Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Sutton E. Griggs
1872-1930

SUTTON ELBERT GRIGGS was born in 1872 in Chatfield, Texas. He was educated in schools in Dallas and attended Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. He then attended Richmond Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, graduating in 1893. Ordained as a Baptist minister, he held pastorates in Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas, most notably at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Memphis.

Griggs achieved early fame with five polemical novels published between 1899 and 1908. Imperium in Imperio (1899), perhaps his best-known work, is a sort of political fantasy centering around two individuals, Belton Piedmont and the mulatto Bernard Belgrave. Both men become leading figures in the Imperium, a separate political state within the United States run by blacks. Bernard, although favorably treated in youth because of his white father, becomes the militant president of the Imperium, while Belton, although discriminated against as a young man, adopts a more accommodating stance. Belton is nevertheless Griggs's mouthpiece for emphasizing the manifold inequities suffered by blacks in the United States.

Griggs's next four novels were all published by the Orion Publishing Company in Nashville. Overshadowed (1901) treats of the harsh conditions under which blacks live in the United States, subject to wrongful imprisonment, sexual violation, and lynching. Unfettered (1902) is a melodramatic tale of a lovely mulatto woman, Morlene, who falls in love with a brave young black man, Dorlan Worthell; she agrees to marry him if he can devise a means to "unfetter" the black race. This plan, "Dorlan's Plan," is printed as an appendix to the novel, and proposes to elevate the black race by means of property ownership, education, and the elimination of poverty. The Hindered Hand (1905) is a direct response to the negrophobic novels of Thomas Dixon, Jr., author of The Leopard's Spots ( 1902) and The Clansman (1905). It deals with the tragic fate of a black family victimized by vicious and prejudiced white gangs. Pointing the Way (1908) is a somewhat confused novel in which the characters debate whether blacks should marry within

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