Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Imperium in Imperio: Sutton E. Griggs and the New Negro of the South

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Imperium in Imperio: Sutton E. Griggs and the New Negro of the South

Article excerpt

Born in Chatfield, Texas on 19 June 1872, the son of an ex-slave and a mother whose name is unrecorded, Sutton Elbert Griggs attended public school in Dallas, before graduating from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas and Richmond Theological Seminary in Virginia. Following his ordination, Griggs assumed a pastorate at the First Baptist Church in Berkeley, Virginia, for two years, during which time he married Emma J. Williams, who was working as a public school teacher. At the age of twenty four, Griggs moved to Tennessee, where he became the corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Convention and pastor of the First Baptist Church of East Nashville. During his thirty-one years in Tennessee, Griggs worked tirelessly as a "race man," serving as state secretary for the Niagara Movement (a precursor to the NAACP), and organizer of the National Public Welfare League, a society that encouraged cooperation between the races and supported a philosophy of racial uplift for African Americans. In his later years, Griggs returned to Texas, where he continued his work with civic and religious institutions until his death in 1933. However, it is his work as an orator and writer of more than thirty religious and political texts, autobiographical essays, and sermons, each analyzing the problems caused by racial differences in America that make Griggs such a dynamic and influential figure in African American culture.1

Griggs' Imperium In Imperio (1899) is considered by many to be the first political novel written by an African American.2 Set in the Reconstruction South, Imperium tells the story of two young boys, dark skinned Belton Piedmont, and mulatto Bernard Belgrave. The narrative follows the disparate paths of each boy in their development to adulthood through three distinct sections. The first section (chapters 1-8) reveals the formal education of Belton and Bernard and shows how a warped perception and valuation of skin color among whites affects the treatment of each boy and limits their opportunities for economic, social, and political advancement. The second sections (chapters 9-14) examine Belton and Bernard's foray into the world of business, politics, and romance, each situation influenced by the suffocating and inescapable conditions concomitant with living in a racist white society. The novel's final sections (chapters 15-20) document the existence of a secret Black Nationalist government - the Imperium - located in Texas whose purpose is to defend the social and political rights of African Americans from their unsympathetic white neighbors. When Imperium members find themselves divided over an equitable solution to the ever-present race problem of the South, their prominent leaders are forced to intervene. Belton, who has spent his entire life in the South and has endured devastating hardships, insists upon patience and passive resistance, while Bernard, who has been protected and nurtured by white paternalism argues in favor of war- a decision to ally with foreign enemies of the United States to overthrow its rule, and ultimately, gain sole possession of Texas while ceding Louisiana into foreign hands. After failing to receive majority support among Imperium members for his passive resistance plans, Belton is shot by a firing squad and an imminent race war is narrowly avoided by the actions of Beri Trout, a sympathetic supporter of Belton, who reveals the Imperium's existence and intervenes on the side of hope and humanity.

Yet, despite the observations of literary scholars who have implicated the novel's larger cultural and literary significance, critical attention paid to Imperium In Imperio since its re-emergence in the 1960s has been limited in scope and understanding (focusing primarily upon the artistic failings of its author or the radical militancy of the novel's final section) and in recent decades, has been negligible.3 Among the most notable lapses in scholarship is an effort to consider the novel in a southern context, an absence that becomes even more ironic when considering the tireless efforts of Griggs, who "peddled" Imperium and numerous pamphlets and essays on the race question across the South in an effort to establish a broad-based southern African American readership that likely enabled his work to reach a larger audience than Charles Waddell Chesnutt or Paul Laurence Dunbar:

I went from door to door, visited, at dinner hours, places where plain workmen toiled. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.