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Historical [Re]constructions: Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood and Proto-Afrocentric Classicism

Nicole A. Spigner

Columbia College Chicago

In her 1903 magazine novel, Of One Blood, Pauline E. Hopkins recasts Ovid’s “Book X” of Metamorphoses as a story of American slavery and its social aftermath. Broadly, through Of One Blood, Hopkins argues that the classical lends itself to stories that undermine categories of identity and trouble the racial boundaries established during slavery. However, and perhaps more crucially, Hopkins also interrupts this argument with a proto-Afrocentric claim to pre-Greco-Roman classical antiquity by extending the nineteenth-century history of African American claims of Egyptian and Ethiopian heritage—a claim that continental African civilizations influenced Greek culture and philosophy. In other words, that “Egypt was the major source of the cultural achievements of Greco-Roman Antiquity, and by extension, white European civilization” (Malamud 149). 

In her 2016 African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism, Margaret Malamud directs us to recognize the extent of this particular history and particularly the use of the classics by abolitionists to extend the work, “from the late eighteenth century [by] free African Americans… two pressing tasks: to refute charges that they were radically inferior, and to insert themselves into the historical record” (148). This paper argues that Hopkins’s novel lies in the legacy of this crucial anti-slavery effort by extending the argument into an early neo-slave narrative that perpetuates black excellence and genius as it is related to African antiquity and as a disruption to the narrative of Greco-Roman antiquity as a justification for white supremacy.

Of One Blood tells the story of a trinity of siblings, and centrally focuses on the life of Reuel Briggs, a suicidal medical student who accesses Harvard through his racial passing and dabbles in distinctly non-Western, occult methods of medicine. The first half of the novel frames Reuel as a modern Pygmalion and Orpheus. Like each of Ovid’s characters, Reuel has the power to reanimate the dead. He slips between [racial] worlds, undetected and successfully. More than halfway through the novel, and while searching for gold in Egypt, Reuel experiences an Orphic katabasis when he discovers the lost city of Telassar (Ethiopia), where he learns of his noble heritage that was lost during slavery.

After hearing, falsely that his wife has died, Reuel’s grief drives him back to suicide: “Why should he live? … better rejoin [his wife] where parting was no more. He would lose himself in the pyramid” (Hopkins 110). As a reversal of Orpheus’s decent into Hades, Reuel climbs down into Telassar and discovers more of an African utopia than the harrowing journey into a hellish underworld: “Not Telassar of Eden, but so like to Eden’s beauties did our ancestors find the city that thus did they call it” (Hopkins 115). He emerges renamed Ergamenes, reborn the king of the first civilization, cleansed of the shame of race that leads him to pass for white at Harvard and resolving the grief he feels for his lost wife.

This paper considers how Hopkins’s novel fits into Malamud’s history of African American claims to Egyptian and Ethiopian heritage as a means of undermining white supremacy. In this, I explore how Of One Blood posits and answers the question, “What is classical?” by interrupting the novel’s retelling of Ovid with an Ethiopianist plot turn. Moreover, I bolster my argument about Of One Blood within the historical, ideological relationship between Hopkins and W.E.B. Du Bois, the latter of which Malamud identifies as one of the vocal defenders of classical education for black Americans. In this, I suggest that Hopkins’s novel embodies what Malamud identifies as the African American legacy of “Constructing History.” In other words, I argue that Hopkins novel provides a defense of African American humanity and intellectual parity (if not superiority) through proto-Afrocentric claims of ancestral ties to African antiquity as well as mastery of classical education based in Greco-Roman art and philosophy.

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African Americans and the Classics by Margaret Malamud

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