Frank Durham

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

It is somewhat surprising that the earliest Southern writing in the decade should lean more toward propaganda. Birthright caused quite a flurry at its appearance in 1922, not only for its subject but for the fact that it was written by a Tennesseean. In several ways it set a pattern for the novel of the "noble Negro," usually with mixed blood, who tries to better himself and his race. (p. 33)

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Certainly from [a] synopsis Birthright seems unrevolutionary. But Stribling was decried by many Southerners as "a dirty bird defiling its own nest," even as he was hailed by the indubitably Southern James Southall Wilson as the leader "in turning to the starker actualities of Negro [life]." Like many Negro critics, William Stanley Braithwaite called Birthright "the most significant novel on the Negro written by a white American" [see excerpt above]….

What was it, then, that made this book so startling in 1922? First and most obvious, Peter and Cissie, wooden though they be, show the potentialities of the Negro to develop an educated middle class. Both are college graduates, both speak correct English …, both yearn after finer things, and Peter, at least, exhibits a supposedly intelligent concern for the problems of his people. Second, the crude injustice and ridicule meted out to the Negro by the ignorant white Southerner is stressed. There is really not a decent white man in the book, and Stribling suggests that one of the chief causes of the South's intellectual and economic backwardness is the blind fear of the Negro. (p. 34)

If Stribling had stopped with these points, which were revolutionary in Southern fiction for the time, Birthright might indeed have marked a new departure. But along with his plea for justice, Stribling unfortunately repeats many of the time-worn concepts of the Negro. Except for Peter and, to some extent, Cissie, his Negroes are very familiar types, talking in a quaintly comic dialect. Rose Hobbett, Renfrew's cook, grumbles and steals but is basically the loyal retainer. Tump Pack, the war hero, is a crap-shooting, whiskey-drinking, gun-toting lout. Jim Pink Staggs, wearing outrageously loud clothes as he hangs around street corners, goes into a minstrel routine with his every appearance. And so on. The stereotypes die hard.

But there is more. Stribling reaffirms the Southerner's ancient truisms about Negro traits and psychology. In the Jim Crow car Peter recognizes "the peculiar, penetrating odor of dark, sweating skins."… During Peter's sorrowing for his mother's death, "there began to assert itself in him that capacity for profound indolence inherent in his Negro blood."… Negro emotions are shallow, transient, sometimes atavistic. Cissie quickly forgets the shame of her arrest and her pregnancy in the excitement of the trip North. The lamentation—Stribling calls it "bedlam"—at Caroline Siner's death is a harking back to jungle rituals to prevent the return of the dead as "tigers or pythons or devils," not expressive of real sorrow. And of Peter, the author writes: "It was the white blood in his own veins that had sent him struggling up North, that had brought him back with this flame in his heart for his own people."… But, worse, he has Peter enunciate a doctrine of racial progress which could be labelled "separate and unequal"; for even Peter calls for self-reliance and self-serving and an avoidance of "being mere echoes of white thought," he concludes, "I don't mean racial equality. To my mind racial equality is an empty term. But what I do insist on is autonomous development."… And Peter leaves Niggertown to take care of itself because he has found that Negro morals are different from white morals:

The single object of all morals is racial welfare, the racial integrity, the breeding of strong children to perpetuate the species…. Any people with an abounding vitality will naturally practice customs which a less vital people must shun….

A very lame conclusion for a novel purporting to champion the cause of the Negro!

In Birthright, however, Stribling did write of the Negro as no Southern white had done before 1922. He did present, in a limited way, a sympathetic picture of the educated Negro, and he did make an impassioned attack on white injustice. But at base Birthright is a racist novel, accepting the inferiority of the Negro, perpetuating the comic and bestial stereotypes, repeating the ancient truisms about the Negro—indolence, dishonesty, odor, barbaric love of color, emotionalism, sexual promiscuity et al., as inherent in the race, innate. (pp. 35-7)

Frank Durham, "The Reputed Demises of Uncle Tom; or the Treatment of the Negro in Fiction by White Southern Authors in the 1920's," in The Southern Literary Journal (copyright 1970 by the Department of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Vol. II, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 26-50.∗

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