Self-published in 1899 and sold door-to-door by the author, this classic African-American novel—a gripping exploration of oppression, miscegenation, exploitation, and black empowerment—was a major bestseller in its day. The dramatic story of a conciliatory black man and a mulatto nationalist who grow up in a racist America and are driven to join a radical movement dedicated to the creation of an all-black nation in Texas, Imperium in Imperio had a profound influence on the development of black nationalism.
This was the first book I read from my list of five free books by black authors and I’m very glad I chose it as it was a very good, very engaging read and a fascinating insight into the views of Sutton Griggs at the end of the 19th century. I also feel it is a very important novel regarding Black History, and would definitely recommend it as reading for Black History Month.
As the synopsis says, the novel follows the story of two men from childhood as they grow up in the American South. Belton is the son of a poor mother who recognises the importance of education and ensures that he attends school and learns as much as he can. One of his classmates, Bernard, is the son of what appears to be a single mother but is later revealed that his father was white and for appearances sake, can not acknowledge his wife or son however he uses all his resources to help him succeed. The two children are both incredibly intelligent and upon graduation, Belton goes to Stowe College while Bernard attends Harvard. The two eventually meet again when Belton gets into some legal troubles and again when he invites Bernard to join the Imperium in Imperio, an organisation dedicated to supporting their fellow black citizens and attempting to better their lives.
Throughout the novel, both characters have to deal with a lot of racism, both institutional and personal. It’s particularly noticed when Belton is in Louisiana where they are even more racist than his home as he is ejected from the first class carriage on the train that he was riding. The novel addresses issues that face those that are educated as they are blocked from most jobs requiring a degree due to the colour of their skin, but they can’t take menial labour jobs as they are too educated as it would be seen as throwing away their education. The themes of this novel are very strong and both characters have very strong views on the empowerment of their race although they differ on how this equality is to be achieved.
The story alone is an enjoyable read and the writing is very good, however the underlying messages and ideas are incredible and I really enjoyed the emphasis it placed on the importance of education. This is definitely a fantastic and worthwhile read and I would definitely recommend it to everybody.