| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was one of several pioneering post-Reconstruction black writers whose fiction sharpened awareness of political and racial issues central to African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Born in Portland, Maine, Hopkins moved to Boston with her parents, William and Sarah Allen Hopkins, during her childhood. Always possessing a strong desire to write, she won her first award at fifteen for an essay in a contest sponsored by the escaped slave, abolitionist, and novelist William Wells Brown (Clotelle, 1853). After graduating from Girls High School in Boston, she began to pursue a dual career in writing and theater; at the age of twenty, she composed and produced a musical drama entitled Slaves' Escape: or the Underground Railroad. Hopkins played a central character in this production, and subsequent theatrical performances led to her fame as "Boston's Favorite Soprano." Eventually, she left the stage to become a stenographer and public lecturer so that she might better support herself as a writer.
In her lifetime Hopkins produced four novels, a novella, a play, several short stories, and numerous works of nonfiction. Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, published by the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company in 1900 and her most famous novel, is an ambitious story about several generations of a black family from their pre-Civil War Caribbean and North Carolina origins to their later life in the North. The narrative dramatizes essential American historical realities: slavery, Klan violence and lynching, hidden inter-racial blood lines, post-Reconstruction voting disenfranchisement, and job discrimination against blacks. What sets Hopkins apart from her male contemporaries is her outrage at black women's victimization, their sexual exploitation by white men. Hopkins had also to contend with the color prejudice in American society that exalted an ideal of beauty based on Anglo-Saxon features, fair skin, and light hair. In "A Dash for Liberty" Susan has extremely fair skin "veined by her master's blood," signaling the rape of black women during slavery at the same time as it suggests physical attractiveness. Susan's appearance exemplifies the cultural contradictions in which post-Civil War black writers were often caught in their efforts, as Hopkins described hers in the preface to Contending Forces, "to raise the stigma of degradation from the race."
A large part of the interest and significance of Hopkins's work lies in her use of popular fictional techniques to convey her political perspectives. She uses both the romance form and the conventions of domestic realism, juxtaposing imperiled heroines, concupiscent villains, and tragic misunderstandings with serene domestic scenes celebrating the pleasures of homemaking, marriage, love, and motherhood. Coincidence, a device that earmarks romance, is a central fixture in Hopkins's fiction, underscoring her efforts to point out the remarkable events—in her words "all the fire and romance"—in African American history. Hopkins's choice of the romance form places her in the tradition of African American writers initiated by Harriet Wilson's Our Nig in 1859 and continued by Hopkins's contemporaries Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Amelia Johnson, and Emma Dunham Kelly. Her feminist insistence on women's instrumentality in history and her desire to empower her characters to regard themselves as actors rather than victims anticipates recent African American novelists such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
The themes and fictional strategies of Contending Forces appear also in many of Hopkins's other works. "General Washington: A Christmas Story" portrays a homeless child who joins a street gang in the absence of family. Published in 1900, this piece suggests the timelessness of supposedly contemporary social problems such as domestic violence, homelessness, and gang activity. Like Hopkins's other fiction, this story fiercely argues against racism and classism even as it provides hope through the character Fairy, demonstrating that children can point the way toward racial harmony. Once again, Hopkins employs romance elements—an orphaned protagonist, an extreme coincidence, and a reprehensible character who redeems himself in the end.
Similar romance devices emerge in "'As the Lord Lives, He Is One of Our Mother's Children.'" As in other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American fiction, the plot hinges on an African American passing for white, a choice rendered dramatically necessary in this story by the racist legal system. Hopkins intertwines other historical realities, such as lynching, with notions of heroism and spiritual redemption. Gentleman Jim typifies Hopkins's characters, standing for African American courage and self-sacrifice. In all of her works Hopkins repeatedly asserts the need for racial equality.
Most of Hopkins's work, including three of her novels, was published in the Colored American Magazine. Established in 1900 as a forum for African American literary talent and the only monthly magazine of its sort at the time, the Colored American Magazine was a forerunner of present-day magazines addressed to black audiences. Hopkins was a founding staff member and one of its powerful editorial forces, working not only to showcase African American creative efforts but to strengthen racial solidarity. Both in her writings and in her editorial work she pursued the goals to which other post-Civil War black writers were also committed: furthering pride in African American history and creating respect for the intelligence and dignity of the race.
Purdue University, Calumet
In the Heath Anthology
A Dash for Liberty
Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South
The Magazine Novels: Hagar's Daughter, A Story of Southern Castle Prejudice
Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest
Of One Blood, or, the Hidden Self
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The Global African Community
Historical notes on her function as "Dean of African-American women writers."
Voices from the Gaps
Biography, criticism, book cover scans, bibliography, and links.
Elizabeth Ammons, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writer at the Turn into the Twentieth Century, 1991
Jane Campbell, "Female Paradigms in Frances Harper's Iola Leroy and Pauline Hopkins' Contending Forces," in Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History, 1986
Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, 19897
Ann Allen Shockley, Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933, 1988
Claudia Tate, "Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Our Literary Foremother," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction and Literary Tradition, ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, 1985