Racism in European Literature

Sep 27, 2019

Racism in European Literature

In its 21st century context, any literary discourse on racism can easily be attributed to xenophobia and hatred, as exemplified by racism in American Literature that spans three centuries. Racism in European Literature, as well as insinuations thereof, however, resemble more an inquiry rather than overt declarations of prejudice.

European Literature is a melting pot of individual and collective experiences of people who bore witness to a system of cultures that are simultaneously interlinked and distinctive in various regards. While one may find sources that prove the inexhaustible number of differences among European countries, they will also find that those same sources also prove an inexhaustible number of similarities. Language, history, and culture - among others - find themselves both divergent and emergent within European Literature, as if it entirely shares from the same amalgamated pool of phenomena and beliefs. Within this same pool, however, is racism in European Literature, and it has contaminated a sizable portion of the pool.

Racism is founded primarily on bigotry and hatred, yet the stimulus of racism in European Literature is intellectual discourse. Herodotus, an intellectual of the Ancient Greek era, perpetuated the idea that anyone who lives within the Greek city-states are civilized, whereas those who lived without are "barbarians." Even the renowned intellectual Aristotle asserted that there are people who are born with the able minds to lead, while others are born with the inherent purpose of being slaves - of being inferior. Such resonates the great irony: intellectual discourse has become an avenue of progress for some, regression for many, evidenced by what the 21st century reader can easy classify as racism in European Literature . This is an irony that goes beyond the ancestors of European Literature, resounding greatly in its descendants throughout the centuries. So to speak

Herodotus and Aristotle are a few among many other intellectuals who thought in the same manner - but it is not entirely their fault. Europe, indeed, has been a breeding ground of human progress and greatness, a shining light that urges the eye to turn to its glaring majesty. Yet, the danger lies in those who had basked so much within that light that they were blinded by its luminescence, unable to recognize the light from others, thereby contributing to what is today considered as racism in European Literature. Whereas proclaiming their supremacy was the goal, imposing inferiority unto others became the by-product. European Literature bears many examples of this dynamic and its consequences. French Literature, English Literature, German Literature, and Russian Literature - the following exemplify this dynamic.

When it comes to racism in European Literature, there is a sizable wealth of works that resonate of the prejudice at the time.

“Discourse on Colonialism,” by Aimé Césaire

The Negritude movement: the hallmark of the anti-racism movement in 20th century France. Consisting of the finest educated Africans against racial segregation, its constituents fought tooth and nail against their oppressors, not by reciprocated violence but by way of intellectual response. The movement is marked by a great wealth of literary works that exude rigor and indignation.

At its forefront was Aimé Césaire, the most outspoken writer against racial prejudice. Whereas many of his contemporaries engaged their oppressors in humility and politeness, he pulled no punches in calling out the atrocious system for what it was: partial, hypocritical, and regressive. In his "Discourse on Colonialism," Césaire sought no reprieve for the racist perpetrators, acting as both judge and jury. No crime had been left unheard; every atrocity, every hypocrisy had been listed in detail like a list of charges against a convict.

“Racism and Culture,” by Frantz Fanon

"We have killed the king, but we did not cut off his head." In a manner similar to Michel Foucault's, Frantz Fanon ventured to deconstruct and criticize the foundations on which the systematized racism of his time operated. But while he shared the same mission with the Negritude movement, Fanon declined their goal as a whole.

Racism, in its essence, is a matter of culture, grounded in power. To be part of a culture is to perpetuate it into the everyday. The Whites were cemented in a place of superiority and oppression because of factors outside of color, with the Blacks under their feet. Yet, if the circumstances were any different, would not the Blacks be themselves in the same position of power and the Whites, prostrated on the floor? In a captivating essay "Racism and Culture," Fanon sought to elucidate the underlying connection between racism and culture.

“Othello,” by William Shakespeare

The Elizabethan era (1585-1613): the Golden Age of England that enjoyed a, then, unprecedented series of breakthroughs in culture, history, literature, theater, and the arts. Everyone enjoyed a massive rise of many aspects of their lives - everyone, except the slaves.

Every part of the Englishman's life was accelerated, and the racial prejudice was no exception. It did not go without hearing a cry of indignation, however. Among those who pioneered English literature at the time, and for all time, was William Shakespeare, who made a attempt of enacting the morbid, tragic repercussions of jealousy through his tragedy, "Othello" - but something there runs deeper than jealousy. Whereas Othello’s romantic jealousy is the driving force that compelled him to take actions that led to his moral deterioration, it is Iago’s jealousy in the titular character’s superior authority and prestige that vitalizes the narrative as a tragedy - a jealousy that is covertly yet densely racially charged.

“The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Throughout the centuries after Shakespeare, anti-racist ideas slowly came into fruition, culminating in England into what became known as the Abolition movement. Seeking to abolish the laws legitimizing slave trade, its proponents fought valiantly to write and speak against the oppressive system, finding peace only when the acceptance of those once enslaved becomes the norm.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the most renowned abolitionist writers, sought this acceptance through "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's point," a poem that morbidly depicts the atrocities faced by a female African slave seeking refuge after freeing herself from an abusive master. After much contemplation, the slave, unnamed in the poem, decides to take the life of her illegitimate child from her master, and to take her own as a way of rebelling against her white oppressors. Browning's challenge in writing this poem: to establish that empathy can be attained between Whites and Blacks - between people.

“The Poisonous Mushroom,” by Ernst Hiemer

Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime: a prime example of institutionalized racism. One need not look further than the six million Jews that have passed because of their atrocious concentration camps. In their efforts to achieve a racialized version of Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch, they sought to consolidate their superiority, by way of imposing inferiority upon others. What birthed was anti-semitism in a nationwide scale. 

Various propaganda created and shown to plant the seeds of hatred, going so far as taking part even in creating children’s literature infected with anti-Semitic sentiments to indoctrinate the German youth - one of the most controversial products of such a mission being Ernst Hiemer’s “The Poisonous Mushroom." A series of short stories whose language is catered to children, it attempted to rouse the flame at an early age by an unapologetically prejudicial language against Jews. Hiemer's work, among many others, serves one to thought: does the presence of superiority always necessitate inferiority?

“Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” by Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was one of the foremost philosophers of anthropology, envisioning a society that bears witness to the most advanced and unified that humanity can achieve. To laymen, or to those who are yet to read Kant's rich library of works, they would envision Kant's society to maintain respect and dignity to all mankind, without prejudice and without partiality - they will be met with disappointment

As a product of his time, Kant himself was surrounded by a society that functioned with slavery as a commodity. Consequentially, it infected his works with the dangerous assumption of a taxonomic hierachy of humanity that, though meant well, would strongly intensify the already existing racial prejudice of his time - an intellectual affirming slavery. Through many of his works, his "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" could have consolidated that assumption under the guise of an ultimately humanitarian goal: racism is humanity.

“Aborigines,”  by Anton Chekhov

Racism is rooted in power. This is a precept that can be observed throughout numerous instances in history, its most prominent manifestations being the horrendous slave trade and racial segregation. Is racism a fact? Undeniably. Is racism natural? Russian short story writer Anton Chekhov says otherwise.

His short story "Aborigines" is one that is rooted in resounding lethargy and stagnation. Following the prejudicial banter shared between Ivan Lyashkevsky and Franz Stepanitch Finks, the story finds its motion not in movement but in ideas. Lyashkevsky's anger towards the natives of the land where he retires latches itself upon Finks like a sickness. Chekhov depicted racism in a subtle yet profound way: racism is a disease.

“The Moor of Peter the Great,” by Alexander Pushkin

To say that racism and exoticism each fall on opposite sides of a spectrum is an intuitive judgment. Down to its core, however, racism is never just about power putting a group of people below another. In the end, racism is abused power - altitude is often an indication, more subtly a facade.

In his "The Moor of Peter the Great," Russian writer Alexander Pushkin depicted the atrocities of racism in a very unconventional fashion. Instead of whips and chains, Ibrahim, the moor, is placed in a symbolic pillory: put up for display, for all to see and to wonder at such magnificence. But a pillory is no throne; there is no glory found here, but a very subtle oppression and subjugation that live under the guise of praise and pride. 

Many authors and works depict much of the racial prejudice throughout the years of European literature.

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