Academic journal article African American Review

Black Women's Labor and the Melodrama of Class Mobility in Sutton Griggs's Overshadowed

Academic journal article African American Review

Black Women's Labor and the Melodrama of Class Mobility in Sutton Griggs's Overshadowed

Article excerpt

May the work I've done speak for me  ,    May the work I've done speak for me ,    When I'm resting in my grave, there is nothing that can be said ,    May the work I've done speak for me .    --African American spiritual (1)  

For the past two decades, scholarship in class studies has traced the literary representation of work in Gilded Age America. (2) As scholars note, struggles over the modes and compensations of labor often emerged through the pages of late nineteenth-century newspapers, religious tracts, and novels, as writers vied for cultural influence to shape readers' sentiments toward work and class. Yet studies seldom have examined how African American writers contributed to these literary mediations of work. As Carla Peterson has observed, this inattention to black labor reflects scholars' "privileging of certain interpretive paradigms to the exclusion of others." as well as a narrow focus on only the most canonical postbellum black texts (104). (3) For example, well-known authors Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, and Charles W. Chesnutt all wrote about the relation between labor conditions and black advancement in their lesser-known fiction, speeches and essays; however, these authors' most frequently studied novels--Iola Leroy (1892), Contending Forces (1900), and The Marrow of Tradition (1901), respectively--belie the writers' fuller engagement with labor issues. (4)

In order to recover the discourse of labor in African American literary history, this essay builds upon Peterson's observations by examining a little-studied black narrative whose focus is on work, Sutton E. Griggs's second novel, Overshadowed (1901). The novel's title has unintentionally prophesied its critical neglect. Even as scholars including Arlene Elder, Wilson Jeremiah Moses, and Finnie Coleman have aimed to restore attention to the author's oeuvre, Griggs's second novel is "overshadowed" by critical attention to his first, Imperium in Imperio (1899). (5) In each of his five novels, published between 1899 and 1908, as well as his nonfiction social theory, Griggs (1872-1933) highlights how African Americans pursue and interpret their work, particularly within racially proscribed labor markets. (6) Yet Overshadowed places work at its center by following Erma and John Wysong, siblings who must forego their life of relative comfort to seek self-sustaining work after their parents' death. Focusing primarily on Erma's precarious work conditions as a black female laborer, the novel features African Americans performing a range of domestic service, self-employment, homemaking, industrial work, imprisoned labor, and professional occupations. As African Americans determine the extent to which their labor can "speak for them" in shaping their identities, the novel refutes the stigma of physical labor (industrial, service, and manual) to further affirm the work ethic. Yet the text ultimately notes how white prejudice and black intraracial class tensions often inhibit advancement by even the most diligent black workers.

Though Griggs's melodramatic novels often have been dismissed as artistically flawed, I argue that in Overshadowed, melodramatic form productively aligns with the novel's thematic focus on labor and class mobility. (7) Characterized by stark changes in characters' social positions, emotional excess and trauma, and life-altering moral choices, melodrama demonstrates the extreme possibilities of an individual's fate. As such, melodrama's multiclimactic narrative structure simulates the serial, sudden reversals of fortune that may occur for workers in an unstable job market, especially for African American female workers facing hiring discrimination, sexual vulnerability, and other unfavorable conditions related to employment.

In elucidating how melodrama conveys the exigencies of black women's labor, I draw on Peter Brooks's analysis of the genre as primarily concerned with establishing virtue through trials:

    The reward  of virtue . … 
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