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Opinion / Analysis / Essays
Lois Brown Publishes Groundbreaking Biography

October 14, 2008

In 1988 Lois Brown was a first-year graduate student at Boston College on her way to realizing her ambition of becoming a Milton scholar. That's John Milton, the seventeenth-century poet and towering figure of British letters. Brown still speaks of Milton as her "first love," but her career took an unexpected turn when she met, so to speak, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins. The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American performer, writer, editor, and activist made racial justice the subject matter of both her work and her life.

Born in Portland, Maine, in 1859, Hopkins lived most of her life on Boston's Beacon Hill. She was part of a rich African American intellectual milieu. As Brown, associate professor of English and director of the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, was to discover, Hopkins drifted off into relative obscurity despite an amazing literary prowess. Once a prolific playwright, novelist, and literary entrepreneur, Hopkins struggled in her last years to make ends meet as a stenographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's ironic that a woman whose medium was longhand, in the fullest sense of all that that can be, ended her life in shorthand, really the most cropped writing there is," said Brown during a freewheeling conversation in the atrium of the Williston Library.

With the publication of her new book, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution, Brown is at a good place to reflect on how she became involved in what some might call a decade-long project of literary rehabilitation. "I was dealing with a woman who had disappeared into obscurity, and it was our loss," Brown said. "Hopkins had been injured and wounded by the assaults on her professionalism, on her authorial integrity, and this project became one of reconstructing a life and bringing honor long denied."

After publishing her signature work in 1900, a novel called Contending Forces, Hopkins became a primary contributor to the Colored American Magazine, among the first literary publications to appeal to an African American audience. She wrote three serialized novels and went on to become the women's editor, the literary editor, and then the editor in chief. "She was really masterful in how she was promoting global conversations about critiques of colonialism," Brown said. Hopkins clashed with Booker T. Washington and his competing vision of how to advance the status of African Americans. Washington famously advocated a tone of accommodation instead of confrontation in the quest for civil rights and, according to Brown, often used his position of influence to infiltrate and even buy up publications he felt didn't hew to his way of thinking. Hopkins's achievements and even her legacy fell victim to a coordinated assault on her writing and ability to publish. Washington's associates went so far as to abscond with the original printer's plates for Hopkins's book, making it prohibitive to publish subsequent editions at the time, according to Brown.

Brown first read Hopkins when her work was included in a multivolume collection titled Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and published by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Brown, who had just started her graduate studies, not only gained a deep appreciation for Hopkins's writing and an abiding curiosity about her life, but the encounter led to an anguished decision as to where to focus her academic passions. Would it be Milton or Hopkins?

As a woman of color who grew up in England, Brown said that both writers speak to her on a very deep level. "Milton felt very personal," she said, "Hopkins felt very political." Brown was also acutely aware that choosing to study Hopkins would be "walking into" a set of stereotypical assumptions she doesn't approve of. "In choosing Hopkins I became more explicitly a woman of color writing about a woman of color, which for some people, unfortunately, is all they think folks of color will do," Brown said.

Yet she did decide to forego a specialty in Milton. "It was one of the most difficult days of my life," Brown recalled. "I had to decide whether I was going home, which would be Milton, or whether I was heading out to the territories with Pauline." She still feels "a twinge of regret" from time to time, but the rewards of becoming a Hopkins scholar have included a deep satisfaction in her ability to uncover a story of a woman whose significant contributions to American thought were, as Brown likes to say, "hiding in plain sight."

Brown is not the first scholar to write about Hopkins. But her book breaks new ground especially for her extensive archival research, some of which traces significant events in Hopkins's storylines to actual experiences of her forebears. The importance Hopkins placed on her own genealogy becomes a recurring theme in her lived experiences.

This project has also forced Brown to explore beyond the bounds of her academic training. "I have roots in English but I have become a literary historian," she said. "I want to think with students in the classroom and in my own work about how literary works were produced, how they were read, and how they were marketed."

In Hopkins she found a subject who not only produced works of literature, but who also participated in theatrical extravaganzas that used racial themes and evolved into public history lessons. In a "reenactment of slavery," for instance, audiences were lured in at the prospect of being enthralled by "seeing real Negroes picking real cotton with overseers on horseback," Brown said. In the process Hopkins tried to "rewrite the script of history," she said, "People came to see this spectacle, but when they sat down to watch her play, they saw cohesive African American families, agency in terms of self-emancipation, and assimilation into American culture."

Brown said that in some ways she was drawn to Hopkins out of a sense of responsibility to present a life of great accomplishment that history had largely overlooked. Brown soon found herself on a journey of self-discovery. "Hopkins's work resonated for me because discovering it coincided with a moment at which I was trying to clarify some things about American culture for myself," she said. "I thought if there is anybody who can show me a way to think about race and the development of racial identity and this negotiation of culture and perspectives on how history is written, rewritten, and embraced, this is the woman to do it."

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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