March 1903 (Vol. 6, No. 5)

 

6.5.Mar.03.cover

 

March 1903 (Vol. 6, No. 5)

Source: James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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Commentary

Eurie Dahn
Associate Professor of English, The College of Saint Rose
Co-director, The Digital Colored American Magazine

Although magazines are not unified in the way novels are, this issue emphasizes two significant and somewhat paradoxical themes throughout its pages.  The first is the recovery of an alternative history of the black race, a history that begins in a glorious African past, and the second is an ambivalent engagement with interraciality and skin color.

In 1922, the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter in Egypt created a sensation, leading to a craze for all things Egyptian, an Egyptomania that expressed itself in fashion, architecture, advertising, and more.  At the same time, this Egyptomania was condemned by the black press as being grounded in the whitewashing of Egyptian blackness.  Various periodicals, including the influential The Chicago Defender newspaper, pushed back against this account by tracing the lineage of African Americans back to King Tut, to Egypt, and, ultimately, to rich and advanced African civilizations.

This March 1903 issue of The Colored American, taken as a whole, published almost two decades before Carter’s discovery, is part of this reclamation project.  On the first page of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass writes, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it….  I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday…  A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.”  This issue, as with the efforts in the 1920s to insist upon the genealogical links between King Tut and African Americans of the day, works to remedy the “want of information” that Douglass identifies as an almost universal condition of African Americans of his time.  Douglass’s concern here is with the lack of an “authentic record” of his personal history, but it is, at its core, also a concern with the erasure of the history of a race.

This history is reclaimed through a return to Africa in Chapters XII to XIV of Pauline E. Hopkins’s novel, Of One Blood, which are serialized in this issue of the magazine.  This particular installment, which ends with Reuel, who is passing as white, receiving word of the seeming death of his wife, Dianthe, emphasizes the magnitude and glories of the ancient civilization of Ethiopia.  As a member of an archaeological expedition, Reuel searches for the Ethiopian hidden city of Meroe, which is described as an ancient site of “immense wealth” (340).  When told of the former wonders of Ethiopia, Charlie Vance, Reuel’s white friend, exclaims, “‘Great Scott!… you don’t mean to tell me that all this was done by niggers?’” (342).  Hopkins’s novel aims to expose ignorance of this kind and tell an alternate story of blackness, what Hazel V. Carby has called “a cathartic response to the pessimistic vision of the limited possibilities of black existence on the western shores of the Atlantic” (162) and what John Gruesser has identified as Hopkins’s attempt to “provide African-Americans with a usable livable past…” (75).

Hopkins’s strategy of historical reclamation– which, as Gruesser notes, had an early start in her 1905 pamphlet, “A Primer of Facts: Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendants” – is extended to the cover story of the issue.  This issue opens with a photographic portrait of Meta Vaux Warrick on the cover; a long photographic essay on the sculptor by H. Harrison Wayman is a central feature of the issue.  While this essay is ostensibly about Warrick’s accomplishments, the majority of its pages are devoted to a discussion of the “history of the Negro” (325).  On the first page, Wayman writes, “For more than a thousand years – ten times as long as this government has existed – Ethiopians were the most enlightened people on the globe, invincible in war and pre-eminent in peace – the masters of mankind” (325).  Warrick is held up as an example of someone who can “carry forward the banner of progress for our race…” (323).

This emphasis on an Afrocentric history is accompanied by a discussion of interracial marriage and racial amalgamation throughout the issue in various venues.  An essay from a series titled “Furnace Blasts,” follows directly after the installment of Hopkins’s novel.  This essay, titled “Black or White – Which Should Be the Young Afro-American’s Choice in Marriage,” has the byline of J. Shirley Shadrach, one of Hopkins’s pseudonyms.  In this essay, Hopkins discusses the fact that “[t]he greatest objection to Negro enfranchisement is found in the menace of social equality which it is contended will inevitably lead to amalgamation” (348).  Hopkins quotes from Acts 17:26: “‘Of one blood have I made all nations of men’” (352).  This quotation, which, of course, is the source for her novel’s title, emphasizes the fact and inevitability of amalgamation.

The “Editorial and Publishers’ Announcements” section of the issue continues this discussion through the publication of a letter by Cornelia A. Condict, described as a white reader, and Hopkins’s response.  In her letter, Condict writes, “May I make a comment on the stories, especially those that have been serial.  Without exception they have been of love between the colored and whites.  Does that mean that your novelists can imagine no love beautiful and sublime within the range of the colored race, for each other?” (308).  Hopkins responds,

My stories are definitely planned to show the obstacles persistently placed in our paths by a dominant race to subjugate us spiritually.  Marriage is made illegal between the races and yet the mulattoes increase.  Thus the shadow of corruption falls on the blacks and on the whites, without whose aid the mulattoes would not exist.  And then the hue and cry goes abroad of the immorality of the Negro and the disgrace that the mulattoes are to this nation.  Amalgamation is an institution designed by God for some wise purpose, and mixed bloods have always exercised a great influence on the progress of human affairs. (309)

Hopkins’s emphasis on light-skinned protagonists has been an object of criticism, and, her response to Condict reveals that she sees her work as responding specifically to critics of amalgamation.  As Sigrid Anderson Cordell has pointed out that “far from embracing a strictly separatist politics, Hopkins openly advocated miscegenation as the ideal solution to racial strife, partly because it would destabilize fixed notions of ‘pure’ white blood” (61).

Hopkins’s novel, essay on interracial marriage, and response to Condict are juxtaposed, through the contingencies of the magazine form, with other attitudes to race.  For example, two of the earliest advertisements in this issue is the striking “Wonderful Face Bleach” ad from Crane and Co. and the full-page advertisement for Hartona Remedy Co., which sells Hartona Hair-Grower and Straightener, Face Bleach, and No-Smell.  The former advertisement, which makes its appearance in many issues of the magazine, presents line drawings to tout the effectiveness of its products; these drawings depict a woman with dark skin and curly hair as the “before” and a woman with white skin and straight hair as the “after.”  It boasts: “Will turn the skin of a black or brown person four or five shades lighter, and a mulatto person perfectly white.”  In contrast, the issue also contains a short story by Ruth D. Todd, titled “The Folly of Mildred: A Race Story with a Moral,” which depicts Mildred James with a “complexion [that] was exceedingly light” receiving her comeuppance for rejecting Robert Thompson’s marriage proposal for being “exceedingly dark” and not wealthy enough (366).  Her colorism leads her to marry another man who turns out to be a gambler, while Robert makes a happy marriage and a substantial fortune.

This morality tale about the dangers of colorism contrasts with the cosmetics advertisements, even as Hopkins’s literary and political interests emphasize the exceptionality of those with light skin.  At the same time, Hopkins’s work on educating the public on the history of black civilizations argues for pride in blackness.  This issue, then, is characterized by the typical juxtapositions and contingencies of the magazine form in holding these contradictions, tensions, and ambivalences.

Works Cited

Carby, Hazel V.  Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist.  Oxford UP, 1987.

Cordell, Sigrid Anderson.  “‘The Case Was Very Black Against’ Her: Pauline Hopkins and the Politics of Racial Ambiguity at the Colored American Magazine.”  American Periodicals, vol. 16, no. 1, 2006, pp. 52-73.

Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.  Written By Himself.  Documenting the American South, docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html .

Gruesser, John.  “Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood: Creating an Afrocentric Fantasy for a Black Middle Class Audience.”  Modes of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Twelfth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins, Greenwood, 1991, pp. 74-83.


Table of Contents

James H. Wolff, Boston, Mass. (Frontispiece)
The Psalm of a Race (Poem), James D. Corrothers
Meta Vaux Harrick — Sculptress, H. Harrison Wayman
The Afro-American Council, Cyrus Field Adams
Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self  (Serial) [Part V, Chs. 12-14], Pauline E. Hopkins
Furnace Blasts, II. — Black or White?, J. Shirley Shadrach [pseud. Pauline E. Hopkins]
Reminiscences of the Life and Times of Lydia Maria Child, Part II, Pauline E. Hopkins
James H. Woolf — A Sketch of His Life
An Answer to “Mr. Roosevelt’s Negro Policy,” Albreta Moore-Smith
The Folly of Mildred — A Race Story with a Moral, Ruth D. Todd
Here and There: A Monthly Review of Race Happenings
Harry C. Smith — Editor of The Cleveland Gazette, Cyrus Field Adams
“Starlik” — A Tale of Laguna, Capt. F. R. Steward
The “Black Man” of Germany
Editorial and Publishers’ Announcements