Today, I received unexpected and good news (see at end). Unaccustomed to such requests as a non-tenure track faculty member at Keuka College, I was more than pleased that Twentieth Century Literature Criticism requested permission to reprint “Imperium in Imperio: Sutton Griggs’s Imagined War of 1898” for an upcoming volume. (opening paragraphs below)
Adapted from my Ph.D. dissertation, The Rhetorical war: Class, race and redemption in Spanish-American War fiction: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Richard Harding Davis and Sutton Griggs, the essay first appeared in War, Literature and the Arts in 2013.
Most importantly, I am glad that Sutton Griggs’ fascinatingly weird novel Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem (1899) [full text] is gaining increased scholarly and popular attention. Since its rediscovery in the 1960s, the novel has perplexed and captivated several generations of critics.
A few years ago, the Modern Library reprinted the novel with an introduction by Cornell West. And recently I spoke with Professor Andrew Hebard about his far ranging exploration, Race Conservation and Imperial Sovereignty in Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (American Quarterly Magazine, 2015), that moves beyond my context of the 1898 Spanish-American War by also situating the novel within rhetoric of the subsequent Filipino-American War. Professor Hebard is currently taking a closer look at Griggs’ engagement with the social sciences
Having chanced upon Imperium in the stacks on the University of Rhode Island library about 20 years ago, I was struck by its originality and puzzling mixture of post-Reconstruction narrative tropes.
Through the convention of the found manuscript, the novel discloses the existence of the Imperium, a secret African-American organization that during the Spanish-American declares war not on Spain but on the United States, seeking to form an independent black nation in Texas. Griggs infuses this fantastical premise within a series of episodes that include cross dressing, a scene right out of The Crying Game, and an attempted dissection of a live man.
But don’t listen to me. Read the novel yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
In addition, the excerpts from the WLA essay can be found in On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester. And remembering the Buffalo Soldiers on Veteran’s Day as well as in chapters 15 and 23 in the serialized screenplay Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story.
UPDATE: see Says who you can’t get rich being a writer.
Just once the convention lost complete control of itself. A tall slender youth had spoken some moments in a vein so modest that the chairman interrupted: “Gentlemen,” said he, “the speaker hasn’t much to say for himself, so I’m going to put in a word of my own. I can’t help it. That man, gentlemen—that man there was in the front of the charge at San Juan!” At that the air seemed suddenly to be composed of equally active parts of handkerchiefs, hats and hilarious cheers. The slender youth bowed acknowledgements and said his speech ought to take a military turn, but that he hesitated to say the thing he had in mind. “It was not a pleasant thing.”
“Say it out!” Yelled twenty voices.
So he said it out. He was disappointed in Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, said he, had slandered the Negro soldier; and there was really no braver soldier in the world. The Negro never flinched, never retreated. “Why, gentleman, way back in the old there was a Negro in the fight. And as for what Col. Roosevelt says about Negro soldiers being dependent upon white officers, I’ll tell you the truth. There wasn’t any officer in control on San Juan Hill—or rather every Negro private was a Negro captain!”
— Henry J. Barrymore’s account in the Boston Transcript of Sergant-Major Frank Pullen’s speech at the August 1900 Meeting of the Negro Business League from Booker T. Washington’s The Story of My Life and Work
In October 1898, Booker T. Washington was invited to speak at the Peace Jubilee in Chicago. Several weeks earlier, the black troopers of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry had returned to the United States following victory in the Cuban Campaign. Washington had strongly supported the American intervention in Cuba, claiming that, if asked, he could enlist 100,000 enthusiastic African-American soldiers.
Before an overflow crowd of 16,000 including President McKinley, Washington celebrated the triumphs of the African-American soldiers:
When you have gotten the full story of the heroic conduct of the Negro in the Spanish-American War—heard it from the lips of Northern soldier and Southern soldier, from ex-abolitionists and ex-masters—then decide for yourself whether a race that is thus willing to die for its country should not be given the highest opportunity to live in its country.
Washington’s rhetoric highlights the hopes shared by many African-Americans that black participation in the Spanish-American War would win respect from whites and improve black status at home. Before the war, Edward Cooper, the conservative editor of the Washington Colored American urged African-Americans to respond to McKinley’s call for volunteers so that “the Negro’s manhood [can be] placed directly in evidence.” Furthermore, in his address, Washington depicts the war as a vehicle for defusing and ameliorating racial antagonism: “recognition [of black heroism in Cuba] had done more to blot out sectional and racial lines than any event since the dawn of our freedom.” Cooper echoed Washington’s sentiments when he proclaimed to his readership: “Our soldierly qualities have been proven . . . The asperities of sectional and race hatred have been wonderfully softened.” Washington’s Peace Jubilee address was warmly received and widely reprinted in the national press.
Within the African-American community, the black troopers became immediate folk heroes:
In Negro homes pictures and plaques depicting the charge at San Juan occupied places of honor. Books, which celebrated the deeds of black soldiers in Cuba, found a ready market. Hundreds of poems ranging from the polished verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar to the crude rhymes of unknown poets extolled the exploits of Negro troops.
In Cooper’s terms, the soldiers were direct evidence of black manhood tested and proved. Furthermore, for a brief short-lived moment, even the white press championed the black soldiers. In October 1898, after the 10th cavalry marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the cheers of the citizens and a review by McKinley and his Cabinet, the Army and Navy Journal commented, “Never in history has the Negro advanced so rapidly in public estimation as in this war.”
Ultimately, the hopes of the African-American community would be disappointed. Almost immediately, attention given to African-American heroism dwindled. As Amy Kaplan has shown:
As Amy Kaplan has shown:
While African-American newspapers repeatedly lambasted the white press for never mentioning the names of individual black soldiers and for ignoring their contributions, Roosevelt’s account [the subject of Pullen’s tirade] raised special outrage for its blatant distortions of those accomplishments which has entered the public light.
In James Roberts Payne study of poetry written by black soldiers—as well as Dunbar’s “The Conquerors: The Black Troops in Cuba” and James Weldon Johnson’s short lyric “The Color Sergeant: On an Incident at the Battle of San Juan Hill”—Payne points to a progressive sense of disappointment, as the poems oscillate between “themes of extreme idealism and embittered disillusionment.” In late October 1898, only two weeks after the Peace Jubilee, Charles Knox of the Indianapolis Freeman lamented, “The millennium that is to be has not dawned. Caney and Santiago may as well not have been.” Sergeant-Major Pullens’s outburst in the form of his speech to the Negro Business League shows that this anger remained two years after the event.
Instead of the war leading to Washington’s vision of racial lines blotted out or Cooper’s image of racial hatred softened, the war precipitated a wave of mob violence against African-Americans. To many Southern whites, the victory over Spain—rekindling the martial spirit of the old Confederacy—was proof of Anglo- Saxon superiority. Returning black soldiers, often encamped in the south, were targets of white attack. Nowhere was the connection between the triumph in Cuba and assertions of white supremacy clearer than in the infamous November 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina white race riot. There, self-appointed vigilance committees created top quell black assertion, referred to themselves as “Rough Riders.” By late 1898, Dunbar, dismayed by post-war events, feared that he detected, “a new attitude produced by the war which was anything but favorable for black citizens.” By 1900, W.E.B Du Bois confirmed indeed that Knox’s millennium had not come. In his customary tone of distanced irony, Du Bois remarked that “the Spanish War and its various sequels have greatly increased some of our difficulties in dealing with the Negro problems.”
As mentioned, the request by Twentieth Century Literature Criticism was for me unprecedented. Not to mention I would get paid.
So I called Layman Poupard Publishing’s Office Manager, Giesela Lubecke for more information, mentioning that I planned to write an article for the magazine. Giesela kindly responded.
Thank you for calling our office today. Here is some information that may be of use to you as you write your article.
Your article has been selected to be reprinted in the Literature Criticism series, produced by Layman Poupard Publishing and published by Gale Cengage. Each volume the series contains one or more entries on certain literary subjects, which are reviewed by academics who are knowledgeable in the entry subject (we credit them as “academic advisors”).
These entries contain an introduction describing the subject matter; a list of primary works associated with the subject, such as an author’s major publications; a list of further reading for curious readers; and a selection of essays, such as yours, which serve to educate the reader on the academic discourse regarding the subject.
The entry on Sutton Griggs, in which we hope your essay will be included, is tentatively assigned to Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, one of the ten sub-series in the Literature Criticism series.
The academic advisor assigned to this particular entry is Dr. Eric Curry at Temple University. He may have been the person who recommended your essay for inclusion in the entry. I am not certain of this, as, I explained, I work in the administrative department and am not directly involved in the production of our volumes.
If you have any questions regarding the terms of reprinting your essay, please contact Jayne Stevens via email. I have copied her on this email for your convenience.
We are also always in need of academic experts to peer review our entries. This ensures Layman Poupard’s stringent standards on academic quality and accuracy. Here is a link to our website listing our current needs:
Giesela Lubecke, Office Manager
Layman Poupard Publishing, LLC
Columbia, South Carolina