The Black, White, and Invisible Empires of Sutton E. Griggs and Thomas Dixon Jr.


SMITH Jeffrey Alan

Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description This paper compares the "Imperium in Imperio" that Sutton E. Griggs imagined in his 1899 novel of that title with the “nation inside a nation” that preoccupied Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Reconstruction Trilogy on which D.W. Griffith based The Birth of a Nation. The concept of nations within nations had been brought to bear on race questions decades before these two Baptist preachers turned to fiction-writing to probe it further. But the Jim Crow regime had raised the prospect of permanent African-American exclusion, while white supremacists claimed that even that would be inadequate to the long-term task of safeguarding the “Anglo-Saxon race.” For both Griggs and Dixon, this conflict exposed a constitutional vacuum, an absence of legitimate authority that left one racial group at the other’s mercy. And in fictions that are, in striking ways, each other’s photo-negative reverse, both imagine the beleaguered “citizens” of the race-nation reasserting agency by reconstituting the missing institutional forms in secret. Griggs’ clandestine underground is the “Imperium,” an entire parallel but hidden U.S. government exclusively of and for African-Americans, and Dixon’s is, notoriously, the “Invisible Empire” or Ku Klux Klan, a conspiracy of nighttime faux tribunals and paramilitary police. Both movements claim not just local but world-historical aims, yet both also finally self-destruct, and for similar reasons: As Hannah Arendt and others would later explain, citizenship is a feature of “the political way” and presumes a (public) polity, which cannot be constructed secretly without recapitulating the evils it was meant to address.
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