Sutton E. Griggs's first novel, Imperium in Imperio (1899), is a visionary work positing the establishment of an underground organization of educated and militant African Americans bent on either an elimination of injustice in America or the establishment of an autonomous state. Functioning in the same manner as the U.S. government, the Imperium's program, however, is revolutionary, not reactionary. Its leaders organize a highly disciplined army, determined to publicize their grievances to the world. Throughout the novel, Griggs warns against demagogues who would sacrifice the African American cause for political gain. The Imperium is in the hands of such a leader, the pampered mulatto, Bernard Belgrade, who enters politics primarily out of personal ambition. Belton Piedmont, on the other hand, modeled upon Booker T. Washington, rejects Bernard's plot for all-out war both because he recognizes the futility of a military attempt but, also, because he believes some whites are enlightened and wish to help. Belton counters Bernard's declaration of war with a more conservative proposal. Whites need to be educated about the new African American militancy, he asserts. If after four years, however, a positive change has not occurred, Belton urges a radical solution—the Imperium's takeover of Texas and establishment of a separate government prepared to fight off invasions from foreign powers, notably the United States. Bernard immediately declares Belton a traitor to the Imperium and orders his execution. As the book ends, the organization is about to be crushed and Belton to be killed by one of his own ethnic kinsmen in a raw power play for political control. The hope for unity and progress seems, therefore, farther away than ever because of African Americans’ own blindness in allowing hatred of whites to dupe them into following a self-serving, untrustworthy leader.
Despite his acute awareness of America's failures, Sutton Griggs condemns both African American and white failure to fulfill the country's professed ideals. He depicts his people's severe economic dilemma as a warning to the nation of the presence of bitterness in a growing number of frustrated, young African Americans whose energy either could explode into a suicidal attack upon the racist system or could be channeled into constructive methods of helping their people. Imperium in Imperio is the earliest of Griggs's five political statements in fictional form intended to arouse his readers’ awareness of the vastly different directions in which turn-of-the-century African Americans might move.
Hugh M. Gloster.“The Negro in American Fiction: Sutton E. Griggs, Novelist of the New Negro,” Phylon 4.4 (1943): 335–345.Addison Gayle, Jr., The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, 1976.Gabriel Briggs, “Imperium in Imperio: Sutton E. Griggs and the New Negro of the South,” Southern Quarterly 45 (Spring 2008): 153-176.
Arlene A. Elder