Academic journal article African American Review

"Everything We Hoped She'd Be": Contending Forces in Hopkins Scholarship

Academic journal article African American Review

"Everything We Hoped She'd Be": Contending Forces in Hopkins Scholarship

Article excerpt

Pauline Hopkins's emergence in American and African American literary scholarship has been quite a success story. Rescued from obscurity with a biographical article by Ann Allen Shockley in 1972 and with the reissuing of her novels by the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers series in 1988, Hopkins now enjoys a measure of academic popularity, evidenced by a 1996 collection of scholarly essays devoted to her work and by the growing number of "hits" under her name in the MLA Bibliography. Indeed, at a recent conference on American women writers, some of us quipped that it might have been a Pauline Hopkins conference, so ubiquitous was her critical presence.

Recently I ran a Pauline Hopkins search on Amazon.com. I was curious as to whether a publisher had reissued any of her three novels originally serialized in The Colored American Magazine and reprinted in one volume in the Schomburg collection. Having worked on Hopkins for some years, I felt confident that I knew all her work; I wasn't expecting any surprises. But I was surprised to find A Love Supreme by Pauline Hopkins--a book completely unknown to me--available from The X Press, along with two of the magazine novels, now published separately. As it turns out, A Love Supreme is the X Press's new title for Hopkins's first novel, Contending Forces. The cover of this edition features a photograph of a sultry, dark-skinned woman gazing up at the viewer positioned above her. The back cover touts the novel as a political fiction and, perhaps appealing to a modern audience's notion of "political," attempts to hide the book's use of the "tragic mulatta" convention, a convention that has troubled literary scholars. But even more startling is The X Press's reprinting of her last serialized novel, Of One Blood. Now just One Blood, the cover sports a man visibly of African decent (unlike the novel's protagonist, who passes as white for the majority of the novel). His head shaven and his chest bare, he carries what appears to be an African artifact--possibly a spear. The back cover's sexy and aggressive description bears almost no resemblance to the novel's character or plot: "Medical student Reuel Briggs doesn't give a damn about being black and cares less for African history. When he arrives in Ethiopia on an archeological trip, his only interest is to raid as much of the country's lost treasures as possible so that he can make big bucks on his return to the States." (1) Anyone familiar with this novel would be surprised at the tone used here to describe a protagonist who is subdued, even depressed, until falling in love and who, inspired by that love to make his fortune, goes on the archeological trip as the team's doctor, where he engages in numerous philosophical discussions about Ethiopia as the true source of civilization.

Initially, I was taken aback at this reworking of Hopkins. These reprints attempt to lift Hopkins out of the post-Reconstruction milieu in which she lived and wrote and set her down in an era of radical race activism reminiscent of the nineteen sixties. They flatten out her complexity and try to fit her into a comfortable pattern of race activism that will, presumably, sell to modern readers. But upon reflection I began to wonder whether her recent scholarly recuperation lends itself to--even calls into being--such a revision of her oeuvre. Hopkins has been recovered as a radical race activist, and scholarship clings to and celebrates accounts of her radical politics in spite of evidence complicating these accounts. The defining feature of her activism is her firing from the editorship at The Colored American because of her radical politics, an event that has become almost a commonplace in Hopkins scholarship. (2) This explanation for Hopkins's leaving The Colored American certainly makes for a satisfying narrative for scholars who wish to see her as a radical race activist, and I do not seek to dismiss this profile out of hand. …

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