By Dr. DeLisa D. Hawkes
Most people who are familiar with Albion Tourgée remember him within the context of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that determined “separate but equal” constitutional. The interracial legal team that included Tourgée and the New Orleans leader Louis Martinet argued against “separate but equal,” but Tourgée’s legacy extends beyond legal history. He had an extensive career in political activism with his writings, speeches, and fiction, through which he challenged white supremacy and systemic racism.
For instance, in his 1890 speech to a group of influential white men interested in solving the race problem in the United States, he declares:
We say… that, because slavery no longer exists as a legalized form of society, we may dismiss it from our thought, and no longer consider it as a factor of our civilization. In truth… It is a living force in the white man’s thought and in the colored man’s life. The lessons it taught to both races are ineradicable by law and are beyond the control of mere reason. (“The Negro’s View” 112)
Here, Tourgée contends that slavery continued to haunt black and white Americans during the years after emancipation, thus expanding the issue of race beyond concerns over what some deemed a so-called “Negro Problem.” Writing according to his belief that the formerly enslaved were, in fact, citizens as the Reconstruction Amendments state, Tourgée draws attention to the color line’s ability to overpower all Americans due to society’s obsessions over race and color. African American authors’ engagements with the literary trope of racial passing clearly inspires Tourgée’s 1890 novel Pactolus Prime in which he examines the effects of the color on both black and white Americans.
Pactolus Prime follows Prime, a formerly enslaved man in 1880s Washington, D.C., who owns a successful bootblack stand that services mostly upper-class white men. These men come to Prime’s stand to engage in debates on various current events. Unknown to his customers and apprentice (Benny), Prime has a few deep secrets: firstly, Prime has a daughter (Eva) who he has sent away to be raised and educated as a white woman. She knows little to nothing about her father or her family’s background. As far as Eva knows, she is a white woman who receives financial support from an unknown benefactor. Secondly, despite Prime’s frequent critiques of white privilege, he himself used to pass and used his lighter complexion to escape enslavement. However, Prime sustained an injury causing him to take a medicine that left him with a darker complexion. Prime decides to return to living as a black man and spends his days critiquing the color line. Tourgée unconventionally uses the passing novel to interrogate society’s focus on color that affects both sides of the color line through one man’s access to and return from two racial identities.
Tourgée writes in the 1892 statement of principles for the National Citizen’s Rights Association (NCRA) that “The Negro is not the only one having a distinct interest in the assertion of the rights of citizenship. Every man in the whole land who believes in the equal rights of citizens of the United States without regard to ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude,’ is touched in his own person by present conditions” (262). Those “present conditions,” include attempts to normalize white supremacy and to concretize the color line through the law. Prime’s experience in living in both black and white American social spheres enables him to critique two positions on the color line that are bolstered by the law. He can voice interracial and intraracial critiques. This dual experience accounts for his complex relationship with color and race. However, his fixation on color, specifically from a white supremacist viewpoint, seemingly suggests that Prime urges Benny and Eva to pass for white. Consequently, this is Tourgée’s creative approach to addressing colorism within some black communities.
Supporting the option to pass does not align with the views that Prime expresses while debating with his white customers. However, we should remain skeptical of Prime’s pressure towards Benny and the racial identity he gives Eva. Clearly, he understands from personal experience the privileges associated with whiteness and openly critiques the false narrative of white superiority. For example, when debating with a white customer, Prime says, ‘[Your] American civilization… sir, took our money, the honest wages of our toil, and no shuffling or evasion can avoid the responsibility’ (72). Prime uses language associated with minstrelsy to chastise the white customer for flouting the blame for black Americans precarious economic stability on black communities. He also suggests that white Americans “shuffle” according to a racist society’s determination of what opportunities are available to certain identities and classes. By the novel’s end, readers see that the ghosts of slavery and the reality of the color line are living forces in all Americans’ lives.
DeLisa D. Hawkes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and affiliate faculty member of the African American Studies Program at The University of Texas at El Paso. She has published in peer-reviewed journals including North Carolina Literary Review and has forthcoming works in MELUS and 21st Century US Historical Fiction: Contemporary Responses to the Past (Palgrave). Her research and teaching interests include nineteenth to twenty-first century African American literature, critical race studies, historical fiction, speculative fiction, neo-slave narratives, passing novels, genealogy, and Black visual culture. Follow her on Twitter @ProfDeLisaDH.
Tourgée, Albion. “Is Liberty Worth Preserving?” Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée, edited by Mark Elliott and John David Smith, Louisiana State UP, 2010.
—. Pactolus Prime. Cassell Pub., Co., 1890.
—. “The Negro’s View of the Race Problem.” First Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question, edited by Isabel C. Barrows, George H. Ellis, Printer, 1890.