Lesson 111:
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 2/1/2023

Prelude | 107 | 108 | 109 | 110 | 111 | 112 | 113 | 114 | 115 | Email

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins - watercolour with pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

"Let the good work go on. Opposition is the life of an enterprise; criticism tells you that you are doing something."

Kicking off Black History Month 2023 with a look at the life of Boston's own Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: actor, playwright, novelist, and columnist. Born to free parents of color in 1859 and educated at the prestigious Girls High School, Elizabeth had something of a unique vantage point that would inform her writing. At the age of 15 she entered a literary competition hosted by noted antislavery activist William Wells Brown, at the time regarded as one of the nation's foremost Black novelists. She won the competition with her essay, "Evils of Intemperance and Their Remedies." A year later she began performing with Boston's Progressive Musical Union, and shortly afterwards began featuring in plays and other stage productions --and in 1879 she wrote her first play, "Slaves' Escape or The Underground Railroad," perhaps more popularly known as "Peculiar Sam," which opened in Boston in 1880.

A prolific writing career followed, with essays appearing in Colored American Magazine, for which Hopkins later joined the board of directors and eventually became editor, a position she held until the magazine changed ownership and moved to New York City. Three novels followed, appearing in serialized form: Hagar's Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice (1901); Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest (1902); and perhaps her best work, Of One Blood, or, the Hidden Self (1903). In 1915 she founded a second periodical, Boston-based New Era Magazine, which only ran for a handful of issues but is considered one of the leading journals of that era for challenging popular assumptions about Black women. It is here that Hopkins's history seems to more or less vanish --her literary career quietly concluded and she lived the unremarkable life of a stenographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) until her death in 1930.

For whatever reason Hopkins's body of work lay largely forgotten, when by all standards it should have been very much a centerpiece of the Harlem Renaissance. It has been argued that one reason may have been her well-documented opposition to Booker T. Washington's accommodationist theories --that rather than challenge their oppression, Hopkins opined that Black Americans should instead focus on building their own economic power and influence. This ideological split may well illuminate her quiet disappearance from history until 1972, when a biography by Ann Allen Shockley brought a long-overdue resurgence of interest in Hopkins's work.

Significantly to comic book nerds and other geeky fans of pop culture: the MIT location scenes in last year's Marvel superhero movie Wakanda Forever, were pointedly filmed only a few yards away from where Hopkins once worked so unobtrusively. The plot of Hopkins's 1903 novel Of One Blood; Or, The Hidden Self, is grounded in the goings-on of two fictionalized African kingdoms: uncolonized utopian communities marked by advanced artistic achievement and far superior technology --an underlying premise that should sound familiar to Black Panther fans! Not unlike Wakanda of the Marvel comic books, the kingdoms grapple with a longstanding policy of secrecy rather than engaging with the rest of the world to address oppression and injustice. In any case MIT has reintroduced its former employee's work into some of its literary curricula, significantly in a course titled "Science Fiction before Science Fiction."

Next page - Lesson 112: Bob Moses

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