Saturday, December 22, 2018

Book Reviews: Imperium In Imperio

Imperium In Imperio
by Sutton E. Griggs
Sutton Griggs was a black man born in Reconstruction era Texas. He later became an author, publisher and minister, among other professions. Griggs was a great proponent of activism for Black Americans. Griggs was an example of deeds being as important as faith. He helped build and maintain social institutions for Black Americans during the worst time for Black Americans outside of slavery. 

From the very first time that enslaved Africans arrived in this country there have always been different, occasionally conflicting ideas about how to best obtain freedom or even what freedom is. People of course change their minds depending on their life experiences. A traumatic experience as a youth can set the adult on a different path than he or she otherwise might have been. 

Growing up at a time when racist atrocities against Black Americans were literally unchecked Griggs used that environment to produce a novel that is by turns didactic and descriptive if not always entertaining in the modern sense. Griggs was a supporter of DuBois and thus perhaps a believer in the "Talented tenth" and integrationist models. However in this novel Griggs seems to be working out his own skepticism about the limits of those models and their ability to solve the needs of Black Americans. Griggs calls back to earlier more specifically Black nationalist writers such as David Walker. Griggs also eerily anticipates upcoming Pan-Africanist nationalist activists such as Marcus Garvey, who would come on the scene just a few short years after this novel, as well as later folks like Elijah Muhammad.

The novel is really more of a short story or even novella. It's just under 100 pages. It's occasionally dense reading. Griggs really liked prepositional phrases, a weakness I share. 



As with similar stories by Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, Griggs imagines two boys of similar wit and drive. Both are Black and grow in post Civil-War Virginia. Bernard Belgrave is light-skinned. His mother is mixed. 

His father (unknown at first) is a relatively liberal white Senator. Belton Piedmont's parents are both Black.  Both boys grow up together during a very brief period of time when it seemed that white supremacy (referred to here as "Anglo-Saxon" supremacy as indeed it was in real life throughout the South) was on the defensive. 

That didn't last long.  Bernard is able to occasionally call upon anonymous help from his father. Belton can't rely upon anything like that. As men both Bernard and Belton have to face the full brunt of resurgent white supremacy throughout the South. Each man has a shocking traumatic personal confrontation with racism. When they become aware of a way to counter these racist insults to them and their people, each man reacts and responds in a different manner.

A good third of this book is not dialogue but rather an indictment of brutal white racism and hypocrisy. I already knew about all of this but in 1899 this was pretty revolutionary stuff. What it's not though is good reading for a novel. The book sometimes jumps back and forth between a novel and a political tract.  But given that during the time it was written Blacks were being shot, lynched, and burned alive on a virtual weekly basis perhaps the novel format alone couldn't contain all of what Griggs needed to say.  Unfortunately a great deal of of what Griggs wrote about still applies. You may find some of the language surprisingly modern. 

I liked Griggs' insight into how a lack of Black capital leads to a lack of Black independent thought. Belton speaks out against racist voter suppression and promptly loses his job.  There are few Black people who can employ him. I couldn't help but see this echoed in the current situations faced by Marc Lamont Hill and Kevin Hart. This is worth reading to get an idea about how 19th century/early 20th century Black Americans saw the world and what they can teach us about our world today.
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