Racism in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Racism in Literature


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.)

Criticism: Racism And Literature By And About African Americans

Ralph L. Pearson (essay date spring 1977)

SOURCE: Pearson, Ralph L. “Combatting Racism with Art: Charles S. Johnson and the Harlem Renaissance.” American Studies 18, no. 1 (spring 1977): 123-34.

[In the following essay, Pearson focuses on Johnson's role in the Harlem Renaissance movement—especially his writings for Opportunity and other periodicals that emphasized an emerging identity for African Americans—and his belief that art is a means of defeating racism.]

Until the appearance of Patrick Gilpin's essay, “Charles S. Johnson: Entrepreneur of the Harlem Renaissance,”1 the important role of Johnson as a cultivator of the Harlem Renaissance was described in a paragraph or two by...

(The entire section is 5130 words.)

Jerry H. Bryant (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Bryant, Jerry H. “Richard Wright and Bigger Thomas: Grace in Damnation.” In Victims and Heroes: Racial Violence in the African American Novel, pp. 197-210. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Bryant discusses violence and racism in Richard Wright's Native Son, noting that the novel's protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the first Black character in American literature to substitute his own value system for one given him by white society.]

Of all the African American novelists who have explored the issues raised by violence, Richard Wright is the most probing. It is therefore fitting that he comes to us in medias...

(The entire section is 8110 words.)

Steven G. Kellman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Kellman, Steven G. “Tenants, Tenets, and Tensions: Bernard Malamud's Blacks and Jews.” In American Literary Dimensions: Poems and Essays in Honor of Melvin J. Friedman, edited by Ben Siegel and Jay L. Halio, pp. 118-27. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Kellman discusses the uneasy relationship between African Americans and Jews in Bernard Malamud's The Tenants.]

Each, thought the writer, feels the anguish of the other.

The Tenants

The most controversial cover in the history of The New Yorker offers an apocalyptic vision of amity...

(The entire section is 4224 words.)

Margo V. Perkins (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Perkins, Margo V. “Getting Basic: Bambara's Re-visioning of the Black Aesthetic.” In Race and Racism in Theory and Practice, edited by Berel Lang, pp. 153-63. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.

[In the following essay, Perkins discusses how the writings of Toni Cade Bambara address the exclusion of African American women both by Black men and white feminists.]

Published in 1970, Toni Cade Bambara's The Black Woman continues to speak to many African-American women's experiences three decades later.1 This edited volume of critical essays, poetry, and stories by black women writers and activists is one of the earliest...

(The entire section is 4583 words.)

Karen Overbye (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Overbye, Karen. “Resisting Ideologies of Race and Gender: Evelyn Scott's Use of the Tragic Mulatto Figure.” In Evelyn Scott: Recovering a Lost Modernist, edited by Dorothy M. Scura and Paul C. Jones, pp. 123-39. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Overbye focuses on Evelyn Scott's depiction of two mulatto characters—in Migrations and A Calendar of Sin—through whom Scott comments on the racial, cultural, and artistic oppression of Blacks in American society.]

Whether in direct response to her writing or in discussing her contribution to American letters, contemporary literary critics often drew attention...

(The entire section is 8005 words.)

Criticism: The Theme Of Racism In Literature

Clare R. Goldfarb (essay date summer 1971)

SOURCE: Goldfarb, Clare R. “The Question of William Dean Howells's Racism.” Ball State University Forum 12, no. 3 (summer 1971): 22-30.

[In the following essay, Goldfarb examines Howells's attitude toward racism in the United States as revealed by the themes and characters of his novella An Imperative Duty.]

William Dean Howells' attitudes on race and other social problems are worth studying. Examining our writers, past and present, for social attitudes has been part of the intellectual scene for a long time, and the examination is even more intense today. In particular, our preoccupation with race and racial attitudes is central. It is a fact of contemporary...

(The entire section is 5093 words.)

Chinua Achebe (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Achebe, Chinua. “Conrad's Racism.” In Readings on “Heart on Darkness,” edited by Clarice Swisher, pp. 184-94. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1977, Achebe argues that in Heart of Darkness Conrad characterizes Africans in a way that dehumanizes them and sets up a contrast between civilized England and uncivilized Africa.]

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where a man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book...

(The entire section is 4220 words.)

Anna Shannon Elfenbein (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Elfenbein, Anna Shannon. “Kate Chopin's The Awakening: An Assault on American Racial and Sexual Mythology.” Southern Studies 26, no. 4 (winter 1987): 304-12.

[In the following essay, Elfenbein comments on Chopin's questioning of prevailing racial stereotypes, especially pertaining to women's sexuality, in her novel The Awakening.]

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) shocked its nineteenth-century readers by presenting without comment the adultery of Edna Pontellier, a wealthy, white American wife and mother adrift in Creole society. The shock was so great that the novel went unread for almost sixty years. Recent critics have tended to blame the...

(The entire section is 4021 words.)

André Bleikasten (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Bleikasten, André. “Light in August: The Closed Society and Its Subjects.” In New Essays on “Light in August,” edited by Michael Millgate, pp. 81-102. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Bleikasten explores Light in August in light of Faulkner's depiction of Southern society in the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on his treatment of outsiders by the community.]

Until the subject of a tyrant's will
Became, worse fate, the abject of his own

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

As has often been pointed out, none of the main characters of Light in...

(The entire section is 8450 words.)

Thomas R. Tietze and Gary Riedl (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Tietze, Thomas R., and Gary Riedl. “‘Saints in Slime’: The Ironic Use of Racism in Jack London's South Sea Tales.Thalia 12, nos. 1-2 (1992): 59-66.

[In the following essay, Tietze and Riedl discuss London's treatment of racism in his stories about South Sea islanders, concluding that his ironic style indicts the brutality and ignorance exhibited by white people toward the natives.]

In Jack London's many stories of the South Seas, the white man has brought racism, cruelty, powerful weapons, and disease to a remote and beautiful wilderness in his quest—his calling—“to farm the world.” Ironically, the foreigners also have come to bring the...

(The entire section is 4183 words.)

Toni D. Knott (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Knott, Toni D. “Playing in the Light: Examining Categorization in To Have and Have Not as a Reflection of Identity or Racism.” North Dakota Quarterly 64, no. 3 (1997): 82-8.

[In the following essay, Knott addresses the charge made by Toni Morrison and other critics that Hemingway displays racist tendencies in To Have and Have Not, asserting that these critics fail to perceive irony in Hemingway's treatment of the subject.]

Tribe, race, clan, family; deep within us all are the seeds of hate for what is different. We do not have to be taught these things. We have to be taught not to give in to them! They are in our blood; but...

(The entire section is 2858 words.)

Frances W. Kaye (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Kaye, Frances W. “Race and Reading: The Burden of Huckleberry Finn.Canadian Review of American Studies 29, no. 1 (1999): 13-48.

[In the following essay, Kaye discusses the enduring relevance of Twain's Huckleberry Finn but emphasizes that the novel also glosses over racism in white society by making the reader complicit with the limited worldview presented in the novel.]

For the great mass of admiring readers, because Huck and Jim are friends, and because Jim is finally emancipated, the novel's ambiguities are simply dissolved in an overflow of relief and warm fellow-feeling. … Huckleberry Finn continues to be our...

(The entire section is 13760 words.)

Further Reading


Boeckmann, Cathy. A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892-1912. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000, 238 p.

Study of racial theory in historical context with reference to the works of such writers as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Charles Chestnutt, and James Weldon Johnson.

Brian, Cheyette. “White Skin, Black Masks.” In Cultural Readings of Imperialism: Edward Said and the Gravity of History, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, Benita Parry, and Judith Squires, pp. 106-26. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1997.

Examines and questions the claims of...

(The entire section is 456 words.)