Rumors of Grace: White Masculinity in Pauline Hopkins's Contending Forces

By McCoy, Beth | African American Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Rumors of Grace: White Masculinity in Pauline Hopkins's Contending Forces


McCoy, Beth, African American Review


Through the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of colors on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom. (Morrison, Playing 7; my emphasis)

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Though mainly outlining what she calls a "Romance Illustrative" of black American life at the advent of the twentieth century, Pauline Hopkins nevertheless begins the story of Contending Forces long before 1900 and far from America's shores. On Bermuda around 1800, white English planter Charles Montfort defies the winds of change soon to emancipate slaves in the British empire. Possessed of a benign heart but ruled by a conservative desire for economic security, he moves his household (wife, children, chattel) to the United States, where slavery strengthens its grip. But as soon as he and his family abandon Bermuda, Hopkins reveals Charles's folly: Not only is his decision to remain a slaveholder tragically weak, immoral, and unethical, but it is also the downfall of his house. By the end of Chapter IV, Montfort and his wife are dead, their children, chattel, and property scattered. These incidents, the preface tells us, "actually occurred. Ample proof of this may be found in the archives of the courthouse at Newberne, N.C., and at the national seat of government, Washington D.C." (Hopkins 14).

Though I have not yet been able to find confirmation of such claims to historical veracity (such a search indeed constitutes grounds for another essay), the novel's historicized beginning accomplishes several feats. (1) For this essay's purposes, I wish to focus on one particular reason why these chapters are important in and of themselves: Functioning as a novelistic record, they provide a vehicle through which burgeoning, early-twentieth-century African American middle and working classes could acquire, learn, and pass on what Toni Morrison calls "new information that has got to get out" ("Rootedness" 340). (2) In Contending Forces, the strategic information that must get out is less the putative fact of the event itself than it is Hopkins's cautionary, careful fictive rendering of the process by which such an event might be realized. For through these chapters, Hopkins traces exactly how the house of Montfort falls, a process that perhaps yields little historical information about 1800 but much about that which those whom Claudia Tate would call the book's first readers would have needed to know at the edge of the twentieth century (5). In recounting vividly how rumor destabilizes and forcibly reconstructs Montfort's "white" wife, Grace, Hopkins insists that her readers understand one way that women's identities as "black" and "white" could be differentiated. Of course, for African Americans in 1900, that "black" and "white" identities had been differentiated was not necessarily new information in and of itself. (30 What was perhaps new, and certainly urgent, was the link that Hopkins appears to have discerned between the gendered features of racialized identity production and an important beginning phase in the move toward an American modernity characterized by ostensibly fluid sociopolitical hierarchies through which human beings supposedly could move with ease. Specifically, she illustrates how being able to participate physically and discursively in such differentiation was crucial for plebeian white men who sought, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, both to embrace and resist the democratization that such modernity seemed to promise.

What Hopkins calls a "motley crowd of rough white men and ignorant slaves" looks on as the Montforts' ship arrives at Newbern, North Carolina (40). As those assembled wait for the boat to dock, the white men's conversation metonymically links Montfort's arrival with imminent political and social change stateside. …

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