The. Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods appeared in the May issue of Lippincott's magazine and was published by Dodd, Mead in 1902. The novel traces the dissolution and decline of the Hamiltons, a southern black family prevented from shaping their own fate by forces beyond their control.
Berry Hamilton has been a butler and his wife, Fanny, a cook on Maurice Oakley's prosperous southern plantation, where they have raised two children, Joe and Kitty. Berry's thirty years of loyal service, since before emancipation, have brought the family financial comfort and made them the envy of their black neighbors. But their fortune changes drastically. When Maurice's dissipated brother, Francis, discovers money missing, Berry is wrongly accused of the theft. With no evidence against him, Berry is convicted and sentenced to ten years at hard labor. Evicted from the plantation and ostracized by both blacks and whites, the rest of the family migrates to New York City to make a fresh start.
The provincial Hamiltons are immediately attracted to the lure of the city and soon fall victim to its various temptations. Joe takes up with the lowly denizens of the “Banner Club,” a “social cesspool” that feeds his thirst for alcohol and his hunger for urban nightlife. He meets Hattie Sterling, a rapidly aging chorus girl who tries to protect and educate him. In a jealous rage, Joe murders Hattie and goes to prison. Kitty becomes, in her mother's eyes, a fallen woman after being flattered into using her singing talent for a career on the vaudeville stage. Fanny mistakenly believes she is divorced from Berry and marries an abusive racetrack gambler. In a parallel plot Francis Oakley confesses to stealing the money, but in an effort to maintain the family's good name, his brother, Maurice, conceals Francis's guilt and allows Berry to remain in prison. Through a series of plot contrivances, a northern muckraker eventually exposes the cover-up and manages to get Berry freed. He travels to New York only to confront the tragic effect of the city on his family. The timely death of Fanny's second husband allows Berry and Fanny to remarry and return to the South where they take up a sad residence in their former cottage on the Oakley plantation.
The last of Dunbar's four novels, The Sport of the Gods is the author's most pessimistic examination of the powerlessness of African Americans. In contrast to his more famous poetry, which positively portrays African American life in rural southern settings, The Sport of the Gods undercuts the plantation tradition's assumption that African Americans have a benevolent relationship to white Southerners. As the first African American novel to show characters who participate in the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North, the novel also examines how ill-prepared unsophisticated Southerners are for the complexities of city life. By calling attention to the limitations of both the South and the North, The Sport of the Gods summarizes the deteriorating racial situation of turn-of-the-century America.