Academic journal article African American Review

Pauline Hopkins's of One Blood, Africa, and the "Darwinist Trap"

Academic journal article African American Review

Pauline Hopkins's of One Blood, Africa, and the "Darwinist Trap"

Article excerpt

An adventurous novel "intermingling [literary] traditions such as historical romance, realism, allegory, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery" (Horvitz 246), and also the first African American novel featuring "both an African setting and African characters" (Gruesser 77), Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood attempts to counter turn-of-the century racism by looking toward Africa and its past with pride. Directed at an African American reading audience--the novel was serialized in the Colored American Magazine from November 1902 to November 1903--and pointing to the splendors of ancient African civilizations, the novel is designed to "provide African-Americans with a usable, livable past" (Gruesser 75), a past meant to support the development of a healthy self-image, support the struggle for equal rights, and lead to recognition in an environment hostile to or oblivious of and uninterested in the accomplishments of Africans and their descendants. By delineating an impressive ancient Meroe, the historical center of an ancient Kushite (or Nubian) civilization, Of One Blood reverses mainstream racist visions of Africa as representing, to quote Hegel and also to cite nineteenth-century European historians' widespread assessment, "the unhistorical and underdeveloped spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature" (qtd. in Magubane 24). But in doing so, Of One Blood runs into a number of problems, the most ideologically dangerous of which is what could be named the "Darwinist trap": Making the "worth" of a people dependent on technological and cultural accomplishments means following the same quasi-Darwinian logic that served nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialists to "justify" their ventures.

The "Darwinist trap," or the temptation to make material, technological accomplishments the standard by which any people should be measured, allows technology and pseudo-scientific racism to come together as a world view:

In the middle of the nineteenth century, steamers started carrying European cannons deep into the interior of Asia and Africa. With that a new epoch in the history of imperialism was introduced. This became a new epoch in the history of racism. Too many Europeans interpreted military superiority as intellectual and even biological superiority. (Lindqvist 47)

Wealth and technological progress served both as means and rationalization of the imperialism Europeans and their descendants aggressively pursued in Africa and Asia, as well as within their own territories. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin reasons that "without the accumulation of capital the arts [meaning chiefly the mechanical arts--i.e., technology] could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended, and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races" (135). But as this quote exemplifies, technology, or "civilization," which in nineteenth-century usage virtually always means "Western civilization," did, in Darwin's view, not merely entitle imperialists to territories, but even justified, implicitly, the extermination of those unable militarily to resist it. As Darwin claims, "The grade of their civilisation seems to be a most important element in the success of competing nations .... It is a ... curious fact ... that savages did not formerly waste away before the classical nations, as they do now before modern civilised nations" (183).

In "Exterminate All the Brutes", an impressive essay on the pervasiveness of such justifications for genocide, Sven Lindqvist traces such sentiments, or at least their expression in the natural sciences, back to Robert Knox, who, in his 1850 work The Races of Man, announced that he felt "disposed to think that there must be a physical and[,] consequently, a psychological inferiority in the darker races generally" (qtd. in Lindqvist 125). Knox did not remain a lone voice for long. …

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