“The Case Was Very Black against” Her: Pauline Hopkins and the Politics of Racial Ambiguity at the “Colored American Magazine”

“The Case Was Very Black against” Her: Pauline Hopkins and the Politics of Racial Ambiguity at the “Colored American Magazine”

American Periodicals
Volume 16, Number 1 (2006)
pages 52-73

Sigrid Anderson Cordell, Librarian for History, American Literature, and American Culture
University of Michigan

When Pauline Hopkins’s short story. “Talma Gordon,” appeared in the October 1900 issue of the Colored American Magazine, it ran opposite a photograph of a young smiling African-American boy balancing an American flag across one arm with the other arm raised in a salute (Figure 1). By linking the black child and the American flag, this picture, entitled “The Young Colored American.” attempts to align U.S. interests with those of the black community and reflects the magazine’s aim to recover the role of African Americans in American history. The figure of the child evokes both a sense of optimism and an historical link to America’s infancy. Likewise, the photograph of the  “Young Colored American” echoes the revisionist themes of “Talma Gordon.” a story which calls into question the hagiography of the American elite and instead celebrates the figure of a mixed-race woman who has been scorned by her white father, a scion of New England society. In this story. Hopkins reflects the Colored American Magazine’s mission to “perpetuat[e] … a history of the negro race” and re-write the triumphal narratives of traditional American history. As I will argue, however, the interweaving of gender and racial politics in the narrative structure of this story both reflects and complicates the politics of the journal itself.

Throughout her literary career. Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930) deliberately incorporated politics into her work and claimed a voice for African Americans, particularly African-American women. Rather than publishing in the mainstream literary journals such as Harper’s and the Atlantic that dominated the American cultural scene at the turn of the twentieth century, Hopkins wrote for periodicals specifically targeted to the black community, such as the Colored American Magazine. What sets her fiction and journalism apart from that of her female contemporaries—both black and white—is her blunt depiction…

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