Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 118-133
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Race-ing Toward Civilization:
Sexual Slavery and Nativism in the Novels of Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins and Alice Wellington Rollins
Colleen C. O'Brien
The ongoing work of restoring "lost" nineteenth-century women writers to the American literary canon often yields the added benefit of bringing to light experiences of ethnic groups left out of the dominant narrative of American identity. The opportunity to compare ethnic American literatures can provide fascinating new approaches to better-known authors like Pauline Hopkins, whose literary concerns extend beyond the social and domestic needs of her own African American community. Hopkins interrogates the very foundations of equality and democracy as the United States turns into the twentieth century, frequently flirting with nativist discourse as she does so. Conversely, the Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture holds one of the few extant copies of an 1888 work by Alice Rollins entitled Uncle Tom's Tenement ; this critically un-examined and seemingly forgotten novel uses abolitionist language to describe the plight of Irish American women. As an Anglo-American middle-class woman writing about an Irish immigrant minority, Rollins invokes rhetorical strategies comparable to Hopkins's.
Both Hopkins and Rollins engage nativist discourse but more prominently deploy slavery as metaphor, either to highlight the ongoing vulnerability of African and Irish Americans in a hostile United States or to expose the roots of tenement poverty. The fraught issue of female sexuality epitomizes such vulnerability; voicing the political desires of under-represented racial and ethnic groups, particularly women, suggests that only pluralism and equal access to government can guarantee equal protection. Certainly, these two authorial agendas resist disavowals of African and Irish American capacity for self-government, not uncommon among Anglo-American politicians of that era. Hopkins, nonetheless, proceeds to empower her African American heroines without hesitation while Rollins proves more likely to appeal to Anglo-Americans on Irish women's behalf. Imitating Harriet Beecher Stowe, then, Rollins's moral logic preserves the distance between middle-class women of her own caste and scenes wherein social boundaries dissipate, leaving women of color vulnerable to sexual exploitation by Anglo-American men.
Anglo-masculine claims to power include a discourse of sexual purity that requires sexual self-restraint. Racist depictions of Irish and African American sexuality, projecting stereotypically lascivious and disorderly sexual conduct upon racial or ethnic citizens, denied either group the capacity for self-government [End Page 118] or participation in American national politics. Hopkins's and Rollins's demand for racial, ethnic, or gender inclusion in national politics, therefore, challenges exclusively Anglo-masculine claims on power. Although they treat the ambiguous racial and ethnic status of African American and Irish American heroines quite differently, Uncle Tom's Tenement, Contending Forces, and Hagar's Daughter exceed the specific interests of Black or Irish Americans. They prescribe standards for civic duty and civilization that apply to the nation as a whole, challenging doctrines of Anglo-masculine supremacy by associating sexual exploitation with Anglo-American political and economic power. Hopkins and Rollins subvert claims made in Anglo-masculine discourse (especially nativism) as they work to include women and non-Anglo-Americans in the pluralistic civilization their literature demands.
The manner in which each writer deals with racial identity is quite telling. As she parallels "Ethiopian" and "Anglo" contributions to "civilization" in a modern America, Hopkins prophesies a great future built on the tradition of Ethiopianism; her critique of Anglo-American exclusivity applies only to the oppression of blacks and does not concern other ethnic groups like the Irish. While Hopkins inverts stereotypical racial categories, frequently vilifying whiteness, Rollins inserts Irish Americans into the discursive place conventionally occupied by black slaves in abolitionist discourse. While white intervention, for Hopkins, does not seem particularly useful, Rollins seems to appeal to a white conscience. In her preface, Rollins writes, "In drawing attention to an existing evil not fully realized among us, it has seemed to me more impressive as a lesson to contrast...