As one shapes a prose style, one shapes a self.--John Stark, "Rhetoric, Literacy, and Citizenship"
By the close of the nineteenth century African Americans had, in theory, achieved the rights of citizenship. The official language of the federal government asserted the equality of blacks, and African American men secured the right to vote. In actuality, however, as has been noted, the 1890s formed the nadir of US race relations; approximately 200 black men were lynched per year, and the turn of the century witnessed race riots in New York, New Orleans, and Atlanta. A continuing racist ideology that constructed blacks as degenerate, criminal, and inferior paved the way for the systematic stripping away of the rights and protections ostensibly guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1875 Civil Rights Act. The passage of Jim Crow laws, the refusal of many trade unions to admit black members, the revision of state constitutions in the South to eliminate virtually all African American voting rights, and social practice in the North and South belied the federal government's guarantee of full citizenship and effectively denied African Americans any means of achieving social, political, or economic equity. By 1901 William Dunning could declare in the Atlantic Monthly that "the undoing of Reconstruction is nearing completion" (448). (1) The dire social and political conditions for black Americans at this historical moment prompted the employment of various strategies for regaining the rights of citizenship.
African American writer Sutton E. Griggs's 1899 novel Imperium in Imperio uses the strategy of developing language to create, recreate, and sustain spaces of democratic political participation in the United States. In this text, language itself functions as an important arena for political practice. The novel focuses on the use of oratory as a fundamental means of securing and exercising political rights, and showcases characters who employ republican oratorical traditions to participate in the political processes and institutions of the United States. Such characters engage in dialogue with members of the institutional elite, such as university presidents, newspaper editors, and government officials, in the attempt to forge potential points of entry into the nation. Griggs repeatedly describes the protagonists' eloquent declamations and their rhetoric is marked by a faith in the linear progress of history and an adulation of the Anglo-Saxon heritage. Mastery of oratory thus functions as a linguistic marker of one's fitness for citizenship and one's subscription to the republican ideals of "Americanness." The characters in the text initially assume that through a disembodied space of language they can literally disembody themselves and transcend race and racism, engaging with Anglo American citizens in a rarefied realm of speech and oratory, free from the bodily markers that marginalize them in a white, racist society. What they ultimately discover, however, is precisely the difficulty (if not impossibility) and the pitfalls of such transcendence of embodiment as Griggs calls into question the viability of linguistic homogeneity as a foundation for a non-hierarchical, egalitarian society. Part of the reason Imperium is such a powerful text to examine through the lens of oratory and political agency is the multiple and often contradictory readings it invites, and its ultimate problematizing of the traditional link between mastery of speech and political agency that the novel reinforces at the outset but complicates as the work continues.
Griggs was a prolific writer, an admired orator, and a prominent Baptist minister, pastoring churches in Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. Generally dismissed by literary critics as unsophisticated and unrealistic, Griggs's novels nonetheless illuminate the historical struggle of African Americans to realize the rights of citizenship and represent an exaggerated warning to whites of the bloody consequences of continued racism. …