"Kin' O'rough Jestice Fer a Parson": Pauline Hopkins's 'Winona' and the Politics of Reconstructing History

By Patterson, Martha H. | African American Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

"Kin' O'rough Jestice Fer a Parson": Pauline Hopkins's 'Winona' and the Politics of Reconstructing History


Patterson, Martha H., African American Review


It was a terrible struggle between the two great forces - Right and Wrong. Drunken with vile passions, the Rangers fought madly but in vain against the almost supernatural prowess of their op[p]onents; like the old Spartans who braided their hair and advanced with songs and dancing to meet the enemy, the anti-slavery men advanced singing hymns and praising God. (Winona 412)

Such diametric oppositions between good and evil as the one cited above would seem to forecast clear-cut resolutions, but Pauline Hopkins's Winona (1902) is an unresolved novel, affirming means of resistance against racist oppression which range from spiritual transcendence to organized violence. Serialized from May to October 1902 in the Colored American Magazine, Winona is set in the besieged Kansas of 1856, where anti-slavery forces, led by John Brown, and pro-slavery forces vie for control of the State. As Hazel Carby has argued, such an historical setting allows Hopkins to justify the need in 1902 for the kind of organized resistance to racist violence led by the anti-slavery leader John Brown in 1856 (Reconstructing 154). Yet Hopkins also recognizes and appears to condone other seemingly contradictory forms of resistance. Indeed, while Hopkins foregrounds the need for organized resistance, she also sanctions escape, endurance, spiritual transcendence, and personal vengeance as possible responses to racist oppression. Moreover, Hopkins employs an apparent double standard for what constitutes justifiable retaliation to racist violence for her white and her African-American characters.

Not the least of the important questions which this narrative provokes is why Hopkins chose to displace contemporary political debates onto such an historical framework. Why does Hopkins re-envision Brown's controversial ordering of the executions of five pro-slavery men at the Pottawatomie River, rather than Brown's martyrdom at Harper's Ferry? Why is Judah, the most militant black hero in her fiction to date, chastised when he tries to enact his seemingly justifiable revenge against his former slave owner and torturer, while John Brown's executions are hailed as an act of God? Why is Hopkins's novel named after Winona, who is only one of several major characters in the narrative and participates only peripherally in the dramatic action?

These questions underscore the complexities of Hopkins's position as an African-American woman writer and editor for the nationally circulated Colored American Magazine, one-third of whose readership was white.(1) Creating agency for herself and her African-American readers while encouraging her white readers to agitate would seem to require contradictory rhetorical strategies. Even though Winona allows space for proponents of diverse political views in order to emphasize common goals, it demonstrates Hopkins's growing frustration with Booker T. Washington's accommodationism. In his Atlanta Compromise speech (1895) and his autobiography Up From Slavery (1901), Washington espoused a doctrine of self-help, moral virtue, industrial education, and social segregation as a means to race progress. Likely inspired by the work of anti-Bookerites such as William Monroe Trotter and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Hopkins rejects much of Washington's platform and refigures his "uplift" ideal by calling for more vehement public protests against the escalating mob violence endorsed by Jim Crow culture.(2) Her stance may well have contributed to her eventual removal from the magazine. After the magazine was sold in 1903 and moved to New York, editorial control shifted to Booker T. Washington supporters John C. Freund and Fred R. Moore. Hopkins was ousted in 1904, reportedly because "her attitude was not conciliatory enough. As a white friend said: 'If you are going to take up the wrongs of your race then you must depend for support absolutely upon your race. For the colored man to-day to attempt to stand up to fight would be like a canary bird facing a bulldog, and an angry one at that'" ("Colored" 33). …

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