Academic journal article African American Review

"So Strangely Interwoven": The Property of Inheritance, Race, and Sexual Morality in Pauline E. Hopkins's Contending Forces

Academic journal article African American Review

"So Strangely Interwoven": The Property of Inheritance, Race, and Sexual Morality in Pauline E. Hopkins's Contending Forces

Article excerpt

Representing middle-class, "moral" African Americans in Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900), Pauline E. Hopkins challenged mainstream race discourses that maintained Jim Crow's social and political inequalities. With one eye on that social work, critics have singled out Hopkins's narrative and thematic achievements in the novel--her first, and the only one published as a novel rather than serially. But scholars have also criticized Contending Forces both before and since it was republished in the 1988 Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, arguing that the novel insufficiently challenged a white patriarchal hegemony. Her female characters are too submissive, they charge, as the conventional marriage plot subsumes almost all of Hopkins's women. Critics also read the novel as implicitly arguing an assimilationist politics because her Black characters--many of whom are "mulatto"--are too physically and socially "white." [1]

Still, given turn-of-the-century race, gender, and sexual politics, we can recognize that Hopkins's attempts to destabilize the primary social categories of race and gender, and to challenge sexual mores, pushed socio-cultural limits that the white patriarchal hegemony needed desperately to maintain. As Elizabeth Ammons has insightfully noted in the "Afterword" of the first scholarly book dedicated solely to Hopkins, the principles operating in Hopkins's work are her "venturesomeness, defiance of categories, resistance to received tradition, and determination to articulate new forms not to contain stories but to release new possibilities and paradigms" (212). Such resistance is not surprising given that Hopkins wrote in a turbulent era, when lynchings grew horrifyingly numerous as a (white) attempt to control both race and sexuality, and when a burgeoning rhetoric of biological racial difference imagined through a dichotomy of white superiority and Black inferiority found new fire in discourses of eugenics, i mmigrant exclusion, the doctrine of "separate but equal," Egyptology, and psychology. [2]

Writing in this milieu and through a national discourse that had long understood the metaphoric and actual importance of "the family" in (re)producing the white patriarchal hegemony and in maintaining control of property through "lines of descent," Hopkins attempted to reconstitute a national identity by providing new "possibilities and paradigms" that erased race- and gender-based inequalities and complicated the tangled threads of familial relationships and inheritance. [3] As she wrote in her "Preface" to Contending Forces, the novel is a "simple, homely tale, unassumingly told, which cements the bonds of brotherhood among all classes and complexions. Fiction is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs--religious, political, and social. It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation" (13-14). Hopkins recognized that the divided "American house" must be reunited to stand because the U.S. was historically and undeniably a homestead of "mixed" racial heritage. The novel itself also recognizes the U.S. as an estate whose prosperity required equally both its male and female caretakers. Thus, while Contending Forces is laudable for its challenge to national hegemonic definitions of race and sexuality, as critics have noted, the novel is all the more fascinating because of how Hopkins represents issues of race and sexual morality as inherently connected to each other and to issues of property and inheritance. Race and sexual morality, like forms of tangible property such as money and estate, have value as forms of intangible property that can be conferred, retained, stolen, and reclaimed. Given the then ongoing debate between the political camps of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, turning partially on the extent to which material gain and the accumulation of property were necessary for "racial uplift," Hopkins's emphasis on issues of property was quite pertinent, though largely ignored. …

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