“A Literary Life of Sutton E. Griggs: The Man on the Firing Line” by John Cullen Gruesser

Thorough research underpins John Cullen Gruesser’s A Literary Life of Sutton E. Griggs (Oxford University Press, 2022)—and every serious student of Black literature will want to read this biography of an important figure in American history. While the book’s main focus is on Griggs’s writings, it also covers his family and his contributions to the National Baptist Convention and the political thinking of his era.

Born in 1872 in Texas, Griggs was the second of eight children. His father was a former slave who became a prominent Black minister and the founder of the first Black newspaper and high school in Texas. Sutton Griggs followed closely in his father’s footsteps, becoming both a Baptist minister with a divinity degree and founder of a newspaper in Virginia. Gruesser carefully presents the upbringing that underpinned Sutton Grigg’s character.

For most of his life, Griggs believed passionately in the power of novels to change public sentiment, based partly on the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the country. As he put it in The New Battle and The Man on the Firing Line, “It is admitted on all hands that Uncle Tom’s Cabin . . . did more to bring about the emancipation of slaves that any other one agency. It turned the contempt that the world had for the Negro to pity, made votes for Abraham Lincoln, and soldiers for General Grant.” He added that “black people themselves must write the volumes that will make the difference.” His belief in this premise only grew stronger as he watched Southern whites flooding the market with repressionist authors. This belief in the power of fiction motivated Griggs to pen five novels offering readers a look at the lives of Black Americans, including Imperium in Imperio, Overshadowed, Unfettered, The Hindered Hand, and Pointing the Way. He founded his own publishing company and took extensive book tours to promote his works. Unfortunately, his novels only sold mostly through personal connections made through speeches and public appearances. None were financially successful. Imperium, the first of his novels, was the most famous. Gruesser’s book provides detailed analysis of Griggs’s novels with generous attention to the varied contemporaneous reviews of his works.

Griggs found both boosters and detractors of his fiction. Gruesser points out that Griggs employed a dialogic style of writing in his fiction. For example, if one of his characters advocated an armed Black response to white oppression, another would counter by risking his or her life to prevent the use of violence and its inevitable consequences. This style learned from debating practice earned Griggs criticism as a few readers misunderstood his intention of allowing readers to form their own conclusions from the differing viewpoints of his characters. Others praised his fiction for portraying “the real conditions, political and social,” of Blacks in America.

Griggs went heavily into debt following the publication of three versions of The Hindered Hand (a review of this novel can be found on this site here.) He was misled into believing that the NBC leadership would widely promote the book through Black pulpits. It didn’t happen. Griggs eventually shifted his focus to nonfiction as a way of influencing public opinion. He wrote over thirty books in his lifetime and numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles as well.

In many regards, Griggs seems a man ahead of his times in the advice he offered:

Socially, he advised African Americans not to emulate white people unquestioningly in all things. In particular, they should reject the erroneous belief that hard work, especially physical labor, detracts from a person’s dignity. Politically, he asserted that rather than fruitlessly appealing to Northern lawmakers to intervene and change conditions in the South, as occurred during Reconstruction, black people should work cooperatively with white people in the South to improve the region.

He also denounced “race prejudice among negroes,” decrying the use of face bleach and hair straightening. He decried police violence visited on Black men and noted how impossible it was for Blacks to get justice in the courts. “The negro is shot down, hanged without a trial, burned at the stake, all because he is robbed of the vote,” he said. The political clout that accompanies voting would help restore Black manhood and end white vigilante violence, he hoped. As Gruesser points out, “Like the ill-fated Trojan princess Cassandra, Griggs had been right about what was happening and what would occur to African Americans, but he failed, through his writings, to convince people to take action so as to blunt the disturbing trends.” Later in life, he focused his energies on changing “the behavioral patterns of his own people so they could prosper” and whites would regard them more favorably.

Despite all the troubles Blacks faced in his era, Griggs retained optimism: “We must carry with us faith in human nature,” suggesting that even the worst of us carries a germ of goodness.” His wisdom still resounds today.

Gruesser is a senior research scholar at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and a visiting fellow at the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A & M University. Formerly, he was a professor of English at Kean University in New Jersey where he coordinated the M.A. in Liberal Studies program. He has been the president of the Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society, the New Jersey College English Association, and the Poe Studies Association, which named him an Honorary Lifetime Member in 2020. He was also the editor of The Unruly Voice. He is the author of White on Black; Black on Black; The Empire Abroad and the Empire at Home: African American Literature and the Era of Overseas Expansion; Race, Gender, and Empire in American Detective Fiction; and Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic.


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