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The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Institutions
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Institutions
Text 1. Power
Text 2. Associations (I)
Text 3. Associations (II)
» Reading Guide
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Text 4. Education
Text 5. Leadership
Text 6. Religion
Text 7. Business
Text 8. Family
RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
3.  Associations (II)
- Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Contending Forces, novel, 1900, Ch. 8, "The Sewing-Circle"
  Contending Forces

Increasing critical attention is rescuing Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins from literary obscurity. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1859, Hopkins attended public schools in Boston. Her future career was foreshadowed when, at the age of fifteen, she won a writing contest sponsored by novelist William Wells Brown. In the 1870s Hopkins wrote two musicals and acted in them throughout the country until 1892, when she undertook a career as a stenographer. While she abandoned play writing, she continued to produce fiction, largely for the magazine Colored American. In the preface to her best-known novel, Contending Forces, published in 1900, she explained her approach to fiction. The passage in which she does so illuminates not only the concerns of the chapter excerpted here but also the goal-oriented nature of African American literature in this period. "Fiction," Hopkins wrote, "is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs—religious, political, and social. It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation. No one will do this for us; we must ourselves develop the men and women who will faithfully portray the inmost thoughts and feelings of the Negro with all of the fire and romance which lie dormant in our history, and, as yet, unrecognized by writers of the Anglo-Saxon race."

An example of conventional nineteenth-century domestic fiction, Contending Forces is a complicated story of love and treachery. Chapter 8, "The Sewing Circle," dramatizes Crummell's social principle at work and illustrates some of the various functions that institutions, especially the benevolent and charitable societies, performed in the African American community during this period. The characters, young and old, come together for a variety of specific purposes, all in one way or another involved with questions of racial solidarity, character, and racial identity. Structured as an act in two scenes, the chapter reflects Hopkins's experience as a playwright. The reader can easily visualize one set of characters exiting, while another set enters. The structure offers rich opportunities for comparison and contrast. 11 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. What role does Mrs. Willis play?
  2. How does Hopkins view Mrs. Willis?
  3. What purposes does Mrs. Willis's discussion circle serve?
  4. Between the two parts of the chapter, what comparisons and contrasts can be drawn in characterization, action, language, and theme?
  5. How is power defined in this excerpt?
  6. What does this chapter and the Cleveland Journal articles described above suggest about the relationship between the status of African American women at this time and the nature of the institutions they created?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  What roles did institutions play in African American life at this time?
  •  In what ways did institutions shape and reflect African American identity?

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Freedom | Identity | Institutions | Politics | Forward

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