October 1900 (Vol. 1, No. 5)




October 1900 (Vol. 1, 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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Brian Sweeney
Associate Professor of English, The College of Saint Rose
Co-director, The Digital Colored American Magazine

The October 1900 issue of the Colored American Magazine is notable for including “Talma Gordon,” perhaps Pauline Hopkins’s most frequently anthologized work and arguably the founding text of African American mystery fiction (Woods 3). Nesting a sensational gothic plot within a more realist frame narrative recalling Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” (Atlantic Monthly, July 1898), “Talma Gordon” takes up themes frequently explored in Hopkins’s fiction: concealed racial histories, the arbitrary nature of racial categories, the question of “amalgamation,” and the centrality of black dispossession to United States history.  Combining a locked-room murder mystery with a back-story concerning piracy and buried treasure, the tale builds on two of the founding texts of the mystery genre, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Gold-Bug” (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe (Gruesser 119, 124-125).  As Catherine Ross Nickerson has noted, the heroine’s name and her trial for parenticide evoke a real-life antecedent as well: the 1893 Lizzie Borden murder case (190-194).  At the heart of the story is a racial discovery plot involving the plans of the unscrupulous Captain Gordon, descendant of early Puritan settlers, to disinherit his daughters when he learns of their mother’s “Negro blood” (286).  However, as in many of the contemporary Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, the murders that ensue are finally revealed to have their source outside the family, in earlier crimes committed at the “margins” of “civilization” that have now come home to roost.1

While Hopkins often wrote for the Colored American under a pseudonym, “Talma Gordon” is prominently advertised on the cover under her own name.  Underscoring the text’s  engagement with imperialism and race, the cover states that Hopkins’s “fascinating” tale illustrates “the effect of ‘EXPANSION’ on the future development of the Anglo-Saxon throughout the world.” There is critical disagreement over the degree to which “Talma Gordon” can be read as an anti-imperialist text (for an overview see Gruesser 117-119), but it seems certain that Hopkins’s story posits no neat parallel between the struggle for racial equality in the United States and opposition to US imperialism abroad. For example, Hopkins has the white character Dr. Thornton appeal to the pro-imperialist sentiments of fellow members of the Canterbury Club in his argument in favor of racial intermarriage: “[I]f we are not ready to receive and assimilate the new material which will be brought to mingle with our pure Anglo-Saxon stream, we should call a halt in our expansion policy” (291).

“The Young Colored American.” Colored American Magazine, October 1900, frontispiece.

The complicated relationship between the struggle for African American civil and social equality on the one hand and anti-imperialism on the other is likewise the subject of the article “Negro and Filipino.” Reprinted from the Lewiston Journal, the article defends Republican President William McKinley’s imperialist policies, while castigating the hypocrisy of “political demagogues who cry upon the corners for liberty to the Tagalogs and the Sulus” while shutting “their eyes and ears to the disenfranchisement of this people whom Lincoln freed” (334).  The article depicts anti-imperialism as a distraction from the more immediate task of achieving racial equality in the United States: “[H]ere in this nation the very sins which [anti-imperialists] wrongfully impute to the Republican party in the Philippines, they cultivate and promote within the body politic of the states of the nation that hate the Negro and seek to relegate him to ignorance and superstition in order to perpetuate his servility and his dependence” (334).

By contrast, Benjamin Griffith Brawley’s poem “New Wars,” which shares a page with “Talma Gordon,” stridently rebukes the United States for xenophobia, imperialism, and hypocrisy: “Ye hoot the yellow Mongol from your land / Yet forth to regions all his own ye go / To reap the riches of his overflow” (290).  As Gretchen Murphy has stated, such explicit condemnations of United States imperialism in the Colored American are rare after 1900 (Murphy 131-132). A more benign picture of imperialism, at least as practiced by the British, emerges in Charles Winslow’s “Queen Victoria and Her Colored Proteges.” Here, the dealings of the British monarch with African subjects are contrasted to the racial prejudices of the average white American. Meanwhile, a review of J. Dyer Ball’s Things Chinese, the article “Filipino Women,” and Hopkins’s depiction of an East Indian character in “Talma Gordon” all trade in diverse ways upon Orientalist stereotypes.  The dialogue or symposium produced through the interaction of these texts is one in which various perspectives on imperialism, race, and African American advancement overlap and conflict.

Opposite the first page of “Talma Gordon” is a photograph, “The Young Colored American,” that was to become a familiar image in the magazine.  In later issues a limited edition 18 x 24 photogravure of “The Young Colored American” was offered free with a year’s subscription.  Sigrid Anderson Cordell writes that the image of a “young smiling African-American boy balancing an American flag across one arm with the other arm raised in a salute” evokes patriotic optimism, references the “infancy” of the United States,  and “reflects the magazine’s aim to recover the role of African Americans in American history” (52). In addition, the title of the photograph echoes the Young America movement of the mid-nineteenth century and therefore the ideology of manifest destiny. As a frontispiece to this issue of The Colored American Magazine, “The Young Colored American” might be seen to figure forth the issue’s larger dialogue concerning the relationship between US imperial expansion and the cause of African American advancement.

1. The story especially invites comparison with the Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” first published in the United States seven years before, in Harper’s Weekly, February 11, 1893.

Works Cited

Chesnutt, Charles. “The Wife of His Youth.” Atlantic Monthly , vol. 82, no. 489, July 1898, pp. 55-62.  Making of America, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=atla;idno=atla0082-1

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.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.”  Harper’s Weekly, vol. 37, no. 1886, Feb. 11, 1893, pp. 127-127.  HathiTrust Digital Library, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000020243371;view=1up;seq=139

Gruesser, John Cullen. The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home: African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion. U Georgia P, 2012.

Murphy, Gretchen. Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line. New York UP, 2010.

Nickerson, Catherine Ross.  The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by Women.  Duke UP, 1998.

Woods, Paula E., ed.  Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century. Doubleday, 1995.

Table of Contents

H. O. Franklin, One of the Guards at the Paris Exposition [Cover]
Portrait, Miss Lizzie Burrell
Photograph, The Young Colored American (Frontispiece)
Talma Gordon, Pauline E. Hopkins
Portrait, Charles Byron Smith
Portrait, Mrs. Johnston
New Wars (Poem), Benjamin Griffith Brawley
Paris and the International ExpositionMorris Lewis
The Stress of Impulse (Serial) [Part III, Chs. 9-11], Maitland Leroy Osborne
Portrait, Miss A. Louise Connelly
Portrait, Rev. Sylvester S. Bryan
Constitutional Rights Association of the United StatesGiles B. Jackson, Sec.
Queen Victoria and Her Colored ProtegesCharles Winslow
The Tyranny of the South, Robert W. Carter
Chiropody and Dermatology, Dr. T. W. McKenzie
Portrait, A Filipino Woman
Portrait, Dr. T. W. McKenzie
Thrown into Favor, Charles Steward
Book Notes [Charles F. Dole, The American Citizen and The Young Citizen; James Ephraim McGirt, Avenging the Maine; J. Dyer Ball, Things Chinese]
Here and There [What Members and Friends of the Race Say about Our Magazine; Testimonial Recital; Filipino Women]
Editorial and Publishers’ Announcements
Negro and Filipino