Welcome back to another edition of Belle Lettres. This month’s spotlight is on Pauline Hopkins — an American journalist, playwright, editor and novelist. Hopkins is recognized as a pioneer for using romance novels to discuss social and racial themes. W.E.B. DuBois was considered a major influence on her work.
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was born in 1859 (her exact date of birth is unknown) in Portland, Maine. She performed her first play, Slaves’ Escape; or, The Underground Railroad, with her mother and stepfather in 1880. It was during this time that Hopkins traveled with her family as the Hopkins Colored Troubadours. She later produced a second play called One Scene for the Drama of the Early Days about the Biblical character Daniel.
Hopkins was a representative of the Woman’s Era Club at the Annual Convention of New England Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1898, and Hopkins became a founding member of the Boston Literary and Historical Association in 1901. In 1901, Hopkins also became the editor of the Colored American Magazine. This magazine was widely circulated, and it focused on the social, political, and economical issues within African-American communities.
In 1900, Hopkins published her first novel, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. This novel follows the main protagonist with a mixed race background, Sappho Clark, from slavery in the early 19th century in the West Indies and southern US to Massachusetts in the early 20th Century.
Hopkins published three serial novels between 1901 and 1903: Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice (published under the pseudonym Sarah A. Allen); Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest; and Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self.
Like Contending Forces, Hagar’s Daughter features a character who unexpectedly learns of their true racial identity and unwillingly reveals it to others. In both novels, the reveal of the main protagonist’s racial identity leads to a change in their social status.
Winona explores the fluidity of identity in race and gender. Hopkins focuses on the idea that putting an individual’s race and even gender into a box — where physical qualities make it easy to tell who they are — is not possible.
Hopkins takes on a more mystical tone in Of One Blood. Her main character, Reuel Briggs, is also biracial, with no desire to know his background or to be associated with black culture. During an expedition in Ethiopia, Reuel finds out about his lineage and the heightened spiritual powers of his family in an ancient city called Telessar. Hopkins’ novels demonstrate how people who are biracial can get caught up in assimilating with the dominant race in order to gain a place in society.
Hopkins was hired by the Voice of the Negro — an Atlanta-based magazine that explored themes similar to the Colored American Magazine — and she wrote articles for them between 1904 and 1905. Under her imprint based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Hopkins published a pamphlet in 1905 called “A Primer of Facts Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendants.”
In 1916, Hopkins entered a new venture with the founder of the Colored American Magazine, Walter Wallace, by creating the New Era Magazine. That same year, Hopkins published her final novel, Topsy Templeton, as a series in the New Era Magazine.
In Topsy Templeton, Hopkins tells the story of a young orphan girl who is on a quest to find her missing parents. The novel explores themes of abandonment and the cross of class and racial divides. New Era Magazine only lasted for two issues. In later years, Hopkins worked as a stenographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
On August 13, 1930, Hopkins died at the age of 71 from burns in a house fire.
At the Faneuil Hall in December 1905, Hopkins declared, “I am a black daughter of the Revolution.” Hopkins was reflecting on the impact that black history had in shaping the United States throughout the years. Her novels demonstrate the importance of remembering where you came from and learning about the people that came before you.
As a writer and activist, Hopkins wasn’t afraid to challenge the social, political, and economical boundaries that excluded African Americans. By declaring herself a daughter of the Revolution, Hopkins took back her right as well as the right of her fellow blacks to be a part of American history.