Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930)
Contributing Editor: Jane Campbell
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It is essential that students grasp the obstacles facing an African-American woman of Hopkins's day. Her ability to surmount cultural, racial, and gender barriers in order to write and publish fiction is extraordinary.
I recommend journal writing to give students an opportunity to consider how Hopkins does or does not seem relevant to our times or to their lives. Journals can also lead to fruitful comparisons with other works read so far in the course.
Students might work in small groups or pairs to raise questions about any barriers to understanding these stories. If taught as companion pieces, what similarities in theme do the stories exhibit?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
I emphasize lynching and Klan activities and stress that the Klan is still active all over the United States. I discuss the convergence of racism and sexism, interracial blood lines, voting disenfranchisement, job discrimination against blacks, and color prejudice. I also stress Hopkins's emphasis on feminist issues such as the rape of African-American women during slavery by their masters and the ongoing attitudes toward black women as sexually available. Positive feminist themes such as female bonding and empowerment and women's collective political action also emerge from Contending Forces.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
It is essential that students grasp the obstacles facing an African-American woman of Hopkins's day. Her ability to transcend cultural, racial, and gender barriers in order to write fiction is extraordinary.
Fitting Hopkins into the tradition of African-American writers should involve discussion of cultural/literary conventions of the time. The tragic mulatto, a character appearing in many works by both black and white writers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, can lead to some interesting discussion, especially in light of why mulattoes appeared so often in African-American fiction, and how the device of the tragic mulatto simultaneously encouraged racial equality and underlined color prejudice.
It might be helpful to note Hopkins's emphasis on the pleasures of homemaking, love, and motherhood--usually derided as "the cult of domesticity" by male critics--deriving from her reliance on the literary romance. Sappho's depiction as a ravishingly beautiful, extraordinarily talented, strong heroine who overcomes numerous obstacles and serves as a model for her audience also reveals Hopkins's allegiance to the conventions of the romance.
Hopkins was writing to a mixed audience of African-Americans and whites. Her use of romance conventions demonstrates that many of her readers were women, and that she was interweaving politics and entertainment, thus raising the consciousness of a large audience. Her reliance on precise diction and cultural/literary allusions is clearly intended to remind her audience that many African-Americans are intelligent, educated, and cultured.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
If any students have read contemporary African-American novels, such as Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Alice Walker's The Color Purple, they will discover parallels. Romances such as Charlotte Temple or Uncle Tom's Cabin might link Hopkins with white authors of her time concerned with similar issues and using the same literary mode to present them.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Explore how "Ma Smith's Lodging-House--Concluded" delineates educated from uneducated characters. Why do you suppose such distinctions were important to Hopkins's novel? How do you react to the use of black English, or black dialect, as it is sometimes called? Is it a realistic device, or does it demean the speaker?
2. What did you learn from "The Sewing Circle" about African-Americans during Hopkins's day? What does Hopkins teach her audience about American history?
3. Could a novel similar to Contending Forces be written today? Explore what differences you might expect.
4. Might there be other African-American writers of Hopkins's time whose work has been lost, writers we have not yet rediscovered? Why might their works have been lost?
5. How do you account for the resurgence of interest in early African-American women writers?
Campbell, Jane. Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Shockley, Ann Allen. Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.