Racism and Ethnocentrism in Literature Biography

African American Authors

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Bigger Thomas is a young man from the tenements of Chicago who works as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family. He smothers a white woman in an effort to quiet her, in order to prevent his being found in her bedroom, where he brought her from the limousine he was driving. Intoxicated, she was unable to get to bed by herself. Bigger disposes of her body in the furnace of the house. When the death is detected, Bigger flees, and the police and press machinery of Chicago gear up against him. He is described as a rapist as well as a murderer, the assumption being that he raped his victim. Bigger kills Bessie, his black female companion, as he is hiding, fulfilling the racist depiction of him as a murderer. Bigger is found, brought to trial, and sentenced to execution. The novel is a powerful indictment of white racist society, which creates such people as Bigger Thomas, whom Wright, with bitter irony, calls a native son. Wright’s Black Boy (1945) is his autobiographical account of growing up in the South, where the dominant white culture’s racism left its mark upon him. Wright shows how racism was so common and ingrained that it was everyday, banal, and overlooked. When Wright, as a boy, tries to earn a little money by doing chores in a white household, he is questioned by the mistress of the house about his intentions for the future. Wright naïvely responds that he wishes to become a writer.

The woman glares at him furiously, and Wright, sensing her anger, quickly tells her no when she asks if he said that he wanted to be a writer. After his reply of no, the woman calms down and shows her relief, stating that she had thought he said he wanted to become a writer. This everyday incident shows the white racist condemnation of aspiration in blacks. Wright would later, in his preparation to be a writer, read library books borrowed with a white man’s card.

Margaret Walker’s book of poetry, For My People (1942), militates against racism. Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville (1945) is a book of poems showing racist treatment of blacks by whites. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) is a classic of modern American literature. The book shows black experience in the growth and development of a young black man....

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Racism and Ethnocentrism in Literature Asian American Authors

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Asian Americans have produced an abundant literature, one of the most popular forms being the autobiographical narrative. Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart: A Personal History (1946) anticipates Maxine Hong Kingston’s widely read The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), a work of fiction that is also classified as autobiography. Other autobiographical works are Lee Yan Phou’s When I Was a Boy in China (1887) and New Il-Han’s When I Was a Boy in Korea (1928), both written a considerable time before their publication and both conforming to American curiosity about Asian American culture. Lin Yutang, the interpreter of Chinese culture for a generation of Americans, published such works as My Country and My People (1937), which was very popular in Europe and the United States, despite Chinese criticism of Yutang’s failure to depict the daily struggles of Asian Americans. Younghill Kang’s East Goes West (1937) is also autobiographical and portrays the life of exiles from Korea, their dreams of finding a permanent home in America, and their exclusion. Pardee Lowe’s Father and Glorious Descendant (1942) and Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945) are autobiographical works that depict aspects of Chinese culture. Toshio Mori’s Yokohama, California (1949) does not argue for assimilation, as do the works of Lowe and Wong, whose writings were...

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Racism and Ethnocentrism in Literature Chicano Authors

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Chicano literature can be described as originating at the end of the Mexican American War in 1848. After the war, many people who had been Mexicans living in northwestern Mexico found themselves to be Mexicans living in a larger southwest portion of the United States. These Mexicans were given the option of remaining in the United States as citizens or returning to Mexico. Many remained in the United States, becoming Americans but retaining Mexican culture, language, and traditions. The oral tradition is vital in Mexican American literature, and many of these oral forms, such as the folktale, folk drama, legend, and corrido were popular and artistically significant. The corrido is a ballad form that often is used to render contemporary social issues. Beginning in the 1850’s, corridos were sung about the border violence in south Texas. The corrido has proved itself to be long-lived; during World War II, corridos were composed about General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific. César Chávez was celebrated in corridos in the 1960’s. The form continued into the late twentieth century, at which time corridos were sung about violence in the border region, immigration, romance, unemployment, drug traffic, and other social issues.

New Mexico was the center of Chicano literary activity at least until World War II. Las primicias (first fruits), a collection of lyric poems, was published by...

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Racism and Ethnocentrism in Literature European American Authors

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have described her as the little lady who started the big war. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), with its portrayal of the miserable condition of slaves, generated many imitations and adaptations of her work and aroused the indignation of thousands of readers against slavery. Another highly popular work of fiction in the nineteenth century, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) shows in a scathing (rather than in Stowe’s sentimental) tone the American mentality about slavery. Huck befriends the runaway slave Jim on a raft as they travel down the Mississippi, although Huck knows that to do so is against the laws, customs, and perceptions of the Southern culture in which he was bred. When Huck decides that he will “go to hell” for resisting the institution of slavery and tears up the letter to Miss Watson that would result in Jim’s return to slavery, he places himself on the side of those who recognize slavery as an evil. Another example of Twain’s depiction of racism is the passage in which Huck is questioned by a white woman about his boat. When Huck explains that a cylinder head was blown out, the woman asks if anyone was killed. Huck replies that no one was hurt and that a Negro was killed. The woman replies that it was lucky because sometimes people get hurt. Huck is pretending to follow the assumptions of this...

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Racism and Ethnocentrism in Literature Jewish American Authors

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Although Jews first arrived on the North American continent in 1654, they made relatively little cultural impact on North America until large-scale immigration began in the 1880’s. Predictably, the literary impact of American Jewry began with the generations that were born of the immigrants. These generations (in a pattern similar to that recalled in many works of Asian American literature and in such Chicano works as Pocho, for example) were reared in the new nation, spoke the new language, and thus experienced difficulty in establishing identities that bridged the old and the new cultures. Writers of these generations include Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Norman Mailer.

Jewish American literature in English began to flower after World War II. Early postwar works include Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home (1946), Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (1947), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Mailer’s Barbary Shore (1951), and Bellow’s The Victim (1947) and Seize the Day (1956). Jewish American writers produced a literature often characterized by dispossession. Examples of this literature of this period include Bellow’s Dangling Man (1944), Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant (1957), and E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971). Another theme of Jewish American literature is Zionism; works on this theme include Meyer Levin’s My Father’s House (1947), In Search (1950), and The Obsession (1973).

In 1976, Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other novels by Bellow include The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975). Another Jewish American writer who has won the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1978) is Isaac Bashevis Singer. Extremely prolific, Singer has published autobiographies, journalism, novels, plays, and collections of short stories. Novels include The Family Moskat (1950), which was his first publication in English. Singer writes in Yiddish and is the towering example of the literature of American Jewry in that language; this literature began with the large-scale immigration of Yiddish-speaking Jews to the United States in the 1880’s. Gimpel the Fool (1957), a collection of short stories, is perhaps Singer’s most widely read work.