Let the Good Work Go On

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution

By Lois Brown
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 704 pp., $45.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Andreá N. Williams

Standing before an audience of social activists in Boston in 1905, Pauline Hopkins boldly declared herself one of the little-recognized “black daughters of the [American] Revolution.” In making this declaration, Hopkins could reflect on her admirable family history, her involvement with community organizations, and her work as a performing artist and writer devoted to the causes of antilynching and black sociopolitical advancement.

Recognizing this speech as a defining moment in Hopkins’s public life, Lois Brown introduces readers to an African American woman who challenged turn-of-the-century racial politics and literary conventions. Left in obscurity for nearly half a century, since the 1970s Hopkins and her writings have increasingly become the subjects of archival recovery and analysis. Brown’s biography—ten years in the making—stands out as the most sustained study to consider Hopkins’s life and work together. It offers previously unknown details about Hopkins’s genealogy and attention to her nonfiction creative output, including her musical and dramatic performances. Brown also offers great insight into the last three decades of Hopkins’s life and her death following a fire in 1930.

Born in Maine in 1859, Hopkins spent most of her life in Massachusetts and was deeply invested in a New England culture of arts and reform. Her extended family included abolitionists who had been associated with William Lloyd Garrison, and her mother and stepfather encouraged the arts as a means of raising consciousness about social issues. As a teenager, Hopkins won an essay contest sponsored by William Wells Brown, the fugitive slave-cum-littérateur, whose fiction and historical anthologies provided resources for her later writing. During the 1870s and 1880s, she was a concert soprano, sometimes known as “Boston’s Black Nightingale.” Yet by the turn of the century, she was making her most defining marks on US and African American culture as a writer.

Between 1900 and 1904, Hopkins worked on the staff of the Colored American Magazine, the premier black-owned literary periodical of the late-nineteenth century. As writer and then editor, she published essays opposing racial inequality. She often wrote under pen names, to disguise how heavily the magazine’s content depended on her contributions. One of her significant interventions was a biographical series, “Famous Women of the Negro Race,” which highlighted black women’s activism as clubwomen, artists, and educators. During this time, Hopkins also published what has become her most famous novel, Contending Forces (1900), and three additional novels, which she serialized in the pages of the magazine.

Although Hopkins worked hard to sustain the quality and free speech of the Colored American Magazine, Booker T. Washington—the turn-of-the-century conservative black powerhouse—bought out the financially failing periodical. Hopkins was wary of Washington’s interference because he wanted to censor the press’s agitation for black voting rights. When the Colored American Magazine moved its headquarters from Boston to New York, Hopkins temporarily relocated in an attempt to retain her position, but Washington supplanted her with another editor who subscribed to his accommodationist philosophy. Hopkins’s unjust firing from the Colored American Magazine has become legendary among readers already familiar with her. Brown’s research uncovers additional correspondence that details a carefully orchestrated attempt by Washington and other detractors to suppress Hopkins’s views.

Noting Hopkins’s resistance to these attempts, Brown portrays her as an occasionally feisty woman, defensive about her art and clear about its aims. Through her writing, Hopkins offered a corrective to the often-damning public impressions of African Americans as unintelligent, weak, or morally corrupt. For instance, when a disgruntled white reader objected to her fictional depictions of interracial romance, Hopkins responded indignantly:

My stories are definitely planned to show the obstacles persistently placed in our paths by a dominant race to subjugate us spiritually. Marriage is made illegal between the races…I sing of the wrongs of a race that ignorance of their pitiful condition may be changed to intelligence…Let the good work go on. Opposition is the life of an enterprise; criticism tells you are doing something.

Hopkins’s full editorial reply, featured in Brown’s appendix, indicates how deliberately she intended for her writing to show that both whites and blacks had to right the legacy of slavery and racism.

Hopkins was the first black woman to publish a novel in the twentieth century, as well as the first African American to have a drama about slavery enacted on stage. Yet Brown argues that above all, Hopkins was a “public historian” or “public intellectual.” In Brown’s account, Hopkins is a well-rounded artist who often conveyed her messages through the vehicle of fiction, but who was equally comfortable writing history, journalism, or plays. Regardless of the format she used, Hopkins primarily was interested in conveying her message of civil rights, women’s public visibility, and the preservation of diasporic black history. Though literary critics often disparage literature that has a social purpose—as opposed to art for art’s sake—Brown suggests that these two motives for writing were not contradictory in Hopkins’s work. Instead, her devotion to the causes she espoused motivated her to greater artistic experimentation and mastery over the course of her career.

Brown aims to show that even Hopkins’s briefest public appearances—whether in photographs, written discourse, or oral performances and readings—helped her develop her consistent politics. For example, in her stage debut in a play entitled Pauline; or, The Belle of Saratoga in 1877, Hopkins played a sentimental but self-assured young woman who questions male authority. Even if the eighteen-year-old Hopkins did not think about her first acting gig as strategically as Brown implies, Brown corrects the impression that Hopkins’s artistic career and her critique of gender and racial inequities began only when she wrote Contending Forces. Instead, Brown explains,

The public intellectual who recognized the flaws of accommodationism, proclaimed the evils of lynching, and allied herself with the most fervent race men of her day in the early 1900s did not just suddenly appear on the twentieth-century literary landscape.

To support her view, Brown appends transcriptions of some of Hopkins’s speeches and personal correspondence, as well as illustrations of and information about her literary and activist colleagues.

The heart of this biography is Brown’s close reading of Hopkins’s four novels. In the two chapters devoted to Contending Forces, one of Brown’s freshest insights is that the novel “may have been in part a cathartic autobiographical exercise for Hopkins,” which allowed Hopkins to fictionalize elements of her own family history in ways that previous scholars, less familiar with her genealogy, have overlooked. Although the late scholar Claudia Tate categorized Hopkins’s fictions with the important domestic novels of her turn-of-the-century black female contemporaries—including Amelia Johnson, Frances Harper, and Katherine Tillman—Brown highlights how Hopkins’s novels consistently featured more diverse settings and character types. Black Americans in Hopkins’s fiction traverse the boundaries that ordinarily limit women to their homes and all African Americans to geographic and social immobility: they are detectives investigating White House scandals in Hagar’s Daughter, fugitive slaves living with Native Americans in Winona, and excavators of mythical African kingdoms in Of One Blood.

While Brown celebrates Hopkins as an admirable protofeminist, she also invites readers to consider Hopkins’s sometimes ambivalent or contradictory stances on women’s rights, social Darwinism, labor organization, and class stratification. Today’s readers may find distasteful many of Hopkins’s personal or artistic values—such as her repeated preferential depiction of light-skinned over dark-skinned black characters—but Brown accounts for these issues rather than omitting or rationalizing them. In sum, she offers a balanced portrayal.

This volume also points to lingering questions about Hopkins’s social status in her own time. The chapter “The New Era Magazine and the ‘Singlewoman of Boston’” focuses on Hopkins’s position as editor in chief of the New Era, a politically conscious publication that survived for only two issues, apparently because of financial insolvency. Following its failure in 1916, Hopkins was forced to sell her house. Legal papers from the sale refer to Hopkins accurately but dismissively as “a singlewoman of Boston.” On the one hand, I wish Brown had addressed Hopkins’s single status more fully rather than in passing; she misses an opportunity to reflect on Hopkins’s understanding of gender, social power, and the representation of black women. However, on the other, I can respect Brown’s decision not to discuss Hopkins’s marital status in greater detail, since to do so would further normalize the nuclear family structure by implying that a woman’s decision to remain single needs to be justified or explained.

Despite the social convention of the time that women marry, Hopkins developed a public career as a stenographer, journalist, writer, and performer. In her attempt to redeem black women from rampant accusations of wanton sexuality, she frequently made rape a theme of her fiction and marriage the desirable culmination of her plots. How did Hopkins’s own private life relate to these models of middle-class female respectability? What kind of professional focus and social leverage did Hopkins have because of (or despite) her status as an unmarried woman? Unfortunately, Brown was unable to find much information that would help us speculate about Hopkins’s romantic life. A modest collection of Hopkins’s papers resides at Fisk University Library in Tennessee, and Brown creatively draws on it to develop her arguments throughout the biography. But even the fact that there’s little evidence about Hopkins’s single life is important. It suggests the care that Hopkins took to keep her private concerns separate from her public persona as black activist and artist. Rather than indicating any real flaw, unresolved issues such as this suggest the ethical dilemmas involved in treating the subjects of biography with care, respect, and critical distance. 

Like the narrative style of much of Hopkins’s fiction, Brown’s biography wanders across time. As she explains, “Hopkins’s biographical narrative does not lend itself to a straightforward account. It, like so many other life stories, reveals startling facts suppressed, major events reinterpreted, and primary relationships redefined.” Brown builds upon a strain of feminist autobiographical theory that reads women’s lives as nonlinear. She shifts effortlessly between analysis and storytelling, making the text appropriate for both academic audiences and lay readers seriously interested in women’s history, African American literature, and New England literary culture. This profound biography adds to Brown’s admirable scholarly profile as well as to Hopkins’s legacy as an innovative writer dedicated to social equality.

Andreá N. Williams is assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University. She is writing a study of social class representations in nineteenth-century African American fiction.

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