Academic Novel: The Third Generation

thethirdgeneration

Chester Himes.  The Third Generation. 1954. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.

“..for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”  -Exodus 20:5

Chester Himes’s The Third Generation happens to be the third Himes novel that I’ve read, after If He Hollers Let Him Go, and Cotton Comes to Harlem.  (The latter was made into a classic film directed by Ossie Davis). The Third Generation has more in common with the political indignation of If He Hollers Let Him Go, than with the detective novels such as Cotton Comes to Harlem. Himes is rightly celebrated as an innovator in detective fiction, and he took his experiences in the streets and in prison and lent them to his crime stories.  Both The Third Generation and If He Hollers Let Him Go depict the precariousness of life for black Americans in an era when the legal and political rights of black people were severely limited, and the possibilities of fully-realized black citizenship remained in question.  (Not to say that the question has been definitively settled today either.)  Both novels were published after WWII, and both mention, among other things, the disillusionment of a people as they realized that service in war time had not helped improve their political status at home.

The Third Generation tells the story of a Southern black family in the early 1900s living and working among the black colleges of the south.  Professor William Taylor, the patriarch of the family, is an expert metallurgist and blacksmith who works as a professor of industrial education.  Through the course of the novel the family moves to several different schools and locations to follow his career, including to black colleges in Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Looking at biographical sketches of Himes’s life one finds that The Third Generation is a heavily autobiographical novel in many ways.  Like Professor Taylor in the novel, Chester Himes’s father also taught industrial education at black colleges in the South, and their family moved as often as the Taylor family does in the book. Like Lillian Taylor, Himes’s mother was also a light-skinned woman whose deep ambivalences about her black lineage rubbed off on her children.  Like Charles in the novel, Himes’s life was also beset by a series of horrible misfortunes.  Himes’s brother suffered an accident from a chemistry experiment, similar to the one depicted in the book which left the character’s older brother William permanently blind.  Like Charles, Himes also dropped out of Ohio State University and fell in with the hustlers, whores and gamblers of Cleveland.  And like Charles, Chester Himes also experienced a near-fatal plunge down an elevator shaft as a young man, an accident that left him with crushed vertebrae and several broken bones.  He never completely covered from these injuries, spending the rest of his life in chronic pain.   Himes served eight years of a twenty year prison sentence for armed robbery in the Ohio State penitentiary, and upon his release moved out to Los Angeles to work on the docks (the material for If He Hollers Let Him Go).  He eventually left the country to live in Paris among the black expatriate community there, where he began his publishing career in earnest.

The Third Generation begins with William and Lillian Taylor and their three boys, Thomas, William, and Charles, moving from Professor Taylor’s teaching post in Missouri, to a new position at a small black college in Mississippi (based on Alcorn A&M where Himes’s father taught.)  Himes’s use of third person narration allows the narrative to float in and out of the consciousness of all of the characters, giving us insight into the circumstances that brought William and Lillian together, as well as exploring the growing consciousness of their young sons.  But mostly the story follows the youngest son Charles as he adjusts to life in the different places where his family lives.

Of course, the reason that I am writing about this novel is because of its depictions of black higher education.  Perhaps the best source for the historical background that frames the book is James Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. In that book, Anderson describes the hunger for education among the former slaves of the South and the way in which black educators, many of them self-taught under slavery, helped to found black schools and colleges.  One important point that Anderson emphasizes is that “both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education,” and that these types of schooling often co-existed.  While industrial education was a means of providing training for black laborers in the South, that education often de-emphasized the type of humanistic thought that would lead to questions about the social status of black Americans.  In the novel, Himes depicts the governor of Mississippi as a supporter of black higher education (strictly separate, of course), and the governor spends time at the college and gets to know the professors.  But the governor also warns Professor Taylor against teaching students the wrong things, particularly teaching them about materials coming from a militant association in the North that puts out a magazine edited by “a fiery, angry writer, revered among the Negroes as a great messiah, and feared and hated by whites throughout the South.”   The reference is to W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP, and the Crisis magazine that Du Bois was editing at the time.

Look through the criticism on the academic novel, and you will see a heavy emphasis on the genre’s Anglo-American heritage. Through the 19th century and into the 20th century the default idea of the college student was that of a young man (presumably white and presumably wealthy) who, in his late teenage years, is living away from the bourgeois home for the first time.  In England the first academic novels tended to be set in Oxford or Cambridge, or in the United States among the Ivy Leagues.  However the story of the post-WWII university in the U.S. is the story of an expansion of higher education to working class students, racial and ethnic minorities and women.  With measures such as the G.I. Bill, with the establishment of new regional colleges, and with the development of community colleges, more working class students were brought into contact with the university.

Novels such as The Third Generation and Sutton Grigg’s Imperium and Imperio provide us with depictions of higher education among the historically black colleges founded in the late 19th century, schools with a mission to educate the children of former slaves.  In Himes’s case he sought to depict the so-called “Third Generation” to which he belonged, the generation of young people coming of age in the early 20th century, the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of slaves.  In one section Himes describes what these institutions meant for the students and professors at these schools:

“Professor Taylor liked it there.  In spite of the indignities there was a certain inalienable dignity in the work itself, in bringing enlightenment to these eager young black people.  It wasn’t as if they could come there with the easy assurance of an upper Bostonian enrolling in Harvard.  For what they learned, they and their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers paid in privation, in calico in January, corn-pone diets and pellagra deaths.  Professor Taylor was one of them, a little short, black, pigeon-toed bowlegged, nappy-headed man; he’d come from the same background with the same traditions; he was just more fortunate” (68).

As far as the Taylor family goes, much of the novel’s tension comes from the struggle between Professor Taylor and his wife Lillian, who is more or less the “tragic mulatta” figure in the novel, though it would be a mistake to reduce her only to that.  Lillian is traumatized by her liminal position between the black and white communities.  She feels that she is white enough that she should be allowed to live as a white woman and she takes risks by going into town and passing for white.  In one scene she goes to a white dentist, and upon leaving his office runs into a black friend who calls her “Lillian” and the dentist storms out into the street and calls the police to have her arrested.  It is only Professor Taylor’s good relationship with the governor that saves them from further trouble.  Lillian also tries to groom her boys for respectability, clamping down on their manners, and lamenting the fact that the smooth straight hair of the childhood gave way to the rough, kinky hair of their adolescence.  She even blames William for bringing them to Mississippi in the first place where she and her sons would be darkened by the harsh summer sun, and her boys would be made wild by the unrefined rural life of the place.

As the boys grow older they move off from the family, and William and Lillian’s marriage further deteriorates until they are living separately by the end of the novel.  William unfortunately loses his job as professor and has to take on work as a waiter in order to make ends meet.  Charles makes a run at going to college at Ohio State but eventually drops out and falls into a life of crime, and gets caught passing bad checks all over Cleveland.

The novel is not merely a sociological document of a particular time and place in black  history, but it is also full of aesthetic pleasures of Himes’s writing, such as his depictions of the lush landscape of the South and the exuberance of the people who live there, or his depictions of the shenanigans that the young Taylor boys manage to get themselves into, or the wrenching fights between Lillian and William that make the home an awkward and unpleasant place for them and the boys alike.  Throughout the novel we see the Taylors adjusting to the technological and political changes of the times, seeing the first cars take over the road, playing records on their new phonograph machine, witnessing the passing of The Great War, seeing the new fashions of the 20s take over, and living through the emotional joys and pains of their lives.

The Taylors desperately try to hold on to their personal dignity as they suffer the indignities of living in a society designed to restrain and subordinate them.  In the naturalistic ending to the novel we see the characters beaten down by forces beyond their control.  There are several factors that contribute to Charles’s downfall in the end: guilt over the injury to his brother, his own physical damage, and the emotional scars of the hatred between his parents are among them.  Eventually his life veers into a degradation that his family tries unsuccessfully to help him avoid.

I will admit that at 350 pages this can be a tedious novel to work through.  The language is always clear and engaging, but there are points at which the narrative bogs down with perhaps more details than we need.  Despite whatever flaws the critic might find in it, the novel is an important book about black education, and a rare look at the lives of a striving black academic family in the early years of black higher education.  The Third Generation is an example of the literary accomplishments achieved by an intelligent, resourceful and scrappy writer who defied the odds to become a great artist, and whose body of work deserves a prominent place in American literature and rewards the intelligent attention given to it.

Black Academic Fiction: A Working Bibliography

Cherise Boothe, seated, and LisaGay Hamilton in Adrienne Kennedy's

Cherise Boothe, seated, and LisaGay Hamilton in Adrienne Kennedy’s “The Ohio State Murders” staged by the Theater for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street, in November 2007.

Below is a bibliography of black academic fiction works that I have been able to identify so far.  Once again,  the annotated bibliographies The American College Novel (2004) and Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction (2000) were rather helpful in locating several of the novels that I list here.

This bibliography is organized under the broad rubric of “academic fiction” to include different creative forms. I think this list shows the impressive range and diversity of academic fiction produced by black artists exploring many different aspects of higher education. However, once I got into the research process I decided that focusing on the genre of the novel gave me better critical possibilities.  (More about that later)

Essentially, I am focusing on works that have some significant content about  higher education or intellectualism as a major part of the plot.  I have excluded those works which might have an academic character or two but which don’t really deal with academic/intellectual life.  When I began this project, I intended to focus on black writers who have written academic fiction, and mostly that focus remains the same.  However, I do include some non-black authors whose books explore black higher education  (Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is one of the most prominent examples).  Though I have done my fair share of reading, I will admit I haven’t vetted every single book on the list yet, so some cuts and additions are likely to happen.  The list is an ongoing project and suggestions are welcome.

BLACK ACADEMIC FICTION: A WORKING BIBLIOGRAPHY

NOVELS

Anderson, Walter. Pledge Brothers. Arlington: Milk and Honey, 2001.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Avenging Angel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996.

Bradley, David. The Chaneysville Incident. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Briscoe, Connie.  Big Girls Don’t Cry.  New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Butler, Tajuana. Sorority Sisters. New York: Villard, 2001.

Carter, Stephen.  The Emperor of Ocean Park. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.
—-. New England White: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 2007.

Colter, Cyrus.  A Chocolate Soldier. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988.

Delany, Samuel R. The Mad Man. Rutherford: Voyant Publishing, 2002.
—-. Dark Reflections.  New York: Carroll & Graff, 2007.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Quest of the Silver Fleece: A Novel. 1911. New York: Random House, 2004.
—-. The Ordeal of Mansart, Vol. 1 of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1957. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
—-. Mansart Builds a School, Vol .2 of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1959. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
—-. Worlds of Color, Vol 3. of The Black Flame Trilogy. 1961. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Random House, 1952.

Everett, Percival.  American Desert. London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
—-. Erasure.  New York: Hyperion, 2001.
—-. Glyph. Graywolf Press, 1999.
—-. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Gay, Phillip. Academic Affairs.  1st Books, 2003.

Grant, Tracy. Hellified.  New York: Visao, 1993.

Griggs, Sutton. Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem.1899. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Heron, Gil-Scott.  The Nigger Factory. 1972.  Edinburgh: Cannongate Press, 2001.

Himes, Chester.  The Third Generation. 1954. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.

Hughes, Althea. Walking the Line. Arlington: E.R.L., 2000.

Jackson, C. R. Mistrustful. College Park: Media Management International, 2000.

Johnson, Mat.  Pym: A Novel.  New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2011.

Johnson, T. Geronimo. Welcome to Braggsville. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. 1928. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Marshall, Paule.  The Chosen Place, The Timeless People.  New York: Random House, 1969.

McKnight, Reginald. He Sleeps: A Novel.  New York: Macmillan, 2002.

Moon, Bucklin. Without Magnolias. New York: Doubleday, 1949.

Morse, L.C. Sundial. 1986. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2010.

Murray, Albert. The Spyglass Tree.  New York: Pantheon, 1991.

Peterson, Brian. Move Over, Girl. New York: Villard, 1998.

Raboteau, Emily.  The Professor’s Daughter. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005.

Redding, J. Saunders.  Stranger and Alone. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

Reed, Ishmael. Japanese by Spring.  New York: Atheneum, 1993.

Robinson, C. Kelly. Between Brothers.  New York: Villard, 1999.

Rosenman, John B. The Best Laugh Last. New Paltz: Treacle, 1981.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty: A Novel.  New York:  Penguin, 2005.

Stribling, T. S. Birthright. 1922. Delmar, N.Y. : Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1987.

Thomas-Graham, Pamela. A Darker Shade of Crimson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
—- . Blue Blood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
—-. Orange Crushed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Tyree, Omar.  Colored, on White Campus: The Education of a Racial World. Washington, D.C.: Mars Productions, 1992.  Re-issued and re-titled as Battlezone.  Wilmington: Mars Productions, 1994.

Walker, Alice. Meridian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. New York: Random House, 1999.

Williams, Dennis A. Crossover. New York: Summit Books, 1992.

Williams, Robyn. Preconceived Notions.  Chicago: Lushena Books, 1991.

Woodson, Jon. Endowed, a Comic Novel.  CreateSpace, 2012.

PLAYS

Jones, Leroi (Amiri Baraka).  The Slave (1964).  In Dutchman and The Slave: Two Plays. New York: Morrow, 1967.

Kennedy, Adrienne. The Ohio State Murders.  New York: Samuel French, 2009.

Rux, Carl Hancock. Talk. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2004.

FILMS

Birthright. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. 1939. Kino Lorber, 2016.

Brother to Brother. Dir. Rodney Evans. DVD. Wolfe Releasing, 2004.

Drumline
. Dir. Charles Stone, III. 2002.  DVD. 20th  Century Fox, 2003.

The Great Debaters. Dir. Dentzel Washington. 2007. DVD. Harpo Films, 2008.

Higher Learning
. Dir. John Singleton. 1995. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2001.

Mooz-lum.  Dir. Qasim Basir.  2010. DVD. Rising Pictures, 2011.

The Nutty Professor.  Dir. Tom Shadyac. 1996. DVD. Universal Studies, 2007.

School Daze. Dir. Spike Lee. 1988. DVD.  Sony Pictures, 2001.

Train Ride. Dir. Rel Dowdell. Ruff Nation Films. 2000. DVD.

Something the Lord Made. Dir. Joseph Sargent. 2004. DVD. HBO Films, 2004.

TELEVISON

A Different World. (1987-1993). Executive Producer, Bill Cosby.  Carsey-Werner Productions. DVD. 2005.

The Quad. Black Entertainment Television (BET). 2016.

STORIES

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Of the Coming of John.”  The Souls of Black Folk.  (1903). Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004.

—-. “Tom Brown at Fisk in Three Chapters.” 1888.  Creative Writings by W. E. B. Du Bois: A Pageant, Poems, Short Stories, and Playlets. Ed. Herbert Aptheker. New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1985.

Dumas, Henry. “The University of Man.” Echo Tree:  The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003. 176-188.

Hughes, Langston. “Professor.” 1935. Short Stories: Langston Hughes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

Marshall, Paule.  “Brooklyn.” Soul Clap Hands and Sing. 1961. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1988.

McPherson, James. Hue and Cry. New York: Little Brown & Co., 1968.

OTHER

Bell, Derrick.  Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.  New York: Basic Books, 1992.

—- And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1987.



UPDATED: 14 March 2017

Academic Fiction Criticism: A Working Bibliography

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Here is a very rough bibliography of critical works on academic fiction. I thought this could be a way to do some productive crowd-sourcing, while hopefully contributing something useful to others who might be interested in this genre. My plan is to update this list with new sources as I find them.  So please consider this a work-in-progress rather than a fixed authoritative bibliography. And if you have any suggestions, feel free to drop me an email or leave a message in the comments.

I should also mention that this list includes some critical works on academic films which I was not aware of when I wrote my “Top 10” articles on academic films.  I’ve noticed that I have received quite a few hits on those particular posts.  If anyone is interested in finding more academic films and a deeper analysis of academia on screen, John Conklin’s Campus Life in the Movies is a particularly helpful resource, with a far more extensive listing of films than the ones I posted in my articles.

For a list of academic novels, the best resources are John Kramer’s annotated bibliographies The American College Novel (2nd edition, 2004) and Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction (2nd edition, 2000).  Both of these books have been extremely helpful in locating academic novels by black writers in particular.  (The next bibliography that I post here will be a list of black academic fiction.)

ACADEMIC FICTION CRITICISM: A WORKING BIBLIOGRAPHY

BOOKS

Bosco, Mark and Kimberly Rae Connor, eds. Academic Novels as Satire: Critical Studies of an Emerging Genre.  Ceredigion, UK: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

Carter, Ian.  Ancient Cultures of Conceit: British University Fiction in the Post War Years.  London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Conklin, John E. Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008.

Dougill, John.  Oxford in English Literature: The Making and Undoing of the English Athens. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Edgerton, Susan et al, eds.  Imagining the Academy: Higher Education and Popular Culture.  New York: Routledge, 2005.

Hinton, David B. Celluloid Ivy: Higher Education in the Movies 1960-1990. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1994.

Kramer, John E., Jr. The American College Novel: An Annotated Bibliography. 2nd ed.   Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Kramer, John E., Jr. Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction. 2nd ed. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Lyons, John O. The College Novel in America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.

McGurl, Mark.  The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Moseley, Merritt.  The Academic Novel: New and Classic Essays.  Chester: Chester Academic Press, 2007.

Proctor, Mortimer.  The English University Novel.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Rawat, Vinod Kumar. Knowledge-Power/Resistance: Beyond Bacon, Ambedkar and Foucault. Gurgaon: Partridge Publishing India, 2014.  

Rossen, Janice.  The University in Modern Fiction: When Power is Academic.  London: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Showalter, Elaine. Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Tobolowsky, Barbara and Pauline J. Reynolds (eds.). Anti-Intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017.

Umphlett, Wiley Lee. Movies Go to College:  Hollywood and the World of the College-Life Film. Madison: Farleigh-Dickinson University Press, 1984.

Womack, Kenneth.  Postwar Academic Fiction: Satire, Ethics, Community.  New York: Palgrave, 2002.

ARTICLES

Anderson, Christian K. and John R. Thelin. “Campus Life Revealed: Tracking Down the Rich Resources of American Collegiate Fiction.” The Journal of Higher Education. 80.1 (2009): 106-113.

Begley, Adam. “The Decline of the Campus Novel.” Lingua Franca. September 1997.

Brown, Stephanie. “J. Saunders Redding and the African American Campus Novel.” The Postwar African American Novel: Protest and Discontent, 1945-1950. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. 132-160.

De Mott, Benjamin. “How to Write a College Novel.”  The Hudson Review , 15.2 (1962): 243-252.

Edemariam, Aida. “Who’s Afraid of the Campus Novel?” The Guardian. 2 October 2004. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/oct/02/featuresreviews.guardianreview37

Foster, Travis. “Campus Novels and the Nation of Peers.” American Literary History. 26.3 (2014): 462-483

Green, Charles. “The Droves of Academe.” The Missouri Review. 31.3 (2008): 177-188.

Kramer, John. “College and University Presidents in Fiction.”  The Journal of Higher Education. 52.1 (1981): 81-95.

Leuschner, Eric.  “Body Damage: Dis-Figuring the Academic in Academic Fiction.”  The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. (2006) 28: 339-354.

Marshall, Megan.  “Academic Discourse and Adulterous Intercourse: What Campus Novels Can Teach Us.”  Atlantic Online. August 2006. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200608/campus-novels

Pinsker, Sanford. “Who Cares if Roger Ackroyd Gets Tenure?” Partisan Review. 66 (1999): 439-52.

Rogers, Jenny. “Old, Boring, White, and Mean: How Professors Appear on the Small Screen.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 12 November 2012.  http://chronicle.com/article/Old-Boring-WhiteMean-/135730/

Thelin, John and Barbara Townsend. “Fiction to Fact: College Novels and the Study of Higher Education.”  Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. 4th ed. New York: Agathon Press, 1988. 183-211.

Tierney, William G. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: Between Fiction and Reality.”  The Journal of Higher Education. 75.2 (2004): 161-177.

Williams, Jeffrey. “Teach the University.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture.  8.1 (2007): 25-42.

—-. “The Rise of the Academic Novel.”  American Literary History. 24.3 (2012): 561-589.

—-. “Unlucky Jim: The Rise of the Adjunct Novel.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.  12 November 2012. http://chronicle.com/article/Unlucky-Jim-the-Rise-of-the/135606

DISSERTATIONS AND MASTER THESES

Fullerty, Matthew H. G. The British and American Academic Novel. The “Professorromane”: The Comic Campus, The Tragic Self.  Diss. The George Washington University, 2008.  



UPDATED 10 May 2017.  

Toni On! New York in Harlem

So now for something a little different:  Here’s a link to a recent episode of Toni On! New York, a local travel program in NYC, which features a couple of minutes of me talking about Harlem history for Black History Month:

http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/02/16/toni-on-new-york-paying-homage-to-black-history-month-with-a-trip-to-harlem/

The show usually features Seth Kamil of Big Onion Walking Tours giving some background on the history of different areas where the show is filmed.  For this one he asked me to fill in and talk about Harlem. My part is mostly in the first segment, but the whole show is very well done and worth watching.  I liked that it features some great local Harlem businesses including Harlem Heritage Tours, Make My Cake bakery, Amy Ruth’s Restaurant, Dinosaur Bar-B-Q, and the historic Apollo Theater.

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Big Onion Walking Tour of Historic Harlem – February 2012. (Photo by Millard Cook)

Academic Novel: Imperium in Imperio

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Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem by Sutton Griggs

I recently finished a re-reading of the novel Imperium in Imperio by Sutton Griggs.  I was first introduced  to Griggs in a course on the African-American Legal Novel.  As a graduate of an HBCU I took note of the novel’s vivid depictions of black college life in the late 19th century.  Now that my research interests have turned toward academic fiction I have been thinking of Griggs’s novel as an academic novel.   I am convinced that not only is Imperium in Imperio a rare fictional depiction of post-Reconstruction black college life,  it is perhaps the first academic novel written by an African-American writer, and one of the earliest academic novels in American literature.

In the process of researching more about Griggs’s life I have come across more and more fascinating information about him.  Mostly, I knew of Griggs through discussions in the Legal Novel course, and through the chapter “Literary Garveyism” featured in Wilson J. Moses’s The Wings of Ethiopia (1990). There is a biography of him which I have not yet read; Sutton E. Griggs and the Struggle against White Supremacy by Finnie D. Coleman.  And I was excited to find that there are actually recordings of his voice.  Unfortunately, the recordings do not seem to be available online, but there are some transcripts of them in this 1989 Phylon article catalogued on on JSTOR. There is also a listing of the recordings on a UC Santa Barbara site. (If anyone happens to find any digital versions of these recordings, please let me know.)

Sutton Griggs (1872-1933) was a Baptist minister, author and activist who was born in Chatfield, Texas.  His novel Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem, published in 1899, is already recognized among literary critics as a pioneering work of black fiction.  Griggs is counted among the earliest black novelists, and one of the first to experience some measure of “commercial” success, mainly through selling his novel independently at black churches and convention meetings.

The novel is notable for its fantastic plot about an alternative black government existing underground at a (fictional) small black college in Texas called Thomas Jefferson College.  And when I say underground, I mean literally underground.  In a scene near the end of the novel, the two main characters are dropped through a secret passageway into a secret underground chamber where a shadow government of black leaders met beneath the college.  Disenchanted with the lack of legal rights for African-Americans under U.S law, this cadre of black leaders had plans to seize land in Texas and form an independent black nation.  This plot development takes place toward the end of the novel and includes Griggs’s astute observations on the legal status of blacks in America.  However, it is the educational aspect of the novel, including its college setting that interests me as much as this fascinating utopian political vision.

Imperium in Imperio deserves consideration in the canon of academic novels.  It is not included among John E. Kramer’s otherwise thorough bibliography of American academic novels, but according to Kramer’s chronological listing, Imperium in Imperio’s1899 publication date would place it among the first 25 academic novels published in American literature.

The novel follows the parallel lives of two young men, Belton Piedmont and Bernard Belgrave. Belton, the dark-skinned young man from a poor farming family eventually goes on to attend Stowe College (named for Harriet Beecher Stowe author of the famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  Bernard Belgrave on the other hand is a fair-skinned young man who represents that segment of the black community in which the phenomenon of “passing for white” was common.  He was raised by his light-skinned single mother who is a woman of means secretly living off of money from the child’s wealthy white father (later revealed to be a very prominent white politician). She is able to give him a comfortable life and the best education, eventually sending him to Harvard University where he studies law.

The narrative begins with Belton Piedmont’s mother Hannah speaking to her young son as she prepares him to go to school, and in the passage Griggs distilled the widespread uplift ideology that defined black education in the post-emancipation era.

“Cum er long hunny an’ let yer mammy fix yer ‘spectabul, so yer ken go to skule. Yer mammy is ‘tarmined ter gib yer all de book larning dar is ter be had eben ef she has ter lib on bred an’ herrin’s, an’ die en de a’ms house.”

These words came from the lips of a poor, ignorant negro woman, and yet the determined course of action which they reveal vitally affected the destiny of a nation and saved the sun of the Nineteenth Century, proud and glorious, from passing through, near its setting, the blackest and thickest and ugliest clouds of all its journey; saved it from ending the most brilliant of brilliant careers by setting, with a shudder of horror, in a sea of human blood.

This is one of the few passages of “dialect” in the book, but Griggs uses it effectively to illustrate the hopes and aspirations of poor uneducated blacks that their children and future generations of blacks might have educational opportunities that were not available to them.  This theme of education as liberation is pervasive throughout black literature, and is especially prevalent in black academic novels.

Griggs is not considered a great prose stylist, though I think the novel is written in lucid and lively language.  Some of the comic parts of the novel were quite funny, including one episode involving a student with notoriously smelly feet whose socks end up being used in a prank that foils an important speech given by Belton.  There are also some parts that seem particularly perceptive in Griggs’s anticipation of the literary and cultural movements to come.  In one passage he writes that: “The cringing, fawning, sniffling, cowardly Negro which slavery left, had disappeared, amid a new Negro, self-respecting, fearless, and determined in the assertion of his rights was at hand” (62).  Here Griggs anticipates the idea of The New Negro that would burst onto the scene in the early part of the 20th century, reaching its apex in the New Negro Movement of the 1920s, later to become known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The novel is also fascinating in its depiction of the way in which some educated blacks during that era had difficulty finding employment.  Belton graduates from Stowe, moves to Virginia, where he works for a while as a school teacher, and gets married.  He also starts a side project of publishing a small newspaper in the community.  However, his decision to run a controversial article about black voter disfranchisement ends up getting him fired, and he has to search for another job:

Belton began to cast around for another occupation, but, in whatever direction he looked, he saw no hope. He possessed a first class college education, but that was all. He knew no trade nor was he equipped to enter any of the professions. It is true that there were positions around by the thousands which he could fill, but his color debarred him. He would have made an excellent drummer, salesman, clerk, cashier, government official (county, city, state, or national) telegraph operator, conductor, or any thing of such a nature. But the color of his skin shut the doors so tight that he could not even peep in.

The white people would not employ him in these positions, and the colored people did not have any enterprises in which they could employ him. It is true that such positions as street laborer, hod-carrier, cart driver, factory hand, railroad hand, were open to him; but such menial tasks were uncongenial to a man of his education and polish. And, again, society positively forbade him doing such labor

If a man of education among the colored people did such manual labor, he was looked upon as an eternal disgrace to the race.  He was looked upon as throwing his education away and lowering its value in the eyes of the children who were to come after him (129-130).

This is an example of an anxiety of over-education that I see recurring throughout black academic novels. The anxiety manifests itself in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons including concerns about employability, racial authenticity, or being stuck in the kind of ambiguous social status that Griggs described here with Belton.

This set Belton to studying the labor situation and the race question from this point of view. He found scores of young men just in his predicament. The schools were all supplied with teachers. All other doors were effectually barred. Society’s stern edict forbade these young men resorting to lower forms of labor. And instead of the matter growing better, it was growing worse, year by year. Colleges were rushing class after class forth with just his kind of education, and there was no employment for them (130).

Belton’s analysis of the relationship between race, labor and education is also good example of one particular aspect of my research:  I am suggesting that the black academic novel is a genre that not only speaks to the condition of black Americans, but can also be applicable to broader issues in higher education.  For instance one can look at these questions about industrial v. classical education among black leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century and see points of contact with our current discussions on higher education.  As the costs of education now exert more and more pressure on students to take on debt, many students are being admonished to think of education only in terms of cost-benefit analysis.  Students are now being told now that they should only major in practical technological fields and should avoid wasting time taking classes in the humanities, let alone actually majoring in one of these “worthless” fields.

Certainly there is not a one to one correlation between the situation of students now and the black students then, who lived under segregation, and whose employment opportunities were greatly restricted by the racial codes of their time.  Today it is the cost of higher education that is the main culprit.   A coalition between the financial industry, the Department of Education and market driven universities has made debt financing the default (pardon the pun) way to fund college education, and that has a lot to do with this  growing hostility toward the humanities, and an increasing suspicion toward the entire enterprise of higher education itself.  I believe that there is much that the history of black education in particular can add to this conversation.

Eventually Belton Piedmont and Bernard Belgrave re-unite at Thomas Jefferson College in Waco, TX and it is there that we learn of this clandestine group known as the Imperium, which has tapped Bernard, now a Harvard-trained lawyer, to be the leader.  The last several pages of the novel, which explain the mission of the group and the reasons why it was formed, is an enlightening analysis of the legal, cultural, and economic condition position of African-Americans in the post-emancipation era.  “In olden times, revolutions were effected by the sword and spear.  In modern times the ballot has been used for that purpose.  But the ballot has been snatched from our hands.  The modern implement of revolutions has been denied us” (220).   For these reasons the Imperium decides that an independent black nation is the only solution.  Here Griggs’s novel is also an important document of black nationalist thought in the late 19th century, an ideology that began to form in the earlier part of the century in the work of writers such as Martin R. Delany, and the protest pamphlets of David Walker, and the speeches of convention lecturers such as Maria W. Stewart.  It would be crystallized even more in the 20th century with Marcus Garvey’s ascent in the 1920s.

This is just a short sketch of some of the things that I found interesting about Imperium in Imperio.  I realize I haven’t written much about the gender question, which also factors in the novel.  In one passage Belton decides to hide by going undercover as woman and pretends to be a maid.  In this gender role-reversal he observes the lurid sexual advances that black women were subjected to at the hands of their white employers.  There are many other aspects of the novel too that I will perhaps write about later as I continue to learn more about Griggs and his work.