The Fantastic Fear in Black History Fiction

The Fantastic Fear in Black History Fiction

In observance of Black History month, Willy Martinez brings to life the first Fantastic work of fiction written by a colored American. The text is Sutton E. Griggs’s novel, Imperim in Imperio, published in 1899.

Imperium in Imperio: Self-published in 1899 and sold door-to-door by the author, this classic Black-American novel—a gripping exploration of oppression, miscegenation, exploitation, and black empowerment—was a major bestseller in its day. The dramatic story of a conciliatory black man and a mulatto nationalist who grow up in a racist America and are driven to join a radical movement dedicated to the creation of an all-black nation in Texas, Imperium in Imperio had a profound influence on the development of black nationalism.

Sutton E. Griggs’s novel, Imperim in Imperio is different from other economic novels in that it doesn’t exactly fit in as a sentimental novel, a realist piece, or a utopian fiction. Imperium in Imperio should be viewed as fiction that falls under the genre of the “fantastic,” as French literary critic, Tzvetan Todorov has described and demarcated in his work, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. I will argue that writing a work that falls into the fantastic realm has been developed out of a natural response or need to overcome the harsh realities of the reconstruction period, as well presenting a different vision of the supernatural that was expressed via white American gothic tropes.

While other white American writers were applying traditional fear and gothic tropes to their stories, Griggs had to present a work that would help his readers overcome their fears, and by doing so, Griggs created a work of fantastic literature. Imperium in Imperio has transcended to a fantastic piece of fiction out of survival in a sense.

As the discussion regarding Griggs work is becoming more popular and more of his works are uncovered and redefined for a modern audience, this essay will solely focus on Imperium in Imperio and how it completes the three conditions prescribed by Todorov to be considered a work in the fantastic.

As prescribed by Todorov, the fantastic requires the success of three conditions:

First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work… Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as “poetic” interpretations. The first and the third actually constitute the genre; the second may not be fulfilled. (Todorov 33)

Ultimately, what we are looking for is not the supernatural or only the instances in which the traditional gothic tropes are challenged. As Todorov writes, “we might indeed characterize such events as supernatural, but the supernatural, though a literary category, is no relevant here” (Todorov 34). We want to find the crux – not between real and the supernatural, but in which “the hesitation occurs between the real and the imaginary” (Todorov 36).

A caveat to the fantastic is that it may “evaporate at any moment” because once the reader makes a decision, the effect has worn off. This is important to note because there are many stories where there are scenes of uncertainty or the imaginary- this may be common in any genre. The emphasis in the defense of a true fantastic literature is that the work enforces and keeps the effects of blending between the imaginary and the real throughout the whole fiction, not just in certain scenes.

Why the fantastic though, and what relevancy does that genre have with American writers? In Theorizing the American Fantastic and the American Grotesque, Ib Johansen points out how the American fantastic is being noticed in Europe and our international readers note that “the birth of the nation (USA) incidentally coincided with the rise of fantastic fiction on the literary scene”, and how Europe was only marginally interested in the fantastic – it was the Americans who were fascinated with it (7).

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Some other writers of the fantastic in early American literature would be Edgar Allan Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, and Henry James. In his introduction to his collection of essays, American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, Dale Bailey agrees with Johansen that “the American renaissance, which borrowed a series of conventions already extent in the European gothic and cast them into a uniquely American form” (15). Griggs is no exception – he too takes the gothic trope and reinvents them in Imperium.

Leaving other critics and debates on whether we consider the fantastic to be either a genre or a mode, this article will focus on identifying the art created in response to the socio-economic situation in the black south.

According to critic, Yemisi Jimoh, “very little consensus on key questions of periodization [have] been established either among participants in the New Negro Movement in literature or the literary and historical scholars who came after them,” identifying a lack in research regarding the art that was produced during this period as well (488). It is important to address this lack of research and emphasize its artistic importance because, as critic David Kramer has argued that imperium in Imperio was probably “circulated more widely among black readers that the fiction of Chestnut, Dunbar, and other more prominent African America Literary figures of the time” (4).

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Pressing to say that Griggs could produce a fantastic fiction is not unlikely for a man who was a pioneer in other areas as well. He was a political activist, independent publisher, author, and is said to be the first black political writer who “wrote and spoke with great courage and wisdom about black dignity and suffering during the age of American Imperialism,” as introduced by Cornell West; so why not add to his accolades and give this writer credit as being one of the first black fantastic writers in the US (Griggs XV)? Now, I will unpack how Imperium lines up with this definition of the fantastic.

The first condition deals with the perception of events. When Todorov writes “to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons,” he is saying that the story must fit in this world, in a world completely familiar and, plausible with the reader’s mind (33). The reader must feel as if the novel takes place in a valid reality to his/her belief, while at the same time, be presented with instances that challenge his reality. This reality check cannot be so far fetched that it casts the fiction into pure science fiction or fantasy, but just enough to cause hesitation in reading, and then bring back the reader to their comfort reality.

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As Todorov points out, fear is usually present but not necessary for the fantastic. Imperium accomplishes the fantastic with and without fear. In addition to the horrific scenes with the doctor, we have more playful scenes which are also applied to derail the readers perspective. Johansen borrows a question from Thoreau’s magnum opus, Walden: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant”, which is the effect deployed in Imperium in Imperio to offset the traditional white reader’s center of gravity (Johansen 5).

The first example of this hesitation between this world and an alternative world in Imperium is illuminated with the first competitive speech in which Belton sets a trap for his teacher, Mr. Leonard. “During the last year Belton had dug a large hole running from the floor of the wood-shed to a point under the platform of the school room,” reads the paragraph leading the reader into the fantastic scene to come (28).

So, are we to assume that Belton had begun digging long before the contest, or that digging a tunnel under the school is even possible? This is the first instance in which any reader would hesitate. Interestingly though, we see this type of contraption – similar to the one that drops Mr. Leonard – in which a device is constructed to drop a character down at the end of the novel as Bernard is dropped down (127) The second device is even more of a spectacle as it includes a small parachute that descends into a stage of speculators, wrapped in a horse shoe, waiting for Bernard to drop down, either dead or alive.

As readers, we have been introduced to a real world in the post- reconstruction South, however, the events and scenes lead us to question its reality. Speech contests are not uncommon, and we see how much effort and training has been put forth on preparing for the first speech contest between Bernard and Belton. That work and effort is relatable to a reader, but this work is then contrasted with the humor in which the fantastic elicits from Mr. Leonard’s fall into the water pit. In the end, Bernard descends into the Imperium where he found himself at the center of a spectacle, in a large room, “containing desks arranged in a semi0circular form,” where there were one hundred and forty five desks, “and at each a person was seated” (127).

We see this uncertainty or challenging of the expected perception again when Belton dresses up as a woman to find work up north.

In support of Griggs writing to derail the “traditional linguistic marker”, critic Fabi argues that Griggs is a craftsman of “effecting a dislocation of point of view (Fabi 118). Once more, the reader’s perceptions are challenged when Belton dresses up as a woman to find work up North and “bought a wig representing the hair on the head of a colored woman [and] an outfit of well-fitting dresses and other garments worn by women” Griggs 91-92).

While dressed as a colored woman, working as a nurse, Belton has many noxious advances made towards him by the young men he worked for. This adventure ends abruptly though. Berl Trout tells us of the young group of men’s “daring plan of kidnapping and overpowering Belton” but then ends that story to transition to the next paragraph, denying the reader the details of what transpired, or even how Belton was able to get away (93). The reader never gets closure and is left to his/her imagination and ambiguity.

When Griggs first introduces the “Huge Mississippian,” he describes him as “A student in Stow University who was noted for his immense height and for the size and scent of his feet. His feet perspired freely, summer and winter, and the smell was exceedingly offensive” (Griggs 52). His smelly feet cleared out rooms and the Mississippian used this to his advantage to be able to have his own room, and to be in silence when he didn’t desire company. This character causes distraction from the seriousness of an educational oration, and one that forces the reader to once again pause a minute, and attempt to place this large footed, southerner amongst the

already interesting cast of characters. The scene in which the Mississippian’s socks are used to embarrass Belton comes across as comical, yet unreal at the same time. Such antics would not be easy to gamble with, yet, Griggs gets away with placing this scene as a relief to the harsh reality of the oppressed negro, in this case, Belton.

Another device applied by Griggs to push the fantastic is to incorporate current events and sentiments into the novel itself. David Kramer unpacks this alignment in his article, “Imperium in Imperio: Sutton Grigg’s Imagined War of 1898.” Kramer lines up Grigg’s novel with actual events that took place in the US on the same dates identified in Imperium. In the article we learn that many blacks fought valiantly to help free Cuba, and that they were even praised by their officers. The returning blacks are revered as heroes by their own communities, however, the white Southerners are not appreciative of this fact and retaliate with negativity and race attacks. This is important to not e because the black community is distraught over these unfair judgements, and Griggs has included them in Imperium (Griggs 137). Mixing the current event of the time with the plot would add verisimilitude and add emotional attachment, making this world seem once again real, bringing the reader back to a safe zone.

Griggs responds to historical events such as the wars and battles in Cuba by reframing them within the lens of the characters Bernard and Belton. While in actual history, the US is debating a war with Spain in order to help liberate Cuba, the blacks of the Imperium are proclaiming war as well – just not against Spain, but against the United States (Kramer)!

Challenging the perception of events being interpreted by the reader, today’s reader would have to be filled in on some historical facts that occurred around the time that Imperium in Imperio: Sutton E. Griggs Imagined War of 1898.” One of the events highlighted in this novel that parallels reality was the war against Spain in which the US invaded Cuba, African American soldiers returned home to racism and discrimination.

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They hoped to return to decency and dignity but instead “the war precipitated a wave of mob violence against African Americans” (Kramer 3). Imperium was written “in the after math of the betrayal of the black Cuban war soldier and the upsurge of negrophobia in the wake of the Spanish war (Kramer 4).

The most pervasive and reality challenging idea this book postulates is the existence of a large secret society. But before the large Imperium could be formed, Belton experiments with a smaller collective group while attending Stowe University. Belton succeeds in perfecting “a secret

organization and hav[ing] a password” upon which was agreed upon as being “Equality of Death” (Griggs 44). This group of students formed to earn the rights of their black professor to be able to sit and eat equally with the white teachers. While this instance does not cause hesitation in the reader, it does set the reader up to be more welcoming to the larger collective that becomes the Imperium, consisting of approximately seven million members, with elected representation, and even a small trained military. The reader gets built up to ‘believe’ in this alternate world of secret societies, and the narrator of this tale, Berl Trout warns the reader to “[r]emember that this was Belton’s first taste of rebellion against the whites for the securing of rights denied simply because of color. In after life he is the moving, controlling, guiding spirit in one on a far larger scale; it need not come as a surprise” (Griggs 47).

For the readers of the era, when this was book was first published it would have a greater sentiment towards this notion as we learn in “Sutton Griggs and the Borderlands of Empire,” author Caroline Lavander makes the argument that it is clear to Griggs that blacks cannot prosper within the borders of the US. Lavander points out how in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the border between Texas and Mexico was heavily contested and layered with diversity between Latinos, blacks and southern whites – and they all wanted to claim Texas as their own. Lavander also claims that Griggs was able to anticipate an uprising a decade before the Mexicans had a deal planned with Germany.

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I wonder if Griggs anticipated it, or if his works actually instigated it? Ultimately, Griggs is said to have drawn upon “the area’s rich racial legacy in order to imagine a new answer to a key question occupying both black and white citizens of the US- where to place the nation’s newly freed black citizens” (61). Lavander then narrows from the macro view of the big Texan space, down to the micro spaces in Belton’s booby traps, tunnels and horrific near-death surgical scene. This history is “fantasticized” by Griggs as he does in fact mix current events of his time with the social movements written in Imperium in Imperio.

Author M. Giulia Fabi also discusses space in the South in her article, “Desegregating the Future: Sutton E. Griggs’ Pointing the Way and American Utopian Fiction in the Age of Jim Crow.” She argues that authors like Griggs wrote “works of speculative fiction in order to seize the literary and cultural power to articulate a restructuring of the very nation that was discriminating against them” – or in other words, writers of this time were writing to transform the space they are currently in, into their ideal environment (114).

Overcoming the gothic or traditional fear appeals is one of the literary tropes that this novel accomplishes in order to become fantastic. Griggs sets this up in the scene in which Dr. Zackland has the local Southern “nigger rulers,” capture Belton to kill him cleanly so that the doctor can study Belton’s body after death (104-107). Even though the hate group succeeds in capturing Belton and hanging him as the “rope was adjusted around his neck and thrown over the limb of a tree” with Belton swinging from it, they still fail in killing him. And this is where reality once more bleeds into the imaginary and vice versa.

After being hanged, the postmaster “fired his pistol at the base of [Belton’s] skull and the blood came oozing forth”, however, Belton survives this trauma. And not only does he survive this trauma, Belton’s painful adventure is compounded with being cut down from the tree and then being placed on an operating table in Dr. Zackland’s residence while still alive. “Belton had now returned to consciousness but kept his eyes closed, thinking it best to feign death. Dr. Zackland cut off the hair in the neighborhood of the wound in the rear of Belton’s head and began cutting the skin, trying to trace the bullet. [But] Belton did not wince” (106). Belton’s palm is then pricked even though the “pain was exceedingly excruciating; Belton showed no sign of feeling” (106). This horrific and gothic scene forces the reader to re evaluate the dimension that this novel takes place in, and ask how it is that Belton survives these hardships, and if it is even humanly possible?

Griggs sets up Belton’s perseverance in this scene to demonstrate to the New Negro narrative how to react in the face of adversity: have no fear, control your body – and in denying the element of fear, the supernatural event becomes fantastic to the reader. Afterall, we are identifying the elements that turn this piece of fiction into a work of the fantastic.

Shortly after Belton arrives in Cadeville, Louisiana to work as a teacher, he is immediately targeted by the village doctor for being a “fine specimen of physical manhood” as the doctor’s “eyes followed him cadaverously” (Griggs 99). This targeting of Belton foreshadows the threats to come that continue to cause hesitation in Belton. Belton learns about the “nigger rulers” and their history of terror and extortion. Unfortunately for Belton, he thinks he may be safe in the home of God as he is invited to a white church by the pastor, but quickly learns that he is not equal and “a crowd of men gathered around Belton and led him out of doors” (103). Even in the house of God, the colored man is not equal or even treated with sympathy.

Although the second condition is not mandatory for a work of literature to be completed to be classified as a fantastic literature, I argue that this novel, does in fact accomplish this condition. The second condition being that “this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work” (Todorov 33). The examples for this condition are fewer, but still noteworthy.

One of the greatest challenges or most emotional hesitations that the protagonist Belton must endure is the birth and development of his child. When the child is first born, Belton let out a “terrible shriek” and “dropped the lamp upon the floor and fled out of the house and rushed madly through the city” (Griggs 94). Out of shame of having a child that was born white, he leaves the city to dedicate himself to the Imperium.

Towards the end of the novel, when Belton returns home before he is to face his death sentence, he is reunited with his son (Griggs 171). Before Belton is reunited with his son, Berl Trout, catches up the reader by filling in some growth transitions in Belton’s son’s upbringing: “as the child grew, its mother noticed that it’s hair began to change. She also thought she discovered his skin growing darker by degrees. As his features developed, he was seen to be the very image of Belton. Antoinette frequently went out with him and the people began to shake their heads in doubt” (Griggs 170-171). Even the characters in this novel hesitate as the race of Belton’s child that seems to change as he grows. This child isn’t even referred to as a ‘he’, the child is referred to as an ‘it’ and ‘it’s’ mother was Antoinette, wife of Belton (170).

Another adventure in which one of our heroes, Belton, is distraught between this world and the imaginary occurs in chapter XII. In this section, Belton travels from Texas, to Cadeville, Louisiana for a teaching position at Stowe University. During his trip Belton gets arrested and he even verbalizes his hesitation in his location, “wondering what kind of country he had entered” (Griggs 98). Belton is clearly hesitating in his own fictional reality as a character. Leading up to this reflection, Belton had been thrown off of a moving train, and then got kicked out of a restaurant simply for being colored (96-98). When Belton travels back to the South, he experiences a new South, one that falls in line with the fantastic as Bernard Terramorsi writes in “Le Mauvais reve americain: les origins du fantastique et le fantastique des origins aux-unis” that the fantastic marks “the return to a savage topology, where space does not

open itself up to connections and to communication, but rather to a chaos consisting of displaced localities (Johansen 8). We see this savage topography in the shaming scenes in which Belton gets throw off the train, kicked out of the restaurant, gets arrested. All of these scenes that were common to Belton are now topsy-turvy with this new fantastic landscape of the reconstruction period. And of course, the most savage scenes occur when he travels through the South, from Texas to Louisiana.

“was this death?” is what Bernard thinks to himself after he descends into the Imperium after proving his loyalty to the negro movement towards the end of the book (127). He was dumbfounded as to his life, the reality of being surrounded by a room full of statesmen and desks, and even more hesitant about the existence of the Imperium. Bernard even offered a grace period in which he “took three months to examine into the reality and stability of the Imperium,” signifying a doubt in one of our protagonist’s reality (135). Naturally, Bernard wanted to investigate the validity of the existence of a secret society, “[a]nother government, complete in every detail, exercising the sovereign right of life and death over its subjects… organized and maintained within the United States” (129). This secret society not only challenges the reader’s perception of reality, but also the perception of one of the main characters.

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The third condition of the fantastic is concerned with a choice between several modes (and levels) of reading (Todorov 34). Remembering that the “reader must adopt a certain attitude with the text: he will reject allegorical as well as “poetic” interpretations”, this paper will not take a look at how Imperium in Imperio fulfills this condition (33).

To fulfill this condition, the two stylistic devices deployed by a writer in the fantastic would be to use imperfect tense and modalization to cause uncertainty or hesitation in the reader’s experience, with the effect being best applied together to maximize the effect – which in this case is to cause ambiguity in the reader’s perception. This condition is linked to the syntactical or the semantic (Todorov 33). Accomplishing this effect furthers the hesitation in the fantastic because it causes the reader to have to re-orient themselves with the text (Todorov 38).

Mr. Leonard, the teacher for our protagonists during their upbringing, returns as an important player that will once again, fantastically propel Belton to the forefront, because of his mixed blood (65-67). Mr. Leonard gets reintroduced to the novel with a letter addressed to Belton, sent by Belton’s father. But this letter does not only tie the past with the present, it

is also, a touch of the marvelous is applied as Belton’s father discloses that Mr. Leonard served alongside Belton’s father during the war, and the two had contractual deal, holding crippling secrets which could ruin either one or the other’s lives. They made a pact to disclose one another’s secret – Belton’s father had a black wife, and Mr. Leonard had killed his own commanding officer. What’s derailing or pushing the limits of reality gets disclosed as well:

“[h]e informed me as to how my secret came into his possession. Soon after he committed his crime he felt sure that I was in possession of his secret, and he thought to steal into my tent and murder me. He stole in there one night to perpetrate the crime. I was talking in my sleep. In my slumber I told the story of my secret marriage in such circumstantial detail that it impressed him as being true” (Griggs 66).

The murderer decides against murder because he learns of a secret from his enemies pillow talk? This is very similar to what one might read ina childs book of fables. What’s even more perplexing is that this story comes via a letter, written to Bernard from his distanced father… and the story is told via the interpretation of the narrator, Berl Trout.

Another device used in causing hesitation or forcing a conscious division is the play of similar characters. Both brothers have names that begin with the letter “B”, they both were brought up in the same school; both have pasts attached to the former past and realize the future; both are grand orators. All these similar, yet different distinctions, force the reader to have to consciously hesitate between both characters. One chapter will cover the tracks of Belton’s misfortunes, and then the following chapter will cover Bernard’s helping hand from his political connections; the only distinction between these characters are skin tone and outside influences. But even with external influences, both characters end up being able to attend college because of their white benefactors. Blending skin tones, education, shameful experiences, and influence in Imperio was crafted intentionally by Griggs, in effort to impact his reader’s perceptions of which character is who, adding to the readers hesitation.

Critic Fabi notes Griggs’ utopia differs from the mainstream utopian fiction because of the “estrangement effect that results from moving African Americans from the margin to the center of a utopian planning” within a “tradition that systematically excluded blacks from visions of a better life” (114). This challenge or perspective shift from the traditional

white man’s voice is already asking the reader to have doubt in simply the fact that it was unheard of. Even more unheard of was an educated, well spoken society of black men. This was a reality the country was experiencing at the time, so the emotions were intensely fresh in the minds of Griggs’ intended readers, further pushing hesitation or casting doubt.

Nonetheless, the new negro is asking to be a character in the American dream, or, the American utopia; this asserts acceptance into the imaginary realm of all Americans, further making this a work of the fantastic for its time.

One of the challenges to creating fantastic fiction is that it may evaporate at any moment because oce the reader makes a decision, the effect of the uncertainty is gone. There are many pieces of fiction that have scenes that are fantastic, but rarely do we see a novel in which it can be a complete fantastic piece of work, such as Imperium in Imperio. Volleying off of Lavander’s claim that Grigg’s work “has become a significant object of study, especially for its commentary on race relations in an imperializing late-nineteenth-century US,” I too believe that Grigg’s Imperium in Imperio is a significant work – but not simply because of commentary – as I have demonstrated here, but also because of how Griggs applies his fantastic fiction as a vehicle to strengthen the new negro for an intellectual coup d’é·tat. Critic Fabi also writes of Griggs that his project in this novel “of social change rests precisely in the ideological and existential shift from the paralysis of despair to action and hope” (120). This ‘hope’ for the New Negro is what was begat out of Griggs’ fantastic fiction for his readers. Imperium in Imperio is a quality fantastic work because it blends the imaginary, the uncertain, gothic tropes, and hesitation of reality throughout the whole work.

The harsh reality of racism in the South is the real horror and harder to believe that such hatred exists, as opposed to surviving a gunshot wound to the head as was talked about in this chapter. The suspense or repelling of reality with the uncertainty is the relief the reader needs so that Imperium in Imperio does not come off as a complete tragedy. It is in a sense a watered down reality or a filtered truth for readers of all ages/races to be able to enjoy and reflect on constructively, rather than simply have a feeling of sorrow or terror.

For Todorov, this novel would be a true piece of fantastic as it requests a perpetual hesitation of interpretation from its readers. Adding Imperium in Imperio to the canon of the fantastic, alongside other great American writers – Poe, Bierce, Melville – would also thrust Griggs forward as a pioneer as the first black fantastic writer.

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Published by Willy Martinez

Willy Martinez is a creative writer, Integrated Marketing Specialist, and Boxing coach. Since being honorably discharged from the Marines in 2004, he has pursued his passion for telling stories, whether they be through film, graphic design, and writing for digital art.

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