The first of four novels written by Pauline E. Hopkins, Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South was published by the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company of Boston in 1900. The novel is Hopkins's manifesto on the value of fiction to social activism in black America at the turn of the century. By relying on the stock devices of sentimental melodrama, the novel refutes stereotypes about degraded mulattoes and licentious black women, celebrates the work ethic among upwardly mobile African Americans of the post-Reconstruction period, and provides a historically accurate depiction of the racist oppression that they endured. Like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), Contending Forces recalls a tragic antebellum story as the basis of another about emancipatory optimism.
In 1780 Charles Montfort moves his family from Bermuda to North Carolina to operate a cotton plantation. Almost immediately a rival planter, Anson Pollock, suspects that Montfort's beautiful wife, Grace, is partly black. He murders Montfort, claims Grace as his concubine, and makes slaves out of her sons, Charles and Jesse. Grace commits suicide to escape Pollock. He sells Charles to an Englishman, who frees him and takes him to England. Jesse eventually escapes to New England, where he becomes a progenitor of the Smith family—the widow Ma Smith and her children, Will and Dora—of the novel's main plot.
The postbellum story is set in Boston. Will is a Harvard philosophy student (reminiscent of W. E. B. Du Bois), and Dora assists her mother in running a comfortable boarding house. Two tenants, Sappho Clark, a beautiful white mulatta with a secret southern past, and John Langley, who is engaged to Dora, share the Smith household. Will falls in love with Sappho and asks her to marry him, but John blackmails her in an attempt to make her his mistress. She abandons Will in order to escape John. In a letter left for Will, Sappho reveals John's immoral intentions and her past suffering as a victim of interracial rape. Will shares this information with Dora who breaks her engagement with John. Frustrated by his unsuccessful attempt to find Sappho, Will goes abroad to pursue his studies. Dora eventually marries Dr. Arthur Lewis, the head of a Louisiana industrial school for Negroes, while John dies seeking his fortune in mining for gold. Will returns to the United States and marries Sappho.
Early scholars of African American literature regarded the writings of Hopkins and her black female contemporaries as unworthy of literary merit. This critical viewpoint prevailed until the 1980s when scholars reclaimed the artistic complexity and political interventionary agendas of Hopkins's writings. The novel unites racial activism and woman-centered concerns as well as redefines a virtuous black womanhood on the bases of the moral integrity of female character and the nobility of her labor rather than on the legacy of sexual violation or the elitism of class privilege.
Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, 1987.Richard Yarborough, introduction to Contending Forces, 1988.Claudia Tate, Domestic Allegories of Black Political Desire, 1992.