Ethnicity as a literary trope has been prevalent since nineteenth century colonialism stimulated images of Native American and African savagery and European social prejudices resulted in stereotyped images of African Americans and Jews. However, the American literary employment of ethnic characters and issues has been largely a response to a home-grown issue, the resistance to and later accommodation of alien-seeming peoples entering the American ethnic mix.
The classification of fictional African American, Asian American, Native American, Hispanic, and Jewish characters as “ethnic” can often be misleading. Many of these characters are thoroughly American in every way, although as members of recognizable minorities they see themselves as set apart. A Nisei investigator or a Native American sleuth might be presumed to reflect alien cultural influences, including the speaking of a non-English language, adherence to a non-Western religion, and a value structure and way of thinking. It is the degree of cultural difference that drives the best of the ethnic mystery stories, those that depict other cultures accurately and use them as more than simple exotic backdrops.
Because African Americans are more thoroughly Westernized Americans than members of some of the other ethnic groups, stories about them tend to draw less on dramatic cultural differences and more on variations of social roles and distinctive minority perspectives. The novels of...
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