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  • Sutton Griggs and the Borderlands of Empire
  • Caroline Levander (bio)

1. "Equality and Independence" and "Equality or Death"

The first of these slogans graces a banner described in the "Plan de San Diego"—the fifteen-step revolutionary plan written in 1915 by an anonymous group of Mexican-American and Mexican revolutionaries in south Texas who purportedly had the backing of Germany and Japan in their plan to reclaim the lands taken by the US in 1846, establish an independent Negro and Native American republic, and put to death every "North American over 16 years of age" except women, children, and aged men. The banner was the emblem of the "Liberating Army for Races and Peoples," an army that planned to "proclaim liberty of all individuals of the black race and its independence of Yankee tyranny" and to declare the independence of the States bordering on the Mexican nation, which Mexico was robbed of "in a most perfidious manner by North American imperialism" (148). Regardless of whether or not they finally would annex their new nation to Mexico, the revolutionaries state in Article 11 that they will ensure that the newly independent "negroes" will have plentiful land upon which to "form a republic and . . . be independent" (148).

The second slogan is also plastered on a banner of a fictional black revolutionary independence movement along the Texas border—a banner that each of the student members of a secret society simultaneously holds up to protest racial inequality in the [End Page 57] black Texas-born writer and minister Sutton E. Griggs's novel Imperium in Imperio (1899). Staged by the secret society that the novel's protagonist Belton Piedmont forms at the fictional Stowe University, this open rebellion is meant to teach "the future leaders of their race" the power of what Griggs would subsequently term "collective efficiency" or combining forces for the common good. In this case, the common good ensures that the one black teacher at the university eats at the same table as the white teachers. But this is not an isolated win. When they see the white teachers "beat a hasty retreat and h[o]ld up a white flag" (46), the students join the leadership ranks of the parent secret society called the Imperium that is building an independent black empire in Texas. Indeed, the slogan "equality or death" accurately encapsulates the Imperium's commitment to seize control of "that great state" of Texas or for "every man (to) die in his shoes" trying—"to die in honor rather than live in disgrace" defending their right to liberty in a region "broad in domain, rich in soil and salubrious in climate" (163).

So how is it that Griggs's 1899 novel could anticipate by a little over a decade so many aspects of the seditious "Plan de San Diego"? Uncanny resonances bind the two texts over the few years and few hundred miles that separate their writing. In addition to the two movements' overlapping slogans, their multistep plans of revolutionary aggression against the US converge and echo one another in a myriad of ways, from their "secret negotiations with all of the foreign enemies of the United States" (Griggs 167) to their commitment to "the independence of the negroes" ("Plan," Art. 15), to their choice of Texas as the site of revolution. The answer is, in short, that the "Plan de San Diego" was not an isolated document but a textual instance or trace of a longer, protracted set of political frictions over nation, race, and empire that played out over a few hundred miles of territory and that erupted in both fictional and nonfictional textual form episodically over the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, two years after the "Plan de San Diego" was uncovered, "The Zimmerman Telegram" revealed another possible plot, proposed by Germany to Mexico as part of an alliance, to reclaim from the US the territory lost during the Mexican-American War, should the US declare war on Germany. As such documents as "The Zimmerman Telegram," "Plan de San Diego," and Griggs's novel remind us, the border has long been subject to geopolitical disputes and struggles not only...


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pp. 57-84
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