Protest and Organized Resistance in 5 Black Novels

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Representations of organized resistance efforts have appeared in noted works by black writers for over 100 years. Similar to organizers for Occupy Wall Street, some black novelists have sought to present large numbers of people protesting unfair or unjust practices. As previously mentioned, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man offers one take one a figure becoming involved in protest movements. The following 5 novels also depict organized struggle.


The Heroic Slave (1852) by Frederick Douglass –This novella by Douglass is an account of the runaway slave, Madison Washington. Madison escapes from slavery and demonstrates his intellectual abilities through his advanced oratory skills. He organizes a slave rebellion upon the Creole and leads 19 enslaved people to freedom. Madison aligns his and his peers’ interests with America’s founding fathers.

Imperium in Imperio (1899) by Sutton E Griggs – This novel follows two childhood friends, Bernard Belgrave and Belton Piedmont, as they participate in an all-black, shadow government based in Waco, Texas. Bernard, the more militant of the duo, advocates for a violent rebellion and takeover of the Texas state government while Belton argues for assimilation between the races. The revolutionary spirit of the novel stands as a testament to the political and social agency of black people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.


Blake: Or, the Huts of America (1859) By Martin Delany – Delany’s novel serves as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While Delany thought that Stowe captured the essence of the cruelty of Southern slave owners, he complained that Stowe depicted enslaved black people as being too passive. His novel follows a rebel rouser as he travels through slave communities advocating for a bloody and violent revolution. Delany paints Christianity as the oppressor’s religion and advocates for a calculated insurrection against slave owners.


Middle Passage (1990) by Charles Johnson – Johnson’s novel follows the seemingly aloof Rutherford Calhoun as he schemes his way out of marriage and inadvertently winds up being a stowaway on a slave ship. While on the ship, Rutherford becomes enlightened and learns valuable lessons about humanity, respectability, and nationhood. Rutherford is placed in the middle of a conflict and made the mediator between the disgruntled enslaved people who just led a successful rebellion and surviving crewmembers who were once their captors. The novel highlights the ability of oppressed people to organize and execute successful revolts under harsh conditions.


The White Boy Shuffle (1996) by Paul Beatty – Beatty’s satirical novel follows the adventures of Gunnar Kaufman who is a successful poet. Because of Gunnar’s mass appeal with people in Boston, he is asked to speak at a rally at Boston University in protest of the university conferring honorary degrees to an African diplomat of questionable integrity. Using Gunnar as a figure to rally behind is similar to the unnamed narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Both authors highlight how these figureheads can sometimes be exploited for the personal gain of a group.

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