Education and Revolution: Reading the novels of Sutton E. Griggs and Toni Morrison

[By Kenton Rambsy]
Continuing our conversations of linking education to freedom Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (1899) and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977). Griggs’s principle characters Bernard Belgrave and Belton Piedmont and Morrison’s secondary character Guitar Baines both illustrate how black people subvert educational practices as a means to produce alternative political societies in America.

 Echoing the sentiments of Frederick Douglass’s narrative the characters in Griggs’s and Morrison’s books also exemplify how access to education can be used as a means to gain mental and social in Griggs’s and Morrison’s books also exemplify how access to education can be used as a means to gain mental and social liberation. Guitar is presented in the first few pages of the novel as a smart young boy as he corrects a nurse on the spelling of the word “hospital.” Bernard and Belton also showcase their refined speaking abilities to large groups of people while attending college. Education  sets these men apart from others by giving them a certain type of credibility and leadership qualities with political organizations.

In Lynn R. Johnson’s essay “A Return to the Black (W)hole:Mitigating the Trauma of Homelessness in Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio” she writes, “One of the strategies that African Americans employed in their pursuit of national acceptance was the attainment of education; they concentrat[ed] on basic literacy and moral education, as well as the practical skills associated with good workmanship.” Specifically, in the case of these two novels, I propose that education simultaneously serves as a tool of acceptance and rebellion. I also offer that Johnson’s use of the term “education” implies a broader sense of intellectual and social capabilities that are cultivated both inside and outside of formal school environments—an “in-between space.”
The informal spaces where these characters operate from provide opportunities to re-envision the political structures that often times oppress larger groups of black people. Johnson also, adds  “In their efforts to fashion innovative campaigns to ward off the ‘threat of marginalization,’ African Americans followed the example of Africans who suffered the Middle Passage by strengthening, where they already existed — and, where they did not exist, formulating — new bonds of kinship predicated on their Africanness.”
With Guitar’s involvement in the violent and militant “Seven Days” and Belton and Bernard’s association with the secretive “Imperium shadow government,” these men actually benefit by existing outside of mainstream society as they are able to organize around racial solidarity and challenge mainstream authority through covert practices. Both Griggs and Morrison speculate about the possibilities of black-centered education and political organizations as a means to (re)claim identity and gain higher degrees of freedom and social agency.