Racism in Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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).