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Re-markable Print: Historiography and A Seconding Instinct in the Work of Sutton E. Griggs


Sutton Griggs’s 1899 novel, Imperium in Imperio, is widely recognized as an early African American militant novel. It depicts an underground all-Black government dating back to the American Revolution whose documented history is private until the novel’s fictional narrator submits it for publication. Twenty years later, Sutton Griggs would publish his nonfiction Guide to Racial Greatness; or, The Science of Collective Efficiency wherein he argues that members of all great races must possess the spirit of seconding through “the ready support of another’s deeds.” (132) By imagining the ways Griggs’s theory of seconding theorizes a print practice rooted in collaboratively recording history, we can read his earliest novel as a reflection on the crisis of record-keeping and -making during the age of New Journalism. This involves tracing a rich tradition of African American print practices during the long nineteenth century, which reveals that newspapers were initially heralded as the ideal medium by which to achieve Black self-determination. They curated historical records meant to instruct readers on how to live and encompassed multivocal historiographical projects, cultivating historical consciousness by regularly intervening on white supremacist myths about Blackness. Imperium in Imperio both emulates a historical record by presenting itself as a found manuscript and undermines its own authenticity by employing multiple narrative frameworks that present contradictory accounts of its characters. These formal elements work to make the processes of historical writing, circulation, and interpretation transparent for readers to warn of the dangers of single-authored histories and destabilize our notion of historical knowledge as fixed.

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