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Sutton E. Griggs

(1872—1933)


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(1872–1933), novelist, essayist, biographer, publisher, Baptist minister, and pastor.

Born in Chatfield, Texas, on 19 June 1872, the son of Reverend Allen R. Griggs, a pioneer Baptist preacher in Texas, Sutton Elbert Griggs attended public schools in Dallas, graduated from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, and trained for the ministry at the Richmond Theological Seminary. While he held pastorates in Virginia and Tennessee he produced the thirty-three books (including five novels) urging African American pride and self-help that garnered him widespread renown among African American readers. Because he established the Orion Publishing Company in Nashville, Tennessee, which promoted the sale of his books from 1908 until 1911, his works were probably more widely circulated among African Americans than the works of contemporaries Charles Waddell Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar. During the height of his creative production, both his writings and sermons militantly protested injustices and espoused the rights of his people. By 1920, however, when Griggs moved to Memphis and took up the pastorate of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, he had begun to temper his earlier fiery rhetoric and insistence upon African American self-determination and to emphasize instead interracial trust. In this spirit of cooperation, Griggs worked during World War I as a speaker in black communities in support of the purchase of Liberty Bonds. Increasingly during the last decade of his life, he devoted his energies to the church. He served as president of the American Baptist Theological Seminary from 8 April 1925 to 1 October 1926, resigning to accept his father's former pastorate in Texas, where he died in Houston on 3 January 1933.

Griggs's novels reflect the aesthetic dilemmas of his predecessors in their attempts to sound an authentic African American voice through the strategies of nineteenth-century popular fiction; his novels also set the stage for twentieth-century political analyses and symbolic interpretations of slavery and neoslavery experiences. Like earlier fictional representatives of their race in African American literature, Griggs's heroes and heroines are counterstereotypes designed to refute racist images of African Americans in the public mind. All are extremely handsome or beautiful, cultured, talented, intellectual, virtuous, politically aware, and most are committed to either subversive or overt revolutionary action. Despite the complicated love entanglements of his novels, Griggs's focus is not on romance or adventure, but on the political realities and theories that his characters express. His fiction's primary function is to embody conflicting political possibilities for the “New Negro” of the turn of the century and to highlight the consequences of miscegenation, especially for African American women.

Griggs's first novel, Imperium in Imperio (1899), is a visionary, political work positing the establishment of a national, secret organization of revolutionary African Americans demanding either a complete redress of grievances or the formation of a separate state for their people. While sympathetic with this frustration and desire for autonomy, Griggs warns against self-serving political leaders whose quest for personal power guarantees the failure of the community's efforts. The Imperium and a selfless leader, Belton Piedmont, are both sacrificed by just such a demagogue, the mulatto Bernard Belgrade. The personal destruction also intrudes into the domestic sphere; accepting racist, “scientific” theories of the time, Viola Martin, in love with Bernard, commits suicide rather than weaken the African American blood line by marrying a mulatto. In his second novel, Overshadowed (1901), Griggs lowers his sights from Utopian plans for racial organization and nationhood to focus upon the destructive conflicts within the emerging African American middle class. His tone is satiric, ridiculing in particular the group's insecurity, which causes it to sacrifice its own members, like the hard-working Erma Wysong, on the altar of white social standards. This novel is Griggs's most pessimistic and Astral Herndon the most pitiful of his protagonists. Astral is merely representative of the personal frustrations of the new generation, with none of the necessary energy and perception to save either his people or himself. While also reflecting liberal rather than radical values, Dorlan Warthell in Unfettered (1902) is a clear contrast to the demoralized Astral. He severs his ties with the Republican party over the issue of imperialism, but when convinced by the expansionist-minded Morlene that America's presence in the Philippines will lead to cultural uplift for the Filipinos, he accepts the decisions of the national administration. Choosing to work with the African American masses, he rejects the opportunity to travel to Africa as the long-sought descendant of an African prince and, at Morlene's urging, develops “Dorlan's Plan” for ethnic cooperation based upon his people's economic self-determination. The Hindered Hand (1905) focuses on Ensal Ellwood who, like Dorlan, publishes a self-help essay offering practical methods of African American betterment. The novel also involves its heroine, Tiara Marlow, in an incredibly convoluted plot designed to demonstrate the fallacy Griggs saw in the schemes of the time to use light skin color to infiltrate the white power structure. Ensal reflects the ambivalence present in many turn-of-the-century African Americans who vacillated between feeling connected with, even dependent upon, Africa and, on the other hand, judging themselves superior to it. Baug Peppers of Pointing the Way (1908) is Griggs's final development of his New Negro. The young lawyer attempts to ensure aid for African American success by urging support of liberal, white southern politicians also desirous of such cooperation. Professionally more successful than any of Griggs's other leaders, Peppers appears before the Supreme Court to argue for African American voting rights. Although the outcome of this case is ignored by Griggs at the book's end in favor of a focus on romantic intrigue between Peppers and the victimized Eina, the work's final political view appears optimistic. Griggs's new professional has moved from Belton Piedmont in Imperium in Imperio, who is killed by his own people for his “treasonous” refusal to participate in a violent attack on the government, to Baug Peppers who is so honored by his fellows in Pointing the Way that he is allowed to represent their case for full citizenship before the country's highest court.

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Subjects: Literature.


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