the moment of exposure, an unclean thing," Hagar jumps into the Potomac with Jewel in her arms (62). (3) Refusing to accept her status as victim and slave, she exiles herself to California and fends for herself on the frontier. Her virtue and ability to protect herself and her child from slavery's dehumanizing effects cast her as heroic, even in contrast to her husband (who falls victim to his brother's ploy and fails to protect his wife's sexual purity). Kind souls rescue Baby Jewel, who floats down the Potomac on a log, and Ellis (left for dead by St. Clair) recovers and joins the Union army.
In Contending Forces, Hopkins's octoroon heroine, Sappho Clark, has survived rape and incest; the perpetrator was her white uncle, who was bent on selling her to slave traders. Sappho's name, an alias she selected as she began to re-create her identity in the aftermath of rape, signifies Hopkins's inclination to insert women in spaces of authority and social transformation independent of male support or influence. Sappho's intimate friendship with a young African American woman, Dora Smith, restores her self-respect and prepares her to become the virtuous wife of Dora's brother, Will, but only after she re-defines herself through an intimate relationship with Dora and collaboration in the black women's club movement. As the white-looking heroine, Sappho Clark, roots herself in African American culture and community, she rejects association with whiteness. Her virtues, the narrator insists, yield from her black ancestry although her bloodlines are predominantly Anglo. While Rollins's ethnic heroines rely on the intervention of gentlemen to alleviate their suffering at the hands of Anglo villains, Hopkins empowers her octoroon heroines to fend for themselves, independent of the positive or negative influence of white men.
By deploying heroines who occupy the interstices of various identity categories in the extensive system of classification that organizes American social structure, Hopkins destabilizes those categories altogether. (4) In contrast to the benefits that African blood yields in Sappho's case, the "pure" Caucasian infusion that predetermines the constitution of a villainous male character, John Langley, proves a negative force: "This blood, while it gave him the pleasant features of the Caucasian race, vitiated his moral nature and left it stranded high and dry on the shore of blind ignorance" (221). In Langley, Hopkins creates a character whose Caucasian "blood" and privileged Anglo-American upbringing leave him oblivious to social responsibility, much like the more lascivious Anglo men in Rollins's Uncle Tom's Tenement.
Hopkins revisits slavery to reveal how Anglo-American elites abuse their power over black women to take sexual advantage. While Rollins's novel is not set in the antebellum period, she appropriates illustrations of slavery's sexual exploitation to depict the plight of Irish American women. In order to manipulate the logic of pollution and danger and validate women's role in creating a new republic, Rollins uses lower-class Irish women as heroines whose textual function resonates with that of numerous black authors. (5) Relations between elite gentlemen and vulnerable poor women fueled the social purity arguments of the late nineteenth century. Anglo-American men behave as though their superiority shields them from the danger and corruption implicit in the sexual behavior of the racially marked Irish women who are their concubines. Rollins's heroine, Cassie, is the oldest daughter in a family of tenement-dwelling Irish immigrants. Much like Sappho Clark, Cassie experiences sexual overtures from her employers, constant humiliation from men who want to exploit her vulnerable position, and eventually accepts concubinage and unwed motherhood as her fate. In a scene reminiscent of Harriet Jacobs's appeals to her readers, she justifies her moral downfall by describing the minuscule amount of dignity and self-preservation she gained from it:
He offered me all I wanted--not for myself, but for those dear to me--and I said there was at least this much of honor in my degradation--that in his way the man loved me. He did not love as good men love good women; he did not love me so much but that he was willing to ruin me.... He knew me, cared for my beauty, admired my wit, praised my intelligence, and in his way he loved me. He had not advertised for some one; he wanted me. God knows how my pride pressed that one flower to my breast. And in his way he has been good to me. I do not deceive myself; I know how it will all end; I know that it is horrible, humiliating, sinful.... (460-61) (6)
As is the case with racialized heroines created by black authors like Pauline Hopkins, the rhetoric of pollution and moral degradation inherent in slavery carries over to tenement poverty. The claim that slavery destroyed the moral fiber, not only of slaves but also of white men who exploited and raped them, applies to the privileged men who take advantage of poor Irish immigrant labor and make whores of Irish daughters like Cassie and her sister Josie. Cassie claims her revenge against the aristocrats and men who have ruined her by pointing out that contamination is mutual: "I met at his house the rich man who ruined me; but his young son, his pet, his pride, his idol met my sister in the streets. If I want revenge, do you think I haven't had it? A rich man ruins a poor girl; a poor girl ruins a rich man" (454).
Whether Cassie is trying to freelance as a stenographer or work as a clerk in a store, her employers assume that she is sexually available. When she visits the superintendent of her family's tenement building (his name is Simon Legraw--clearly he is a version of the plantation overseer), he offers to let the family remain in their quarters despite the fact that they are behind in rent if Cassie will consent to sex. Departing from Stowe's propriety, Rollins addresses sexuality directly; while both Cassies escape Simon, Rollins's Cassie becomes a tragic figure. Reflecting on numerous anti-slavery novels, Rollins recreates Simon LeGree in order to critique the economic exploitation of the Irish. Greed and unethical economic practices, not an ethnic or racialized predisposition toward licentious behavior, are responsible for sexual danger and polluted morals. The source of sexual proclivities, then, is not Cassie's ethnicity (as most of the aristocratic men would claim), but rather the system of economic oppression that benefits the wealthy white men economically and leaves Irish women vulnerable to the sexual advances of their supposedly superior, more civilized Anglo-Saxon "lovers."
Similar to Hagar Enson and Sappho Clark in Hopkins's novels, sexual objectification represents the greatest danger to the heroine's character and well-being. While Sappho and Jewel's mother, Hagar, survive scenes of sexual violence, Rollins's heroines are devastated by it. As in novels by Hopkins, white male villains in Uncle Tom's Tenement attempt to justify their sexual assaults by blaming the essential character of minority women. Rollins goes to great lengths to dispel the myth that women who are sexual have an inherently bad moral fiber. (7) While Cassie's besmirched virtue is not an essentialized ethnic quality, neither is that of the young man who is "ruined" as he "ruins" her. Unlike John Langley, who Hopkins marks with the rhetoric of bad blood, Rollins's aristocratic men are satirized rather than vilified. Resonating with the tenets of "uplift" well known in bourgeois African American women's clubs and harshly critical of slumlords who shirk their responsibility to impoverished Irish American tenants, Rollins's novel demands social reform. The republic cannot withstand capitalists who do not respect the humanity of the poor (especially, in this case, Irish Catholic immigrants): "It is all a tangle; a woful tangle, of rich with poor and poor with rich, of gilded sin and sin ungilded," says Cassie (455).
Cassie, whose parents are simple and very poor, comes of age in the tenements but remains virtuous until she finally turns to prostitution to save her family from starvation. While dominant definitions of race at the end of the nineteenth century indicate that nature makes women from either group lewd and excessively libidinal, Hopkins and Rollins both take great pains to prove that wealthy white men force young women into prostitution. Hopkins frequently essentializes whiteness and inverts racial hierarchies by condemning the moral fabric of Anglo-American blood. Rollins depicts high moral character, virtue, and intelligence seeming to surface randomly among individuals of various ethnicities and backgrounds, thus destabilizing the notion of a genetic hierarchy that figures Anglo-Saxons, followed by Nordics and Aryans, at the top and Irish and African Americans at the very bottom.
Anglo-Saxon racism afflicts non-white peoples in various contexts, frequently because of greed. Rollins seems to understand that the powerful men she is criticizing have a virtually unquestioned belief in their own entitlement to resources, both economic and sexual. She equates this attitude with Anglo-Saxonism by comparing economic exploitation within the borders of the United States with colonialism all over the world. Evoking racial intonations implicit in the imperialist practices of the British in India, the narrator says of any landlord who consciously profits from tenement life, "And if there are any who do know, and who trade consciously upon the poverty of their victims, let us impeach them as Edmund Burke impeached Warren Hastings: in the name of the City of New York, whose trust they have betrayed; in the name of the American people whose ancient honor they have sullied; in the name of the poor, whose rights they have trodden under foot and whose homes they have turned into a desert" (351).
The narrator conflates the responsibility of a landlord toward his tenant with the responsibility of colonizers to govern benevolently. The British justified their "civilizing mission" of colonization according to their own moral superiority, a justification that this example fully discredits. (8) In her comparison of Anglo-Americans with British colonizers, the narrator discredits the moral superiority of Anglo-Americans by association. One wonders how the honor of the American people could be "ancient," especially in 1888 when the United States was barely one hundred years old, unless Rollins is referring to classical republicanism as the foundation of American democracy. The narrator concludes her editorial comments with a comment that might challenge the existence of racial difference altogether: "Lastly, in the name of human nature itself, in the name of both sexes, in the name of every age, in the name of every rank, let us impeach the common enemy and oppressor of us all" (351).
While the simple inclusion of the term "human nature" and the omission of race as a category does not guarantee that Rollins is at odds with doctrines of white supremacy, she engages with them at numerous points in the novel through her use of extended metaphor of Irish American exploitation and poverty as a mutation of black slavery. Distancing white skin from association with civilization, Hopkins juxtaposes her female heroines with American men of Anglo descent to suggest that women and people of color better represent civilization. Focusing on miscegenation among Anglo and African American people, her stories of interracial marriage invert dominant understandings of black female sexuality by introducing racialized heroines who face sexual jeopardy at the hands of greedy and lascivious Anglo-American men.
CLASS-BASED ELITISM AND ANGLO-MASCULINITY IN A POST-BELLUM CONTEXT
The generational divide of the Civil War splits many of Hopkins's novels. As we saw in the previous section, references to black female sexuality clearly emanate from the traffic in women engendered by slavery. Sexual jeopardy occurs most frequently in ante-bellum historical settings. Since Rollins rewrites Uncle Tom's Cabin, her novel, too, participates in this ante/post-bellum splitting. Although stories of sexual subjection in Uncle Tom's Tenement clearly emanate from the context of slavery, the question of tenement poverty emerges as a distinctly post-bellum concern. As survivors of sexual jeopardy, Hopkins's heroines and, very often, their daughters take on more public concerns in post-bellum historical settings. Moving from an individual and personal level of engagement with "un-virtuous" Anglo-Americans, they expand their negotiation to a grander social scale through public presence in spaces like Congress and courtrooms. Both authors engage with questions of civilization to address economic opportunity and cultural production, concerns particularly germane to the 1880s.
In Uncle Tom's Tenement, white aristocrats interpret the squalor and sin associated with poverty as evidence that the poor, especially Irish and African Americans, are inferior human beings. Poverty and moral degradation are essential qualities of the Irish, according to Rollins's wealthy Anglo antagonists. Similarly, Hopkins reckoned with stereotypes of African Americans as lazy and licentious that were perpetuated by minstrel shows, popular music, journalism, and almost every facet of American popular culture in 1900. (9) Many degrading popular culture representations likened black and Irish Americans; Hopkins never gestures to associate her black characters with any but ethnically ambiguous white low-life villains and Anglo-American men who learn lessons in civilization from her heroines. Her insistence upon the economic and cultural advancements of middle-class blacks is complicated by the context of "uplift" and assimilationist politics. Given that she was writing within a cultural milieu that equated prosperity and culture with essential human value, she may have been fenced in by the logic of racial essentialism. (10)
While Rollins never attributes the natural occurrence of moral superiority to one particular race, Hopkins is more precise in her indictment of white America. She overtly challenges the inherent qualities of "white" blood, suggesting that the contributions to civilization made by Anglo-Americans should be reassessed. (11) Amalgamation, as Hopkins argues in her 1905 treatise, occurs to the great gain of the Anglo-Saxon race. Hopkins deploys what John Higham describes as the less-onerous nativist ideology of fellow Bostonian John Fiske, "that Anglo-Saxons possess a unique capacity to merge with other peoples while retaining their own dominant traits" (145). She amends this ideology to suggest that the intermingling of African blood metaphorically represents African American contributions to the dominant American concept of civilization. Her octoroon heroines, therefore, are strategic figures deployed in the interest of exhibiting a "true Americanness" that would both avert nativist anti-immigration hostilities from an already beleaguered black population and also elevate the Ethiopian to equal status with the Anglo-Saxon "true American." (12) The octoroon, a symbol of pluralism, might in fact represent a more realistic figure of what a "true American" is.
Hopkins carefully illustrates the Freedmen's accomplishments in Contending Forces. Clearly concerned (as is Rollins in her treatment of the Irish) with the lack of economic opportunity that plagues the African American community, Hopkins points toward ways that Anglo-American ideologies of civilization justify structural oppression. Hopkins argues that these disenfranchised people demonstrate the characteristics of a "higher civilization, so common among the whites, but supposed to be beyond the reach of a race just released from bondage ... with about every avenue for business closed against them" (86). Reading this passage in the context of nativism and scientific racism, the surface of bourgeois respectability is a veneer through which to represent the substantive fiber of a race and protect African Americans from the onslaught of dominant ideologies that would further subjugate them politically, socially, and economically. Racial purity was, for American "aristocrats," indispensable to progress. As Lloyd Ambrosius states, concurring with numerous other historians, "White Americans, who defined the 'manifest destiny' of their providential nation, identified its progress with racial Anglo-Saxonism" (5). For many native-born white Americans, there was simply no alternative to a hierarchy of human value assigned and understood through someone's racial background. (13)
In itself, Hopkins's and Rollins's use of minority women to advocate pluralistic civilization and debunk Anglo-masculine claims to civilization is not unprecedented; class standing and poverty, embodied through productions of working-class heroines, were novelistic conventions in a tradition well known to Hopkins and Rollins. Uncle Tom's Tenement complements Hopkins's use of the conventional female heroine and illuminates the sexual politics at stake in American civilization. (14) Both authors deploy virtuous victims of society's ills (poverty and racism, particularly) to comment on essentialized weaknesses or personal qualities that are culturally assigned due to gender, race, class, or ethnicity. (15) In this manner, and through suggesting sexual predation on the part of Anglo men who call themselves civilized, Hopkins and Rollins redefine the body politic that forms civilization in a modern republic.
I see similarities between the various poor heroines of Uncle Tom's Tenement--especially Eliza and Cassie--and the main characters in Hopkins's four novels. The corpus of both authors' work engages with the logic of Anglo-masculine supremacy; both portray elite Anglo-Americans striving to inherit or uphold financial empires, nativists trying to limit citizenship rights, and common racist villains who do not even seem to have capital or citizenship at stake but rather thrive on violence. In Uncle Tom's Tenement, for example, Rollins juxtaposes narratives about the lives of at least five characters with different relationships to Anglo-masculine supremacy. They include a progressive journalist, a widow from an aristocratic background whose husband's death has left her penniless, a very wealthy young woman who becomes a reformer in the tenements, a young mother named Eliza whose husband and young son must leave to "go West," and finally Cassie, a beautiful and almost genteel Irish immigrant, who struggles to support her uneducated, unskilled parents and siblings. Comparing Hopkins's and Rollins's visions of social justice and democratic republicanism suggests that both women may have geared their arguments against elitists who would also identify as nativists.
Hagar's Daughter opens in 1860 but jumps ahead to the early 1880s, the historical moment when the federal government abandoned its attempts to democratize the South. Nell Irvin Painter suggests this move reflected the resignation that "northern Republicans reinterpreted anti-black and anti-Republican violence in the South less as criminal action and more as proof that traditional political elites needed to return to power" (2-3). Hopkins looks back nearly twenty years from her editorial desk in 1901 to trace the origins of the racist practices that would sanction segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial degradation (8). Drawing on the 1870s and early 1880s, a time period during which A. Leon Higginbotham notes that the implementation of civil rights statutes passed from 1866 to 1875 "came to a screeching halt" (82), Hopkins intervenes in the decline of "civilization" by inserting a black heroine whose presence restores the greatness of Ethiopia to American civilization.
In the 1880s, amid class-based rioting and tremendous national frustration regarding the flailing productivity of the post-slavery South, Jewel demonstrates that the social and economic position of the virtuous citizen is not the exclusive province of the Anglo-Saxon. The wealthy reveal their civic virtue by governing their "inferiors" who are confined to a lower station. (16) The major action of the novel centers around family reunion and Jewel's discovery that she is really a black woman. Jewel's choices, particularly her preference for identification with African ancestry and rejection of a white suitor, mirror Sappho Clark's. Hopkins deploys octoroon heroines like Jewel Bowen to document the shortcomings of Anglo-masculinity and demand pluralism, which Jewel enacts through her public action and speech. Effectively saving her Anglo-American fiance, Cuthbert Sumner, from the treachery and corruption of Anglo-masculinity, Jewel testifies in court and locates the only witness to the crime. As Hazel Carby points out in her introduction to The Magazine Novels, "The disguise of whiteness enabled Hopkins to write a 'black' story that unravels in the heart of elite Washington society" (xxxviii). Their ability to overcome the stigma of previous enslavement distinguishes Sappho and Jewel as models of pluralistic participation in the public sphere; they build their public transformation upon the inspiration of other black women who represent a cultural tradition of resistance. When Sumner is unjustly accused of murder, imprisoned, and tried under the death penalty, Jewel saves him. She first employs a detective, "Chief Henson," who turns out to be her long-lost father Ellis Enson. When kidnapped by the scheming "General Benson" (her evil uncle St. Clair Enson in disguise), Jewel discovers the only witness to the crime of which Sumner has been accused. (17)
Highlighting the inefficacy of Anglo-masculinity, Jewel's affiliation with other black women converts her into a heroine capable of attaining justice and reuniting her parents. Of pivotal importance is Aunt Henny, an aged former slave held hostage at the old plantation with Jewel until the two are rescued by Venus, Jewel's African American maid. Through her alliance with Aunt Henny and Venus, Jewel clears Sumner's name by appearing at his trial they quickly elope. Jewel's next priority is to reunite her own fragmented family. Her mother, "the slave Hagar," finds her long-lost and left-for-dead husband and the three eventually live happily ever after. By protecting their families and their own sexual purity, black women emerge as rightful actors in the dominant political scenario.
Reckoning with the ideology of social purity, Hopkins disrupts sites of presumed racial purity and elite power by inserting beautiful, moral, and virtuous heroines into spaces meant to be occupied only by the purest of white ladies. Cuthbert Sumner, however, becomes a reflection of Northern anxiety about racial pluralism in the public sphere. His wife, a former slave, has just saved him from hanging for a crime he did not commit, yet "he was unhappy and anxious over her situation with her stepmother; the wonderful revelation of Mrs. Bowen's identity with the slave Hagar was a shock to him" (265). When Sumner finds out later that his wife is the actual daughter of "the slave Hagar," he temporarily abandons her. Anglo-masculinity fails, and miserably so.
Hopkins's disdain for the hypocrisy of white abolitionists who become opponents to social equality comes through in her description of Sumner: "[B]orn and bred in an atmosphere which approved of freedom and qualified equality for the Negro, he had never considered for one moment the remote contingency of actual social contact with this unfortunate people" (265). His attitudes portend marital failure; before he learns that Jewel, too, has "Negro blood," he tells her father,
I think that the knowledge of her origin would kill all desire in me ... the mere thought of the grinning, toothless black hag that was her foreparent would forever rise between us. I am willing to allow the Negroes education, to see them acquire business, money, and social status within a certain environment. I am not averse even to their attaining political power. Farther than this, I am not prepared to go. Ought we not, as Anglo-Saxons, keep the fountain head of our racial stream as unpoluted [sic] as possible? (271)
Ellis Enson rebuts Sumner's Anglo-Saxon, white supremacist assertions by stating, "This is the sum total of what Puritan New England philanthropy will allow--very privilege but the vital one of deciding a question of the commonest personal liberty which is the fundamental principle of the holy family tie" (271). Sumner says, "Thank God I have my wife; there I am safely anchored," and breathes a sigh of relief that Jewel is only Hagar's step-daughter. He continues to believe that Jewel is a bastion of racial purity and Anglo-Saxon virtue. Sumner's inability to recognize Jewel's blackness parallels a nationalism wherein the mythical site of nation-building, white racial integrity, and social purity was the pedestaled body of the white woman. Hopkins infuses this site with the supposedly "inferior black blood" that caused intense anxiety among white Southerners and, as we see in Sumner's reaction, Northerners as well. Jewel and her family leave Washington before Sumner can renounce his prejudice. She sends him a note, lamenting her own "sin" for having "scorned the Ethiopian" and entreats him not to try and see her that day. Although she promises to "write again tomorrow and perhaps see" Sumner, she also says, "I know your prejudice against amalgamation" (282).
Hopkins's vision of progress clearly necessitates the public presence of black women; Jewel learns through her husband's trial that pluralism, the presence in action and speech of blacks and women, is the vehicle toward a more just republic. While Rollins satirizes the "civic virtue" of aristocrats, Hopkins depicts the likes of Sumner as obsolete and incorrigible and punishes them for their lack of individual accountability. Hopkins's disgust for Anglo-Americans contrasts with Rollins's sense of humor. Like Stowe's Shelby family, Rollins's Selby family is good-hearted and charming. In Uncle Tom's Tenement is the affluent Mrs. Selby, whose husband has just purchased a tenement building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Enthusiastic about her chance to improve the lives of her tenants, she suggests to her husband that they make living conditions in the building sanitary and safe for human occupancy. He resists her suggestion, claiming that the only slumlord to build decent tenements "has got hold of a better class of tenants than we shall have" (4). Mrs. Selby, however, takes delight in the possibility that she can acquire tenants from the lowest rung of human existence, saying, "[I]f you alter an old tenement, you keep hold of a lower class and gradually educate them up. O yes!" (4). Evidently, a Darwinian concept of the evolution of civilization informs Mrs. Selby's aspirations. In this mindset, the benevolent governance of Anglo-Saxons has the potential to spur the evolution of the less civilized. While she believes her Anglo-Saxon presence essential to the upbuilding of the lower orders, it is ironic that she ultimately eschews social contact with the Irish, opting to vacation in Europe. In this particular instance, Rollins satirizes philanthropy, perhaps because it excuses greed.
Meanwhile, the Selbys are oblivious to their "beloved" Eliza's struggles. Like Stowe's heroine, Rollins's impoverished mother does not have the agency to amend her situation without appealing to the generosity and conscience of elite whites. When she visits them looking for work, Mrs. Selby erroneously assumes that she is "looking for a little extra pin money" (15). Rollins offers numerous examples of aristocratic hubris in the form of essentialized views on ethnicity that prevent elite characters from fulfilling their republican responsibility to the community. While they think they are virtuous due to their occasional generosity, Rollins repeatedly emphasizes that wealthy white men contribute to social disintegration by refusing to see their own actions as corrupt. The excuse for exploiting the poor, of course, is the aristocratic belief that one's own breeding and racial/ethnic origin produce social and economic station.
While, unlike Stowe's Mr. Shelby, Mr. Selby does not exact a minstrel show from Eliza's son, the Selbys are amused by young Harry's aspirations to become an "orphan" so he can go west and live what he thinks will be the adventures of a cowboy. They have no idea that Eliza might actually have to give him up to the orphanage. Mr. Selby is affectionate toward Harry, yet he obviously could not imagine the child growing up to be his social equal. Selby engages the little boy in banter, then says,"Come here, you little monkey, and get this bunch of raisins" (10). Offended once again, as he was when Selby called his mother "Eliza" instead of "Mrs. Harrison," the little boy "turned with dignity toward his mother. Shall I take them, mammy?" (10). In Stowe's classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin, a similar scene takes place when Eliza's master sends her son scrambling for raisins in a troubling scene of paternalistic behavior. While surnames quickly reveal that the tenement inhabitants are Irish, Mr. Selby's use of racist language recalls the manner in which a plantation owner might refer to his slaves. When Harry corrects him again, saying, "I'm not a monkey," Mr. Selby is even more amused (11). "You don't like to be called a monkey? Why, Mr. Darwin once told me that I was a monkey, and I rather liked it," replies Mr. Selby (11). It is interesting that Selby equates evolution with his apparent Social Darwinism; he believes himself evolved beyond the likes of the Irish. While Mr. Selby thinks he is being kind and playful toward the boy, who even at the age of eight is insulted, his proclaimed knowledge of varying "classes of tenants" as well as his reference to Darwin suggests Social Darwinist justifications for Anglo supremacy. Rollins's narrator, who is admittedly predisposed to spells of "social satire," depicts numerous debates between so-called "American aristocrats," their "radical" sons and daughters who are committed to social transformation, and Irish workers who are threatening to unionize or strike for higher wages. One aristocrat, Damrell, convinces his workers that profit sharing is unfair because it is brains, not capital, that reaps profit in the business world: "It isn't Labor vs. Capital at all, it is Labor vs. Brains. Capital helps, labor helps; but brains make the profit. When I say that one man has hands and another man has brains, I am not saying anything in disparagement of the man with hands. I am simply recognizing the fact that men are different" (303). Rollins attends further to the issue of ethnic tension and racial difference when Damrell equates socialism with slavery. He claims, "The slaves were not poor; they had no anxieties about being turned out of their homes for rent, no fear that they would not have a good dinner, no doubt at all but that if they, or any of their families, fell ill they would be most carefully, O very carefully, nursed back to health by the master and mistress whose interest it was that they should be in good condition" (327-28). The narrator concedes that Damrell's speech and successful attempt to avert the worker's strike is subject to two interpretations: that the old man's conservatism saved the firm from the ideals of radicals, or that Damrell's radical son brought young blood and transformation to the firm. The chapter concludes with the narrator's comment, "Only you and I, who have read this story, know really why they did not strike."
This confidence in readerly interpretation, emanating from a narrator who is forceful about equating the evils of slavery with the evils of poverty, suggests that the workers' reaction stemmed from more than their fear of unemployment or their thirst for free beer promised after the meeting. Damrell's strategic evocation of the master/slave relationship, framed in the idyllic scenario of the plantation, struck a chord of pride in a bunch of Irish immigrants who not only refused to be likened to slaves, but also reviled the patronizing and paternal relationship that Damrell claims an overly generous employer would have with his workers. Aware of Irish immigrant pride and their need to dissociate from blackness, the logic of racial supremacy serves to quell the demands of Irish laborers and construct a false confidence in the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men who are, according to Damrell, the Brains.
Essentialist aristocrats dismiss poverty, like slavery, as a natural condition and explain it away through the logic of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. While Hopkins rebukes Anglo-American aristocratic pretensions and imagines black women as actors who will reform the social and political scenario, Rollins invests hope in younger generations of Anglo-Americans who might become progressive leaders. Rollins's narrator urges her readers to see that the "single garment of destiny" worn by the American republic as it develops into a great nation is sullied by the illusion of social purity and the fantasy that racial and class segregation suffice to protect the interests of the Anglo-American elite. Lack of accountability for the moral character and welfare of all Americans, however, seems to be the downfall of the rich. By ignoring the plight of those we call "on Sundays our brethren, and on week-days the masses" the privileged are sinning against what Rollins calls "a common humanity" (468). The repercussions of using "difference" to justify indifference are severe, both in slavery and in the context of exploiting immigrant labor.
A socially progressive agenda certainly informs the novels of Pauline Hopkins and Alice Rollins. Their demands for social justice include economic opportunity and the right to self-determination for women, particularly women excluded from "native born" and white supremacist privilege. Rollins's novelistic strategy is similar to that of her African American contemporaries in that one of her major concerns is the sexual jeopardy faced by attractive Irish immigrant women, especially when they develop relationships with wealthy Anglo men. Like Pauline Hopkins's octoroon heroines, Irish heroines are victimized in romantic relationships with white men. While the Irish women are forced into prostitution, Hopkins's heroines re-define themselves after sexual assault; if they marry, it is to upstanding black men. Revealing the sexual and social impurity of licentious Anglo-American men is tantamount to declaring them uncivilized and incapable of self-government. The ways that both these authors oppose Anglo-American supremacist discourse contrast at points, indicating the tension that developed between Black and Irish communities as they tried to prove themselves civilized. Rollins, a wealthy Anglo-American woman, is trying to represent Irish oppression while Hopkins seeks to distance her own black community from the likes of Irish Americans or the white "lower orders."
Hopkins and Rollins suggest how intersecting lines of class, gender, and racial/ethnic supremacy yield catastrophic results upon the American republic. Considering class-based elitism, male supremacy, nativism, and racism simultaneously provides a methodology for interpreting Hopkins and Rollins in historical context. These two progressive American novelists, both women, critiqued the Anglo-American male purchase on political power and demanded pluralism in the form of access to the public sphere for members of the working class and women who might also be racial and ethnic minorities. For each author, the objective of the downtrodden group she champions is to affirm intellectual parity with Anglo-American citizenry, thus proving them capable of self-government and worthy of equal protection. Delineating Anglo-American culpability for the plight of blacks or Irish immigrants, likewise, is Hopkins and Rollins's common project. As Noel Ignatiev illustrates, however, relations between Americans of Irish and African descent were characterized by riots and rivalry. Pursuing the intricacies of African and Irish American conflict merits further consideration in studies of American literary history.
(1.) Fraser explains further that "[b]y acting and speaking together, we disclose our identity and establish a web of relationships with other persons. It is through action and speech that ... the identity of the human agent is revealed.... Each person needs to act and speak in order to distinguish himself from others. That distinction would be impossible without a fundamental equality between persons" (177).
(2.) Hartman reads physical performance (such as Hagar's histrionics) in slave culture, drawing from Victor Turner, as "an integral part of the performance process, for in 'breakdown' the individual is 'reduced or ground down to be fashioned again anew'" (Hartman 72-77; Turner 95).
(3.) It is not only ironic that Hagar faces the extreme injustice of sexual slavery in the nation's capital; Hopkins's chosen setting and the scene at the Potomac harken back to an almost identical scene in William Wells Brown's Clotel. I thank Arlene Keizer for pointing out this intertextual reference (conversation, 10/22/99).
(4.) Consider, for example, Alfred P. Schultz's 1908 publication, Race or Mongrel. Looking toward the future of America, Schultz reminds readers that "Darwin notes in half-breeds a return toward the habits of savage life" (8). He also goes to great lengths in describing why Anglo-Saxons are obviously superior to Aryans. Jews, Hindus, Italians, and what he collectively refers to as "the yellow races" fall well below German-Americans in the racial hierarchy of multiple Caucasian and Asian races. Schultz warns against further immigration for he considers interbreeding among various Caucasian races dangerous. He blames everything from tuberculosis to railroad disasters on immigrants. In his estimation, however, the most ludicrous abuse of philanthropy was the liberation and enfranchisement of the "America Negro," who become local heroes by assaulting white women and to whom Christianity is but a form of fetish worship (341).
(5.) I am using Mary Douglas's language here. The rhetoric of purity among Anglo-Americans and the supposed "danger" posed by Irish, Black, or Jewish populations magnified paranoia about sexual contact between different racial groups. Like a litany of Black writers (including William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, and Frances Harper) who depict white men as polluters of African-American society, Rollins turns the rhetoric of pollution back upon Anglo men who force themselves on minority women.
(6.) See Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Compare Cassie's speech to Linda Brent's: "So much attention from a superior human being was, of course, flattering; for human nature is the same in all. I also felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged by his kind words. It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend. By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart" (54). Brent's self-justification comes at the cost of similar self-deprecation and appeal for understanding from the reader:
And now, reader, I come to a period in my unhappy life, which I would gladly forget if I could. The remembrance fills me with sorrow and shame. It pains me to tell you of it; but I have promised to tell you the truth ... let it cost me what it may. I will not try to screen myself behind the plea of compulsion from a master, for it was not so. Neither can I plead ignorance or thoughtlessness. For years, my master had done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images, and to destroy the pure principles inculcated by my grandmother, and the good mistress of my childhood. The influences of slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls; they had made me prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world. I knew what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation. (54-55)
(7.) Coincidentally, Cassie and Sappho share the same occupation. While there is no innuendo attached to stenography in Contending Forces--Hopkins actually supported herself by working as a stenographer--the occupation is clearly a code word for prostitution in Uncle Tom's Tenement. Cassie puts an advertisement in the paper, offering her services as a freelance stenographer, and receives fifteen responses. All of them assume that she will perform sexual acts in exchange for wages.
(8.) The reference to British colonialism in India vis-a-vis the Burke/Hastings comment might imply, however subtly, that racial difference as a justification for imperialism is tantamount to the discourse of racial difference that justifies economic exploitation in the United States. Deflecting the argument to Britain and India, however, cushions Rollins's possible claim that the poor ate impoverished and thus victimized by elite whites, both financially and legally, with race as a fabricated excuse.
(9.) Focusing on Hagar's Daughter, Kristina Brooks argues that two particular black characters reflect minstrel characterizations of sexual depravity and attendant moral weakness. I don't find that Hopkins uses minstrel stereotypes to distance herself from "the folk." Instead, her refusal to idealize black characters and her avoidance of the wholesale demonization of white characters suggests that she is trying to offer a balanced portrayal of the intricacies of race relations.
(10.) For a more complete discussion of the tenets of "uplift," see Gaines.
(11.) There is some slippage into the tenets of racialist discourse here--in trying to invert the negative associations of "black blood," Hopkins makes the presence of white blood a biological determinant of one's capacity for evil. This problem is part of the slipperiness of using an octoroon character as a representative of African-Americans in general; in order to refute the idea that a mixed race individual's "white blood" is the source of his or her intellect, virtue, and high rank in the "civilized" world, Hopkins seems to feel that she must exemplify occasional biological essentialism that rewrites "white blood" as a social pollutant rather than "black blood." We see this problem in the character John Langley as well as in Hopkins's A Primer of Facts: Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the Ethiopian Race. Carla Peterson argues, nonetheless, that "[a]ccording to Hopkins's racial theories, neither white nor black blood is superior to the other; rather, their value depends on a complex working out of both hereditary and environmental factors" (184).
(12.) The traditional belief in "Ethiopianism" within African American culture originated among free blacks before the Civil War and is biblically based. Like her contemporary W. E. B. Dubois, Hopkins fuses the complementary but mythological traditions in European and African American culture accounting for the symbiotic relations between Africans and Europeans in the building of civilization.
(13.) Paul Goodman excerpts William Lloyd Garrison's biography to explain this ideology:
Advocates of Southern rights in the mid 1830s, such as Senator John C. Calhoun and Governor George McDuffie of South Carolina, defended slavery on the 'mudsill' theory of social organization. This posited the inevitability of a debased, laboring class in every civilized society, whether slave or ostensibly free. Better, they argued, that the dangerous class be stripped of all power, as in the South, than perilously allowed the right to strike and vote as in the North. (140)
(14.) Alice Rollins repeats her reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel in an epigraph and in her preface. The epigraph in Rollins's novel, taken from Uncle Tom's Cabin, reads, "How in the world can the two things be compared?" said Miss Ophelia. "The laborer is not sold, traded, parted from his family, whipped. "He is as much at the will of his employer as if he were sold to him. The slave-owner can whip his refractory slave to death--the capitalist can starve him to death. As to family security, it is hard to say which is the worse--to have one's children sold, or see them starve to death at home."
(15.) The contending forces of racism that Hopkins is reckoning with make obvious the necessity of inverting derogatory associations with the value of "black blood." Degradation was implicit in the dominant voting population's legal representation of race. Majority (white) opinion about the very presence of little more than a drop of "negro blood" is, of course, evidenced in the legal codes that interpreted that drop as an unforgivable sign of contamination and pollution within the social world. This dominant anxiety about the negative qualities of black blood is evident in the historic Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. As Joseph Roach points out, "Among those who would have certainly been picked out for white was Homer Adolph Plessy, the Creole octoroon whose arrest for riding in the whites only car of an East Louisiana Railroad train set the eponymous legal case in motion" (185).
(16.) Quoting an Atlantic Monthly, essay from 1896, Matthew Frye Jacobsen illustrates how stereotypes typically used against blacks also served to explain why Celts were incapable of truly civilized republican behavior. Lacking the "balance, the judgment, and the moral staying power of the Anglo-Saxon," the Celt "imbibes with avidity the theory of equality.... [T]here are many Irish-Americans, young men growing up in our cities, who are too vain of too lazy to work, self indulgent, impudent, and dissipated" (49).
(17.) Aunt Henny's status as sole witness of gross injustice suggests the precarious position of black women, during slavery and after, as sometimes voiceless yet frequently active resisters to white male abuses of power.
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Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Brooks, Kristina. "Mammies, Bucks, and Wenches." The Unruly Voice. Ed. John Gruesser. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. 119-57.
Carby, Hazel. Introduction. The Magazine Novels. Hopkins xxix-xlix.
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--. Hagar's Daughter. 1901-02. Hopkins, The Magazine Novels 1-284.
--. The Magazine Novels. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
--. Primer of Facts: Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the Ethiopian Race. Cambridge: P.E. Hopkins, 1905.
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Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919. New York: Norton, 1987.
Peterson, Carla. "Unsettled Frontiers: Race, History, and Romance in Pauline Hopkins' Contending Forces." Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure. Ed. Allison Booth. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993. 177-96.
Roach, Joseph P. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
Rollins, Alice Wellington. Uncle Tom's Tenement. Boston, 1888.
Schultz, Alfred P. Race or Mongrel. Boston: Page, 1908.
Turner, Victor Witter. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1969.
COLLEEN C. O'BRIEN
Johns Hopkins University
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|Author:||O'Brien, Colleen C.|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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