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Hopkins, Pauline Elizabeth

Black Women in America

Jane Campbell

Hopkins, Pauline Elizabeth 

(b. 1859; d. 19 August 1930), writer.

Born in Portland, Maine, to William and Sarah Allen Hopkins, Hopkins was the great-grandniece of poet James Whitfield. Her mother was a descendant of Nathaniel and Thomas Paul, who founded Baptist churches in Boston. When Hopkins was a child, her family moved to Boston, where the young girl attended elementary and secondary school, eventually graduating from Girls High School.

Hopkins’s writing talents emerged when she was only fifteen and entered a writing contest sponsored by Boston’s Congregational Publishing Society. The contest was supported by William Wells Brown, an escaped slave who wrote one of the first African American novels, Clotel (1853). Brown wished to promote temperance, believing it to be a virtue that would enhance the black community. Hopkins’s essay, an eloquent, if moralistic, response to the contest theme, “The Evils of Intemperance and Their Remedy,” won the first prize of ten dollars.

Hopkins was only twenty years old when she completed her first play, Slaves’ Escape: or The Underground Railroad. Just one year later, on 5 July 1880, Slaves’ Escape was produced at Boston’s Oakland Garden by the Hopkins Colored Troubadours. The play is a musical comedy celebrating the bravery and ingenuity of those slaves, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who escaped bondage. The cast included Hopkins’s mother, stepfather, and Hopkins herself, who later achieved fame as “Boston’s Favorite Colored Soprano.”

For twelve years, Hopkins performed with the Colored Troubadours. During this time, she wrote another play, titled One Scene from the Drama of Early Days, dramatizing the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den. At this point, she decided to leave the stage and train herself as a stenographer to better support her writing. In the 1890s, she worked at the Bureau of Statistics and developed a career as a public lecturer.

At the turn of the century, Hopkins became instrumental in the development of a new publication, The Colored American Magazine. Aimed at a predominantly African American audience, The Colored American contained short stories, articles, and serialized novels, all designed to entertain and educate. The magazine was a medium for African American writers to demonstrate their talents. Hopkins was not only a founding member and editor of The Colored American but she also published three novels, seven short stories, and numerous biographical and political sketches there. The sketches, which reflect her skill as a dramatist, flesh out the positive fictional images that appear in her fiction by applauding the achievements of luminaries such as William Wells Brown, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.

In May 1900, the first issue of The Colored American carried her short story “The Mystery Within Us.” At the same time, the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company, a Boston firm that produced the magazine, brought out Hopkins’s Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. Contending Forces showcased the themes and techniques that inform all of Pauline Hopkins’s fiction. In her effort to present “the true romance of American life...the history of the Negro,” Hopkins employs strategies used in popular historical romances of her day. Suspenseful, complicated plots involving superhuman heroes, imperiled heroines, and incomparable villains inform the audience about African American history and common social issues. Contending Forces is an ambitious story about several generations of an African American family from their pre-Civil War Caribbean and North Carolina origins to their later life in the North. The plot involves Will and Dora Smith, brother and sister, and their friend Sappho Clark, with whom Will falls in love. In addition to the formula plot of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy marries girl, the narrative dramatizes essential American historical realities: slavery, lynching, hidden interracial blood lines, post-Reconstruction voting disenfranchisement, and job discrimination against African Americans.

Underlying these themes and techniques is Hopkins’s announced purpose in the preface to Contending Forces “to raise the stigma of degradation from my race.” To that end, her black characters are admirable, intelligent, and, often, educated. Writing at a time when African American writers struggled with the nearly inescapable color prejudice that exalted an ideal of beauty based on Anglo Saxon features, skin, and hair, Hopkins invariably described her heroines as light-skinned, sometimes so much so that they themselves were unaware of their racial origins. Sappho Clark, and the characters in much of Hopkins’s fiction, exemplified the cultural contradictions in which African American writers were often caught in their efforts to recast black cultural identity.

Hopkins’s three other novels, all serialized in The Colored American, employ additional romance techniques. Cliffhangers, episodes concluding with an unresolved question, such as who the murderer really was, enticed the reader to anticipate the next issue of the magazine. Mistaken identities and disguise typify these novels, as do outrageous coincidences, supernatural occurrences, and evil schemes.

Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice, serialized in 1901 and 1902, is a generational novel like Contending Forces. The characters in Hagar’s Daughter are, however, mostly white. Anticipating later romance novels and soap operas, Hagar’s Daughter concerns a glamorous leisure class preoccupied with clothes, gambling, and intrigue. In each generation, an adored, beautiful woman, fully entrenched in a white, wealthy culture, discovers herself to be black, forcing her to cope with racism and rejection. Hagar’s Daughter strongly implies that wealth and status do not equate with ethics. Moreover, the novel concludes with a bitter indictment of American racism, even among white Americans supposedly sensitive to racial issues.

Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest, serialized in 1902, is an historical romance set during slavery. Hopkins surrounds the love story about a black woman and an antiracist white Englishman with dramatic incidents involving slave traders, the Underground Railroad, and John Brown’s Free Soilers. Judah, a militant black man described as “a living statue of a mighty Vulcan,” stands proudly at the center of the novel, symbolizing African Americans’ positive historical roles during slavery. Judah not only embodies resistance against slavery, but he also transmits Hopkins’s notion that African Americans should always resist oppression.

Of One Blood: or The Hidden Self, serialized in 1902 and 1903, explores Hopkins’s belief that blacks should revere their African origins. Reuel, who has never identified himself as black, visits Africa. There, he becomes aware of the superiority of African civilization and culture and begins to embrace his heritage. Reuel’s emergence as a descendent of African kings underscores Hopkins’s belief that African Americans should ignore racist messages of inferiority. Of One Blood not only encouraged racial pride for African Americans, but it also voiced a Pan-African vision, unifying and celebrating black people all over the world.

During the time that Hopkins serialized her novels in The Colored American, she published seven short stories in the magazine. The stories echo many themes and techniques found in her novels. The unmasking of black characters passing for white, such as those in “As the Lord Lives, He Is One of Our Mother’s Children” and “A Test of Manhood,” reiterated Hopkins’s insistence that racial barriers are irrational. Black characters are extraordinary and ethical, contributing to Hopkins’s urge to create positive images of African Americans. The stories contain the devices of romance and popular fiction, such as coincidence and the supernatural. Hopkins’s stories, like her sketches, complement the aims and tactics of her novels to form a coherent body of work.

Hopkins’s contributions to The Colored American included her voluminous fiction and nonfiction, her editorial talents, and her business skills. Hopkins promoted the magazine through Boston’s Colored American League, which she founded. She also went on tour in 1904 to promote the magazine.

When Booker T. Washington bought The Colored American in 1903, however, Hopkins’s influence began to fade. By September 1904, her dissatisfaction with this situation, combined with her poor health, led her to resign. During the next fifteen years, Hopkins published several other pieces, including “The Dark Races of the Twentieth Century” (1905) and the novella Topsy Templeton (1916). At the time of her death, she was a stenographer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Hopkins died “when the liniment-saturated red flannel bandages she was wearing to relieve the neuritis she suffered were ignited by an oil stove in her room,” as Ann Allen Shockley wrote. Equally tragic was the critical neglect she suffered afterward. Despite her impressive career as a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, lecturer, editor, and actor, Hopkins was virtually forgotten until Shockley rediscovered her work in 1972. Afterwards, Hopkins’s reputation gradually reemerged. A feminist and Pan-Africanist dedicated to celebrating and preserving her racial history, Hopkins prefigured such writers as Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. Moreover, her work is as serious, timely, and accessible today as it was a century ago.


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                      Jane Campbell