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Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, Pauline Hopkins, Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-506785-1, $15.95, 402pp.

Written in 1899, at the end of the heyday of the sentimental romance genre, this was–I feel–a subversive application of the style. Likely written for a white audience, the African-American authoress was determined to counter some of the more pernicious rumors about blacks, especially black women. To use today’s terms, Hopkins was floating her own memes, including the idea that the mulatto, rather than being a tragic figure that could not survive in either the black or white world, was actually a strong bridge between the two races. Or that black women were not “hypersexual,” but that the intermixture of the races was much more the fault of white male desires.

As fiction, it suffers from the conventions of its genre as much as Hopkins obvious proselytizing. For the student of history, however, its depiction of black life in the 1900s is a treasure trove. Hopkins even recreates the famous debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois through the mouths of her characters. Interesting as a historical document; not sure that I could recommend this for entertainment, however.

[Finished January 1999]


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