“Blake, or The Huts of America” by Martin R. Delany and “The Hindered Hand” by Sutton E. Griggs

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Even though their works were created some forty years apart, two early American black authors recognized the power of fiction to engender social change. Both men came to believe the Back-To-Africa movement, or colonization, offered the most viable way to achieve social justice.

Prior to the Civil War, Blake, or The Huts of America, a novel by Martin R. Delany, appeared in serialized form in magazines. In 2017, a corrected edition, edited by Jerome McGann, was published by Harvard University Press. Blake had a difficult publishing history in Delany’s lifetime, twice having portions published in serial form. A twenty-six chapter version was serialized in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859-1860 and a seventy-four-chapter version appeared in the Weekly Anglo-African in 1861-1862. It never appeared in book form during Delany’s lifetime. Delany had indicated that some eighty chapters existed, though some chapters remain missing, perhaps never written. Some scholars, according to McGann, have speculated that the novel was deliberately left incomplete.

In 1902, a black Baptist minister, Sutton E. Griggs, identified fiction as a key battleground in the fight for black rights following Reconstruction and the subsequent violence of the Ku Klux Klan. One of his novels, The Hindered Hand, was reprinted in 2017 by West Virginia University Press, with an introduction and appendices that explore its historical value. It was edited by John Cullen Gruesser and Hanna Wallinger. Students of black history will be especially interested in this new edition, but the novel itself is noteworthy for its smooth prose and serves as a fine example of early twentieth century fiction.

Both novels achieve historical importance, but of the two plots, The Hindered Hand is superior. Blake suffers from repetitions and lapses in character development that mar the story, which likely arose because of the nature of serial publication.

Blake, or The Huts of America 

Martin Delany

Blake was written, according to McGann, “to bring about actual social change” (xiii). McGann introduces the novel with a pronouncement about its place in history:

Martin Delany’s Blake was at once the most important and the least influential work of fiction published by a black writer in the nineteenth century. Most important because of its intellectual scope; least influential because it caught the attention of almost no one for nearly one hundred years after its publication. (1)

The novel issues a thunderous call for blacks to rise up and resist the institution of slavery. Other black writers issued similar calls in news articles, but Delany used fiction to engage readers in the fight for social justice. The Civil War broke out before the novel’s serialized publication was complete, which caused Delany to direct his activism down a different path.

That Delany could write this book, given the historical period when so few American blacks were given educational opportunities, is amazing. He was fortunate to have a white mother who could flee the South and take him to live where she could teach him to read.

The incidents Delany cites of abuse on the plantations are important as reminders of a truth the South would like to replace with revisionist versions of history. Many incidents in the novel are horrifying. One particularly awful one involved a ten-year old boy brutally whipped to force him to perform parlor tricks for the plantation owner’s guests; later the boy died. The novel also shows the cruelty of families who are split up and a beautiful slave woman who is mutilated.

The protagonist is Henry, a young black man, the slave of Colonel Franks. Early on, Henry has the surname of Holland but later assumes the surname Blake. Eventually readers learn that Henry was born free to wealthy Cuban tobacco planters. As a youth, he goes on what he mistakenly believes to be a Spanish man-of-war but it turns out to be a slave ship. He angers the slavers by protesting the auctioning of slaves and is sold into slavery himself.

The plantation system didn’t take kindly to any who treated their slaves with familiarity. In an opening scene, Mrs. Ballard watches Mrs. Franks as she touches her maid Maggie’s hair so that it was “properly arranged,” and Mrs. Ballard finds this “as unusual as it was an objectionable sight,” especially as she “imagined there was an air of hauteur” in the maid’s demeanor (8). Mrs. Ballard resolves “to subdue her spirit” (8). Colonel Franks agrees that the maid is “disobedient and unruly” and has “made it a rule . . .  never to keep a disobedient servant, the sooner we part with her the better” (10).  Mrs. Franks is distraught because she promised Henry that his wife would be there when he returned, but the Colonel insists, so the family is split up. This incites such angst in Henry that he decides religion’s promise of a better life in the hereafter offers little solace:

Don’t tell me about religion! What’s religion to me? My wife is sold away from me by a man who is one of the leading members of the very church to which both she and I belong! Put my trust in the Lord! I have done so all my life nearly, and of what use is it to me? My wife is sold from me just the same as if I didn’t.” (17)

His in-laws encourage him to hold onto his faith; Daddy Joe pleads with Henry to “Take ’are wat yeh ’bout; God is lookin’ at yeh, and’ if yey no’ willin’ trus’ ’him, yeh need’n call on ’im in time o’ trouble” (22). But Henry finds cold comfort in his father-in-law’s words, nor in Mrs. Franks’s suggestion that “Our afflictions should only make our faith the stronger” (23). Because of Henry’s rage over Maggie’s sale, Colonel Franks plans to put him up for auction, too, so the young man becomes a runaway, leaving behind his in-laws and son.

Henry travels from plantation to plantation throughout the Southeast, hiding in the huts of other slaves. The purpose of his journey is to teach others how to escape and join forces because he has “laid a scheme, and matured a plan for general insurrection of the slaves in every state, and the successful overthrow of slavery” (40).

As a novel, Blake has several characteristics that may prove daunting to modern readers. Delany’s use of eye dialect can be frustrating to interpret, as illustrated in Daddy Joe’s speech above. In Delany’s defense, he uses the phonetic spellings to show differences in education and exposure to a larger world among the slaves and free blacks. Also challenging, the novel lacks the character arc and clearly defined plot modern readers have come to expect. Henry’s hopping from one plantation’s slave hut to the next becomes repetitious, not to mention it was unbelievable that one black man could achieve this degree of movement. If it was so easy for a slave to wander about, more would have fled. The majority of slaves had no exposure to the geography beyond the bounds of the plantation where they lived and could not read or write. The way Henry crosses the same territory several times rather than once, given the difficulty of the travel, made little sense. Slaves in this story also had access to money for bribes, which would have been unlikely in the South.

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Henry Blake leads the slaves from the Frankses’ plantation to Canada, where they start a black community. Soon he finds blacks aren’t really equal there either, that even those demonstrating high intelligence and educational attainments would be denied rights like sitting on a jury or serving in the military, or that even the privilege of going into public buildings would be denied.

When he learns his wife is in Cuba, he heads there.

In the second part of the novel, which is set in Cuba, repetitions of Henry’s call to rebellion occur so frequently as to invite skimming. Yet Delany’s purpose was to show the insurrection he advocated for could happen anywhere slavery was practiced. He sets up deliberate parallels between American slavery and that on the island.

Character development falls short in the Cuba portion of the novel. Throughout Part I, Henry’s quest is twofold: finding his wife and spreading revolt. But immediately after he locates his wife in Cuba and buys her freedom, he leaves her and sets sail for Africa. Wouldn’t he want to spend at least a little time with her? Would he not try to reunite his family by bringing his son to the island? In Cuba, Henry does find his cousin Placido, a character based on Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, the Cuban poet famously accused of sedition and executed by the Cuban government in 1844. Here, Delany is altering the historical timeline so he can use a real life person in his fictional world of 1853. Once again, Henry incites revolution: “ . . . shall we rise against our oppressors and strike for liberty, or will we remain in degradation and bondage, entailing upon unborn millions of our progeny the insufferable miseries which our fathers bequeathed to us?” (288). Though the novel is unfinished, it is clear that the struggle for freedom will continue for the characters.

While Liberia is mentioned as a possible point of emigration, it is dismissed as too far away and too weak. Delany himself had made plans for an emigration community in Africa, but abandoned these at the advent of his own son’s enlistment in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. For Delany, true freedom would come only through emigration to a land untainted by the stench of slavery.

For all its flaws, the novel still stands as a truly great achievement. The novel never had the wide circulation it would have needed to spread insurrection, but its intent is clear and understandable.

The Hindered Hand 

Sutton E. Griggs

As a novel, The Hindered Hand meets the expectations of modern readers better than Blake, though both have great historical significance. Sutton Griggs produced five long works of fiction. He first published The Hindered Hand in 1905 through his own Nashville-based company, Orion Publishing, at the request of delegates at the 1903 National Baptist Convention who desired a response to Thomas Dixon’s “race-baiting novel” The Leopard’s Spots (xvii). Griggs, according to this edition’s editors, understood that “just as fiction had the ability to improve conditions for US blacks, as Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s novel had done, it could be wielded against them, as evidenced by the effect of Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon’s narratives on racial attitudes in the North and South in the late 1800s and he early 1900s” (xii).

The Hindered Hand is set in Almaville, Tennessee. In the style of early novels, chapters often open and close with omniscient narration, sometimes speaking directly to readers by employing first person plural pronouns. Characters tend to be entirely noble and beautiful or wholly cruel—typical of fiction in this period. Through the individual characters’ stories, Griggs illustrates the frustrations of American blacks following the Civil War. One such story is that of Earl, a heroic solider in the Spanish-American War, who fails to receive a promotion because “of the disinclination of the South to have Negro officers in the army” (31). His friend Gus is so angry over this insult, he questions “the existence of God, and, begging pardon, asserted that the Gospel was the Negro’s greatest curse in that it unmanned the race” (32).

Other horrors illustrate the impossibility of the status quo. Henry, a black boy, throws rocks at white boys who chucked them at him first. Only Henry is arrested. When it seems nothing, not even paying the fine, will keep him from serving ten months on the county farm, the child takes off running. A policeman shoots him in the back and kills him. In another example of life under Jim Crow, to keep her mother from being jailed because of unscrupulous loan practices, a young woman is forced into service to a white master who hopes to rape her and she has little protection under the law:

You know a colored girl has no protection. If a white girl is insulted her insulter is shot down and the one who kills him is highly honored. If a colored girl is insulted by a white man and a colored man resents it, the colored man is lynched.” (69)

A young couple are tied to trees, mutilated, tortured, and burned while alive—all for shooting back at a white man who shot at them. This horrifying incident, painted in excruciating detail by Griggs, is based on a real crime that occurred in Mississippi, according to Appendix D.

One of the tragedies occurs because most members of a black family pass for white, while one member, Tiara, retains enough black features that she cannot. Thus a family is split apart, creating interesting entanglements for the romantic aspects of the plot. She testifies in court with a warning that still rings true today:

You people who are white do not know what an awful burden it is to be black in these days of the world. If some break down beneath the awful load of caste which you thrust upon them, mingle pity with your blame…I warn you to beware of the dehumanizing influence of caste. It will cause your great race to be warped, to be narrow.  . . . You will be a great but soulless race. This will come upon you when your heart is cankered with caste. You will devour the Negro to-day, the humble white to-morrow, and you who remain will then turn upon yourselves. (161)

Tiara’s argument illustrates that not only blacks, but also whites are harmed by harboring hatred toward others.

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The novel sets up various possible responses of the black community to restrictions on their lives, illustrated mainly through the minister Ensal and the soldier Earl:

Ensal felt that the acceptance of slavery on the part of the Negro in preference to extermination was evidence of adaptability to conditions that assured possession of all the advantages that time and progress promise. Earl rather admired the Indian and felt that the dead Indian refusing to be enslaved was richer heritage to the world than the yielding and thriving Negro. (38)

Both men share determination in “procuring of the full recognition of the rights of the Negro” (39). Earl, however, plans insurrection and has gathered five hundred men who will fight to keep blacks from falling into “a new form of slavery” (101). He feels Northern whites will place their desire to reconcile with their Southern counterparts above their interest in seeing blacks receive equality. Ensal believes that Earl’s plan will “inaugurate the wholesale slaughter of innocent, men, women and children” (101). His plan is to distribute an eloquent, heartfelt sermon he has written, outlining the grievances of his people and lamenting that they exist in a “state of terror” largely unrecognized because “the affected people are voiceless” (106). Ensal asks that his people be granted “equality of citizenship” (109). Earl points out that a sermon is not enough, that “Mrs. Stowe’s affecting portraiture of poor old Uncle Tom” was not enough to cause change; that there had to also be a John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (110). The two men remain at odds, with Earl believing an “offering of blood” is necessary, while Ensal is “determined that the offering should be the output of brains rather than of veins” (111). After a tragic death occurs, Ensal believes the only solution is to leave America for Africa.

On the novel’s final pages, an idealistic young white lawyer claims, “We are going to suppress lynching, enforce laws impartially, allow Negroes all their rights as citizens, make no discriminations because of race, color or previous condition of servitude, and encourage them to develop their God-given powers fully” (192). He further insists on the value of education for blacks because “thought power . . .  determines the destiny of the human race” (193). That the young lawyer’s dreams are still not wholly realized over a century later, illustrates how idealistic his worthy aspirations were.

And so the struggle to achieve equality continues today. Fiction, as Delany and Griggs so brilliantly foresaw, still plays a role in allowing both blacks and whites to understand each other better in a country where interaction between the races is so limited.



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