Study Guide

Racism in Literature

Racism in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Racism in Literature

Introduction

Racism in Literature

The following entry discusses the topic of racism in twentieth century literature.

The subject of racism has been a lively topic for critical debate since approximately the 1950s, with scholars examining the treatment of various kinds of discrimination based on race, religion, or gender in literary works—both past and present—as well as in the attitudes of the writers themselves. In some cases racism is a prominent, or even the chief theme, while in other works critics have revealed racist attitudes that serve as underlying assumptions, but may not be immediately evident to the reader.

Some critics have approached the study of racism in literature by exploring its characteristics in a genre. For example, Laura Niesen De Aruña has written about racist and imperialist currents in Caribbean literature, while Frances A. Della Cava and Madeline H. Engel have cited examples of prejudice against Blacks, Jews, and women in recent detective fiction. Some other general approaches have included discussing how the role of whiteness plays in fiction, as Rebecca Aanerud has done. Scholars have also been particularly interested in discussing the treatment of racism in fiction written by and about African Americans. For example, Ralph L. Pearson has commented on Charles S. Johnson's attempt to combat racism through his work during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Karen Overbye has examined Evelyn Scott's depiction of mulattoes in two novels composed in that same period, and Jerry H. Bryant has commented on racial violence in Richard Wright's Native Son, written in 1940. Focusing on more recent times, Margo V. Perkins has traced Toni Cade Bambara's handling of the image of Black women in her short stories of the 1970s, and Steven G. Kellman has written of the uneasy relationship between African Americans and Jews in the contemporary city as seen in Bernard Malamud's The Tenants (1971).

Other critics have focused on the theme of racism in individual works of literature. Frances W. Kaye, for example, continues a long-standing and vigorous discussion about racism in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Anna Shannon Elfenbein has explored Kate Chopin's manipulation of racial and gender stereotypes in The Awakening (1899), and André Bleikasten has considered William Faulkner's depiction of outsiders—racial and other—and their treatment by Southern society. Literary scholars and biographers have also made assumptions and reached conclusions about various authors' stance toward racism as a result of their treatment of the theme in their works. Clare R. Goldfarb has written about William Dean Howells's personal view of racism based on several of his works, for example, while Thomas R. Tietze and Gary Riedl have probed Jack London's attitude toward racism as exhibited in his short stories about the South Seas. Toni D. Knott has defended Ernest Hemingway's treatment of racism in To Have and Have Not (1937), and Chinua Achebe has written eloquently about Joseph Conrad's racist treatment of Africa and Africans in Heart of Darkness (1902).

Representative Works

Toni Cade Bambara
The Black Woman (short stories) 1970

Joanne Brasil
Escape from Billy's Bar-B-Que (novel) 1985

P. M. Carlson
Gravestone (novel) 1993

Kate Chopin
The Awakening (novel) 1899

Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness (novel) 1902

Thomas Dixon Jr.
The Leopard's Spots (novel) 1902
The Clansman (novel) 1905

William Faulkner
Light in August (novel) 1932
Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1936

Allan Gurganus
White People (short stories) 1990

Ernest Hemingway
To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937

William Dean Howells
An Imperative Duty (novella) 1890

Charles S. Johnson
Opportunity [editor] (journal) 1923-1928

Jack London
South Sea Tales (short stories) 1911

Bernard Malamud
The Tenants (novel) 1971

Robert Nordan
Death beneath the Christmas Tree (novel) 1991

Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea (novel) 1966

Evelyn Scott
Migrations (novel) 1927
A Calendar of Sin (novel) 1931

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1884

Richard Wright
Native Son (novel) 1940
Black Boy (autobiography) 1945

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Laura Niesen De Aruña (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: De Aruña, Laura Niesen. “The ‘Incredible Indigo Sea’ within Anglo-American Fiction.” In Engendering the Word: Feminist Essays in Psychosexual Poetics, edited by Temma F. Berg, Anna Shannon Elfenbein, Jeanne Larsen, and Elisa Kay Sparks, pp. 125-50. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, De Aruña examines the treatment of racism and sexism in several fictional works that also deal with imperialism in the Caribbean.]

I began to feel I loved the land and to know that I would never forget it. There I would go for long walks alone. It's strange growing up in a very beautiful place and seeing that it is...

(The entire section is 10361 words.)

Rebecca Aanerud (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Aanerud, Rebecca. “Fictions of Whiteness: Speaking the Names of Whiteness in U.S. Literature.” In Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, edited by Ruth Frankenberg, pp. 35-59. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Aanerud discusses the social, historical, and literary implications of “whiteness” in three works, including Kate Chopin's The Awakening.]

One of the signs of our times is that we really don't know what “white” is.

—Kobena Mercer, in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video

In our society...

(The entire section is 10650 words.)

Frances A. Della Cava and Madeline H. Engel (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Della Cava, Frances A., and Madeline H. Engel. “Racism, Sexism, and Antisemitism in Mysteries Featuring Women Sleuths.” In Diversity and Detective Fiction, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein, pp. 38-59. Bowling Green, Ohio.: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Della Cava and Engel explore instances of various kinds of racism in several contemporary detective novels featuring female protagonists.]

As more and more women achieve prominence in mystery fiction both as writers and main characters,1 a growing concern about social issues has begun to permeate the literature; “humanistic crime fiction” has come...

(The entire section is 8755 words.)