Book Review: A pioneering black author’s novel takes us to a Wakanda-like civilization

Pauline Hopkins’ “Of One Blood,” first published serially in Colored American Magazine in 1903, now reappears as a paperback, with highly stylized covers, in Joshua Glenn’s admirable “Radium Age” series on early 20th-century science fiction and fantasy. Previous “Radium Age” titles, all published by MIT Press, include “A World of Women” (1913) by JD Beresford, “The Clockwork Man” (1923) by EV Odle, and “Nordenholt’s Million” (1923) by JJ Connington. I have read all three and highly recommend them.

Hopkins was a pioneering black intellectual, playwright, and magazine editor who used her considerable literary talents to rally support for the cause of racial justice. In “Of One Blood,” the last of her four novels, she melds multiple subgenres into what is an exceptionally entertaining work of popular fiction, albeit with a serious subtext: race.

Set in Boston in what should be 1880, “Of One Blood” focuses on Reuel Briggs, a brilliant, penniless and moody young medical researcher who is strongly attracted to the secret knowledge found in alchemical texts. No one knows much about his past, but he is thought to be of Italian descent. His only close friend, Aubrey Livingston, wears “the handsome countenance of a Greek god” and is, in fact, the evil scion of an ancient Virginia family.

One night, these two friends attend a choral concert presented by students of Fisk University, whose protagonist is a dazzling soprano named Dianthe Lusk. “It was by no means a Negro’s preconceived notion. She as beautiful as the most beautiful woman in the room, with wavy bands of brown hair and large brown eyes, melting, sweet like those of her childhood; a lithe figure of exquisite mold, clad in a sombre black dress. Reuel immediately recognizes her as the woman he glimpsed in a recent mystical vision.

A few weeks later, on Halloween, Aubrey’s girlfriend, spirited 18-year-old Molly Vance, reveals that a ghostly woman in white can sometimes be seen wandering the grounds next door. That night, Reuel encounters this ghostly vision, whom he recognizes as Dianthe Lusk.

Up to this point, “Of One Blood” could very well be a gothic novel, tinged with foreboding and mystery. Reuel could almost be a latter-day Victor Frankenstein when he draws on his occult knowledge to bring back to life a hospital patient resembling a presumed dead corpse. There is even more to the young scientist than meets the eye. Only Aubrey knows his friend won’t cross the color line in love with Dianthe Lusk. Unfortunately, Reuel isn’t the only one besotted with the beautiful singer.

The first section of the book is dominated by images of Whiteness. In its central chapters, the novel addresses the “Afritopian” element emphasized by the science fiction writer Minister Faust in his biographically informative – and rabidly impassioned – introductory essay: adding, “Schoolbooks they call ‘explorers’.”

Throughout his fiction, Hopkins regularly cites Shakespeare, Longfellow, and other poets, but he also seems to read well into the subgenre known as Lost World or Lost Civilization Romance. Founded by H. Rider Haggard in “She” (1886) and “Allan Quatermain” (1887), the most famous modern example of her is James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” (1933), which gave us Shangri-La. In these novels, a legend, a map or a dying man’s confession reveal the existence of an unknown realm, somewhere largely inaccessible, where an ancient civilization survives, hidden from the modern world. There, her priests or sages possess powers far beyond any we know. More often than not, his people also expect or fear the fulfillment of an age-old prophecy. For example, in Gilbert Collins’ The Valley of Eyes Unseen (1924), the hero turns out to be the long-promised reincarnation of Alexander the Great.

In Hopkins’ novel, Reuel, desperate for money, joins an expedition to Africa, in search of fabulous treasure. During the journey, he learns of the advanced technological and cultural achievements of the long-vanished Ethiopian kingdom of Meroe. But has this Wakanda-like civilization really disappeared? As Reuel eventually discovers, “in the heart of Africa there was a knowledge of science that all the wealth and learning of modern times could not emulate.”

In the first act of his book, Hopkins appears to be recreating a classic gothic romance; in the second of him, he offers a suspenseful adventure in the lost world; and in the third, he boldly updates the Greek tragedy, while the racist history of the South involves his main characters. Finally, the white, or seeming white, of Boston and the black of Africa mingle, as he brings his color-themed storyline to a thrilling and melodramatic finale.

At one point, the metaphysically minded Reuel confesses that he longs to solve the “whence and whence” mystery of our earthly existence. In turn, Hopkins – who died in 1930 at the age of 71 – wished to dismantle what we now call systemic racism, in part by emphasizing our common humanity. Like God, in the epigraph of his book derived from the New Testament, he firmly declares: “Of one blood I made all the nations of man”.

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