A century before racists dragged James Byrd, Jr. to a gruesome death in Jasper and a maltreated tenth of Tulia was sent to prison on account of color, a novice novelist envisioned Texas as the site for African American utopia. A century before a violent raid dispersed the surviving Branch Davidians, he located a clandestine radical community in Waco. Sutton E. Griggs was a notable orator, pastor, activist, and writer, and, despite its literary defects, the first of his five novels is worth retrieving from neglect. Originally published in 1899, Imperium in Imperio is, according to Cornel West in his Introduction to a new edition by the Modern Library, “the first major political novel written by an African American.” Its political analysis transcends the troubled time in which it was conceived and set.
Born in Chatfield, Texas, in 1872, Griggs graduated from Bishop College, in Marshall, eighteen years later. Ordained a Baptist minister, he led congregations in Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas. He was 27 when he wrote Imperium in Imperio, a book not likely to have pleased the era’s arbiters of culture. But Griggs published it himself and sold it door to door. The toxic wastes left behind by America’s “peculiar institution,” slavery, are the central concern of Imperium in Imperio, as well as of Griggs’ later novels—Overshadowed (1901), Unfettered (1902), The Hindered Hand (1905), and Pointing the Way (1908). In more than 40 polemical texts, including The Race Question in a New Light (1909) and The Guide to Racial Greatness (1923), he returned again and again to the noxious color codings that, during Reconstruction, allowed Jim Crow to spread its ugly wings. Lynching was still epidemic while Griggs wrote about racial disparities in employment, education, and power. When he died, in 1933, he was trying to found something called the National Religious and Civic Institute in Houston.
Griggs is so rarely remembered today that the Modern Library recruited two authorities to endorse and explain its reprint of his slim novel. In a Preface preceding West’s Introduction, novelist A. J. Verdelle calls Griggs “an important minor novelist writing at an exceedingly important time.” That time is the aftermath of the Civil War, when millions of former slaves found their new freedom actively opposed by white supremacists. Imperium in Imperio, whose Latin title alludes to the secret black empire that is eventually established within the midst of newly imperial America, begins in 1867, when two young boys enroll in a one-room schoolhouse for colored children in Winchester, Virginia. For Griggs, education is key to determining black destiny after emancipation, but access is limited and unequal. One of the two boys, Bernard Belgrave, is the fair-skinned son of a beautiful and wealthy mulatto mother, and he immediately becomes the teacher’s pet. The other, Belton Piedmont, the dusky child of poverty, becomes the teacher’s butt. However, both excel, especially in oratory, though Bernard is admitted to Harvard while Belton, with financial help from a white patron, attends an all-black college in Nashville. Each enjoys a brilliant academic career and ends up valedictorian at his graduation. Bernard is elected to Congress, and Belton becomes a postal clerk. Though Belton is later hired to run an all-black college in Louisiana, he is forced to flee when a vigilante group calling itself “Nigger Rulers” finds him insufficiently submissive.
Bernard and Belton reunite in Waco, as leaders of the Imperium, a shadow government of, by, and for African Americans. With fair-skinned Bernard and dark-skinned Belton, Griggs makes use of a literary device familiar to 19th-century readers—the doppelgänger, the pairing of two characters so that each functions as an inverted image of the other. Like Twain’s Prince and Pauper or Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, Bernard and Belton are different manifestations of the same identity: the new black man. They enable Griggs to examine the two principal options confronting Southern blacks in the generation following the Civil War.
Belton and Bernard each admire and love the other, but they are like brothers whose paths diverge completely. An accommodationist committed to tempering the bigotry of white society, Belton mirrors the beliefs of Booker T. Washington. Bernard, by contrast, is a black nationalist whose positions parallel those of W. E. B. Du Bois. The inevitable clash between Belton and Bernard foreshadows debates between integrationists and separatists, pacifists and militants, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison and Amiri Baraka. As the United States prepares to attack Spain for its tyranny over Cuba, the Imperium considers what to do about racist oppression within the United States. Three courses of action are proposed: assimilation, insurrection, and emigration.
The back-to-Africa option is not seriously considered by the secret council in Waco. But Belton speaks out eloquently in defense of white society, even in the South. While recognizing the injustices and atrocities perpetrated against blacks, Belton expresses gratitude to Anglo Saxons for bringing civilization and the English language to his people. He urges the Imperium to try to persuade whites to change their racist ways. If, after four years, they do not succeed, he proposes that all African Americans “abandon our several homes in the various other states and emigrate in a body to the State of Texas, broad in domain, rich in soil and salubrious in climate.” Belton is convinced by demographics that Austin can be remade as Monrovia: “Having an unquestioned majority of votes we shall secure possession of the State government.” His plan to transform Texas—which a century later still has not elected an African American to any statewide executive or legislative office—into a black free state anticipates a recent scheme by libertarians to infiltrate New Hampshire through strategic relocation. It is an audacious fantasy.
And it is rejected by the Imperium, which resolves instead to adopt the belligerent course of action advocated by Bernard. While the United States is distracted by war with Spain, he urges alliance with foreign powers in assault against the American navy in Galveston. After defeating Washington, the Imperium will take Texas and reward its foreign allies with Louisiana. The flag of the Imperium will be hoisted over the Lone Star capitol, and “Thus will the Negro have an empire of his own, fertile in soil, capable of sustaining a population of fifty million people.” With W. C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker all citizens of Texas, Austin would surely become the music capital of the world that it claims to be.
Griggs’ own position on the necessity for a separate Negro empire remains ambiguous. When Belton is voted down, unanimously, by the Imperium, he is declared a traitor and executed, reluctantly, by his alter ego, Bernard. “When he fell,” says Berl Trout, secretary of state of the Imperium, “the spirit of conservatism in the Negro race, fell with him. He was the last of that peculiar type of Negro heroes that could so fondly kiss the smiting hand.” In narrating the entire story and exposing secrets of the Imperium, Trout concedes that he is committing treason and accepts the necessity for his own execution. His text is both a wistful elegy for those who kiss the smiting hand and a sorrowful salute to those whose own hands must smite.
Griggs himself was smitten with melodrama, and Imperium in Imperio is cobbled together from elements that are as preposterous as the villainies it portrays are outrageous. Belton manages to survive being lynched, shot, and dissected. When his saintly wife, Antoinette (“still every inch a woman despite her intellectuality”), gives birth to a white baby, he, deducing adultery, abruptly abandons her. He later reconciles when the child turns black. Perturbed that educated black men, refusing to accept menial jobs, are denied positions appropriate to their skills, Belton seeks to understand how white folks really think. So he resorts to cross-dressing, infiltrating a white household by taking on “the appearance of a healthy, handsome, robust colored girl, with features rather large for a woman but attractive just the same.” Though John Howard Griffin could manage to pass for a different race in the social experiment he recorded in Black Like Me (1961), it is hard to imagine Belton transgendering himself as a family nurse successfully enough to fool his employers day after day.
Imperium in Imperio attributes Bertrand’s black nationalism to a suicide. When he proposes to Viola Martin, whom he loves and who loves him, she kills herself out of fear of miscegenation. It would have been simpler to get to a nunnery. A book had convinced her that “the intermingling of the races in sexual relationship was sapping the vitality of the Negro race and, in fact, was slowly but surely exterminating the race.” Viola chooses death over Bertrand because marriage to a mulatto would increase that lethal intermingling. Her suicide note implores her beloved to “dedicate your soul to the work of separating the white and colored races.” Not only is Bertrand’s mother partially white, but, as he learns on the day of his graduation from Harvard, his father is a powerful white Senator. The ghost of Strom Thurmond, born three years after it was published, and an additional century of racial injustice haunt Griggs’ prophetic novel, where the world is never quite black and white.
Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is editor of Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft (Nebraska).