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).
Toni Cade Bambara
The Black Woman (short stories) 1970
Escape from Billy's Bar-B-Que (novel) 1985
P. M. Carlson
Gravestone (novel) 1993
The Awakening (novel) 1899
Heart of Darkness (novel) 1902
Thomas Dixon Jr.
The Leopard's Spots (novel) 1902
The Clansman (novel) 1905
Light in August (novel) 1932
Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1936
White People (short stories) 1990
To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937
William Dean Howells
An Imperative Duty (novella) 1890
Charles S. Johnson
Opportunity [editor] (journal) 1923-1928
South Sea Tales (short stories) 1911
The Tenants (novel) 1971
Death beneath the Christmas Tree (novel) 1991
Wide Sargasso Sea (novel) 1966
Migrations (novel) 1927
A Calendar of Sin (novel) 1931
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1884
Native Son (novel)...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 beautiful. It was alive, I was sure of it. Behind the bright colours the softness, the hills like clouds and the clouds like fantastic hills. There was something austere, sad, lost, all these things.
Jean Rhys, Smile Please
The Caribbean1—the “incredible indigo sea,” as William Faulkner calls it2—maintains, beneath the high tide of Anglo-American fiction, a passionate but submerged interest in issues of identity and difference, of self and other, and of early childhood. Any list of Caribbean characters in British or American fiction reveals women whose high energy is sublimated in secondary roles3: Bertha Antoinetta...
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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 dominant discourse tries never to speak its own name.
—Russell Ferguson, Out There: Marginality and Contemporary Art
The final lines of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening unmistakably mark Edna as white: “The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long sweeping stroke.”1 Yet despite this specificity of Edna's white subjectivity, little critical attention has been paid to her position as a white woman. Whiteness in the above passage is often...
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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 to the fore. This subgenre “incorporates in-depth characterization with plot realism and social commentary with detection.” While not limited to books by women, Marcia Muller argues that “this type of novel has become more visible because of the large influx of women into the field” (“In the Tradition” 157). Jon Breen also sees contemporary mystery writers as freer to deal with a variety of themes than were their predecessors. He notes:
[T]oday's writers, aside from the somewhat exaggerated specter of “political correctness,” can deal with just about any subject matter and any point of view in a mystery novel and can seriously explore social issues and subcultures that a writer of the...
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Criticism: Racism And Literature By And About African Americans
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 historians and literary critics. In his recent analysis of the Renaissance as a cultural movement encompassing all the arts, Nathan Irvin Huggins merely cites Johnson as editor of Opportunity and then comments on the role of Opportunity in the Renaissance, “… even more than the others [Crisis; The Messenger], Opportunity believed its motto—‘Not Alms but Opportunity’—to apply to the arts. It sponsored a literary contest in the 1920s that became a major generating force in the renaissance.”2
Describing Johnson's entrepreneurial activities such as the Civic Club dinner of May 21, 1924, which brought “together the black literati and the white publishers,’ and the...
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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 res. In the person of Bigger Thomas, and in the features of his own personality which he puts into Bigger, Wright projects the most fundamental of the ambiguities residing in violence, and in the figures of the victim and the hero, and therefore provides the pivot in the history of the African American novel of violence. The story has become part of American lore. Bigger Thomas, hired as chauffeur by rich Chicagoan Henry Dalton, finds himself cornered in the bedroom of his employer's daughter, Mary. He has assisted the girl to her room after chauffeuring her and her boyfriend around town while they get drunk and try to make friends with him. When Mary's blind mother enters the room, Bigger smothers the girl to keep her from giving him...
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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 most controversial cover in the history of The New Yorker offers an apocalyptic vision of amity between two mutually wary American minorities. For its 15 February 1993 issue, the magazine reproduced a painting, Valentine's Day by Art Spiegelman, that depicts a Hasidic man and an African-American woman locked in a lusty embrace. In an extraordinary editorial note explicating the image, Spiegelman wrote: “This metaphoric embrace is my Valentine card to New York, a wish for the reconciliation of seemingly unbridgeable differences in the form of a symbolic kiss.”1
Differences between blacks and Jews, erstwhile allies in civil rights and progressive politics, did not always seem unbridgeable: in 1992, when the Jewish Museum of New York, in collaboration with the NAACP, organized an ambitious exhibition...
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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 feminist challenges to the overtly masculinist discourse of late 1960s-1970s black nationalist struggle. Many young women who first picked up the volume in the 1970s found the work affirming and empowering. Its popularity created new spaces for critical dialogue around issues important to black women that had been largely ignored within both black nationalist circles and the predominately white mainstream feminist movement. Such issues included the impact of racism on black women's self-image, the intersection of race and class in black women's experiences (sometimes referred to as “double or triple jeopardy”), and the lack of self-determination for black women with respect to reproductive freedom and health care (the former...
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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 to Evelyn Scott's outspoken protest against the lack of artistic freedom and the oppressive gender, race, and class ideologies in America. Several critics noted her treatment of African American characters in her novels and praised her unusually realistic portrayals that challenged racist stereotypes employed by other white authors. Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling, fellow southerners, writers, and co-editors of the North Georgia Review, admired her work, and, in 1937, Smith named Scott “the most brilliant and profound woman of contemporary English-American letters” (10). Smith saw writing as a vehicle for social criticism and saw form as less important than what the book had to say about contemporary society; that is, the...
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Criticism: The Theme Of Racism In Literature
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 American life. We ask questions which must be asked and search for solutions which must be found if we are to survive as a nation.
Always concerned with our growth as a nation, William Dean Howells made social justice part of his literary consciousness. Articles and books have dealt with his humanitarian concerns, and it is well established that he defined the American dream as a utopia of brotherhood, love, and justice at the same time that he deplored the American nightmare of an economic chance-world in which prejudice and class hatreds were common.
As an editor and man of letters, Howells commented on the state of American democracy in many essays. Concern with injustice was equal to concern for good...
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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 opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story takes place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world.”
Is [Joseph] Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. What actually worries Conrad is the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames, too, “has been one of the dark places...
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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 literary double standard, which prohibited female authors at the turn of the century from broaching topics available to male authors, for the opprobrium Chopin suffered. But it was the cultural chauvinism of Chopin's contemporaries that was primarily responsible for their adverse reaction to The Awakening.
For much of Chopin's audience the troublesome issue of female desire was resolved through a racist conception of passion and purity according to which passion was projected onto “dark” women, while purity was reserved exclusively for “white” women. This conception manifests itself in the comments of early reviewers of The Awakening. W. M. Reedy, publisher of the Mirror and responsible for...
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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 August belongs to the community of Jefferson.1 They are all outsiders, if not outcasts, living in isolation, and in sharp contrast to most of Faulkner's earlier and later books, the family here fails to serve its purpose as mediating agency between individual and society.
“The Community and the Pariah,” the title of Cleanth Brooks's classic study of the novel, aptly summarizes its central theme.2 And Brooks is equally right to call attention to the specific nature of the social environment in which the destinies of its characters are acted out: a traditional rural society, such as could still be found in the Deep South of the twenties and thirties—a society or, to use Brooks's term, a...
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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 word of God to the benighted heathen. Almost all of the stories hinge upon the issue of race, and some of London's characters display a white racism that makes reading many of his stories uncomfortable for today's readers, steeped in late 20th century sensibilities. That London himself, as well as some of the key intellectuals whose works he admired, was also convinced of the “inevitability” of the white man is evidenced in his own letters.1 Though the knowledge can never make London's youthful racial beliefs appealing, it is only fair to remind ourselves that these ideas were common not only among leftist radicals—who must have seen the cheap labor that people of color offered as a threat to the already shaky economic...
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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 in our minds is the charity and the love to overcome them.
—Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire
Conch town, where all was starched, well-shuttered, virtue, failure, grits and boiled grunts, under-nourishment, prejudice, righteousness, interbreeding and the comforts of religion. …
—Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not
As usual, Hemingway said it best. This time during that marvelous interview for The Paris Review. “Read anything I write,” he told George Plimpton, “for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading”...
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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 favorite story about slavery and race because it gives us no more of this reality than we can bear.
(Robinson 1986, 119)
Race and slavery, as almost all readers now acknowledge, are central to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the great American novel. Twain's episodic, beautiful, ambivalent, cruel, and liberating tale of the Mississippi Valley in 1840 has become the universal story of bondage and freedom and the most widely taught novel in the United States. Yet if we read the novel carefully, against the context of the time Twain was writing in as well as in the context of our own time, we must recognize, with Forrest Robinson, that “it gives us no more of this reality than we...
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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 anti-Semitism and a historically-fixed view of the Jew as Other in the writings of Eliot and Fanon.
Crownshaw, Richard. “Blacking out Holocaust Memory in Saul Bellow's The Victim.” Saul Bellow Journal 16-17, no. 2-2 (2000-2001): 215-52.
Explores points of connection and intersection between racism against Blacks and anti-Semitism in the United States, using Bellow's The Victim as a case study.
Frenk, Joachim, and Christian Krug. “A Passage to India: The Deceptively Simple Present.” Zeitschrift fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik 46, no. 1 (1998): 38-51.
Offers a detailed study of Forester's narrative technique in A...
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