Racism in American Literature
Notions of illusory superiority, cultural differences, Social Darwinism, and the quest for prosperity all contributed to a prejudice which civilized society continues to battle to this day - racism.
To say that the 21st century novice reader shall be jarred by overt racism in American literature is anything but an exaggeration. Yes, racism is brimming even in classic American literature whose brilliance transcends generations and millennia, in striking contrast with the more subtle and intellectual racism in European literature. So how does one merge devoted love for literature and knowledge with dated, callous social values? The rash answer is to just regard these works as an affront to present-day morals. But to reach literature-instilled enlightenment, one must remain cognizant of the truth that racism in American literature, however shameful and inhumane to today’s reader, is a reflection of dominant attitude of the time and the author’s milieu. Most importantly, racism in American literature, especially in works that expose its evils, exhibits the authors’ uninhibited writing that allowed them to convert ugly but honest observations of the time into what society considers today as timeless artistry.
Literature, most of the time, is a vivid reflection of the time that borne it, the marriage of the author’s words to his moral inclination, exaggerations, and inadequacies. It serves as a lamp that unapologetically brings to light to everything it touches, the sole instrument that society has at its disposal to take a peek at the distant past whenever it so desires. The lamp metaphor coerces one to realise that through literature, any reflection of any time period can be both magnificent and horrendous, for literature stops at nothing to reveal the nuances of the human experience.
In the relatively young history of the United States, many of the lingering issues that still debilitate society today – hatred, violence, discrimination, and racism – have etched and still continually etch themselves in American literature. A thorough digestion racism in American literature yields an uncomfortable truth – it is as if time has stood still from many a century ago. Rampant racism continues to deprive most of the country’s inhabitants the American Dream its current leaders so hypocritically put on a pedestal. The American Dream is such that the American everyman has to be sound asleep to believe it, thanks to racism. Racism in American literature, from the country’s formative years up until the 21st century, is abundant. The otherwise positive discussion of racism in American literature more or less tacitly yields a paradigm on how racism can be eradicated, but odds are stacked high against it, unfortunately, due to willful misinformation and ignorance.
Central to an incisive discussion of racism in American literature is a keen examination of the dehumanizing enslavement of Africans for two and a half centuries. Slavery and its aftermath is the fulcrum upon which racism in American literature rests. Beginning in the 18th century, the following are landmark literary works from various points of view - of the enslaved, enslavers, abolitionists, and assimilationists:
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain
Set during the aftermath of the Civil War, it tells of initiation into adulthood amidst social challenges, including racism. Huckleberry Finn, an destitute lad confined to the fringes of society, finds himself searching for his own identity and niche, much like the United States during the time. In doing so, he meets a lifelong friend, a runaway slave named Jim who is also eager to prevail over bouts with racism in society to live a peaceful life.
With respect to racism in American literature, arguably no other work stirs more controversy than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It, however, behooves the 21st reader to first acquire appreciable degree of familiarity with its historical context to understand how racism is angled in the novel. The theme of racism in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is historically misunderstood.
"To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee
An act of unadulterated kindness puts a lawyer at odds with a society where hate and racism define the atmosphere, seen through the eyes of his young daughter. When racism in society is confronted by the nobility of humanity, tensions rise and lives are threatened, and a parent mourns the innocence of his child.
Harper Lee's masterpiece best serves as the timeless paradigm for racism in the United States, published at a time when the civil rights movement was just gathering steam. So timeless that when the discourse shifts to racism in American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird is the first work that comes to mind. Not surprising, considering that it is not only representative of racism in American literature; it is the undisputed amalgam of racism in American literature and American society.
“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” by Phyllis Wheatley
Racism was not only rife in the everyday lives of the English settlers, it was the way of life. Dehumanization of blacks was the norm. Stripped of every ounce of human dignity, no slave wanted any part of their white master’s ire, let alone society’s piercing stare. Phyllis Wheatley set the precedent for slaves desiring to record their tribulations.
Naturally, racism in American society preceded racism in American literature. So it is far from surprising that the reception of Phyllis Wheatley's work encapsulated the prevalence of egregious racism in literature, which is a supposedly sacrosanct domain. “Poems” was received with harsh, irrelevant criticism that focused on anything but merit. Racism in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is manifest in the content - as the poems reveal the sighs and whimpers of an uprooted, oppressed people. But more appalling is that racism is even more obvious in the events leading up to its publication, embodied by the outcry of disapproval of an educated populace against the author's skin color and supposed "barbarism," all because she was a slave.
“Notes on the State of Virginia" by Thomas Jefferson
In this frighteningly accurate portrait of the United States in its infantile years, Thomas Jefferson justifies racism and slavery as necessary evils due to the prevailing notion that blacks and other races are inferior to whites. Echoing the hateful tendencies of early white Americans, proving the existence of racism in American literature and society even before a distinct American identity was forged.
What does this say about early America? To say that it was founded by brilliant but flawed statesmen is an affront to the millions of degraded black slaves in Revolutionary America. America was founded on the courage, and lest history forget, the hypocrisy, of statesmen like Thomas Jefferson who looked the other way while penning "all men are created equal." Racism in Notes on the State of Virginia lies not only in the unsubstantiated abasement of blacks, but also the the vileness of proposals that would prolong their suffering under slavery.
“The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” by Frederick Douglass
Racism in American literature takes on a different turn for the better as dissent brews, paving the way for oppressed slaves to find a voice in Frederick Douglass, a slave who in painstaking fashion fought for his freedom. Racism in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is told from the perspective of a budding civil rights leader and abolitionist on the cusp of reclaiming his humanity for himself and all enslaved black folk.
Arguably one of the most instrumental works of the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass’s finest work details his birth into slavery, the child of a white slave owner father and mixed-race slave mother. Having witnessed the extent to which hate and racism in American society continually subjugated blacks, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass exposes an overlooked evil of slavery and racism in the United States during the Antebellum period – the obliteration of hope and self-worth amongst slaves, the final nail in the coffin of their dehumanization.
- Sample essay on racism in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe
As emotions rise and the quest to end slavery and racism in America simmers, Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by staunch abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, offers a glimpse into the inner recesses of the hearts of helpless slaves as they are forced to resign to their bitter fate - dispensable, and almost inanimate trading chips in a white slave-owing society.
Black slaves, while human, were treated like chattel and beasts of burden. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stoked the spirit of empathy of white society towards the plight of slaves. While routinely associated with racism in American literature due to its poignant antislavery content, recent times have witnessed the perversion of Tom's persona, the kindly, middle-aged slave. The illumination of slavery and racism in Uncle Tom's Cabin would prove to be the central dispute in the the US Civil War.
“The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government” by James Shepherd Pike
Should a rarely used word be required to describe the factors that proliferated racism in American literature and society in the years after the civil war, the word ought to be "intolerance." Intolerance accounts for why white society considered abominable a legislature comprised of noble freedmen. Freedmen whose only fault was that they were former slaves, virtually without a right to any semblance of dignity. With little glimpses of hope for blacks came the furor of racist white Americans. Morally upright white society was elated at the thought; racist society thought it best if blacks remained voiceless in legislation. Their solution? Fabricate stories and create racial stereotypes to convert feeble minds. Racism in The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government boils viciously.
An unfair and exaggerated account of the first black-majority legislature in American history, Pike’s work perfectly exemplifies prejudice and overt racism under the guise of journalism, from a skewed and purely solipsistic perspective.
- Sample essay on racism in The Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government by James Shepherd Pike
“Our Brother in Black: His Freedom and His Future” by Atticus Haygood
To think that hypocrisy played a central yet commensurate (equal parts with hate, intolerance, and inherent wickedness) part in racism in American history would be an understatement. The discourse surrounding racism in American literature and American society would not be complete without the mention of the cunning manner with which white slave owners used Christian dogma and faith to maintain control of their black slaves, to continually quell any telltale signs of rebellion - the height of hypocrisy.
With magnanimity and concern, Methodist minister Atticus Haygood enumerates his noble propositions for newly-enfranchised former slaves, all of which for their betterment and integration into society. The absence of one gesture, however, subverts the moral potency of the work and exposes the latent racism in Our Brother in Black: His Freedom and His Future.
"Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro" by Frederick Hoffman
When marginalized people go to ridiculous lengths just to scoop meager drops of justice from a racist society, can the situation get any worse? The answer is yes, especially when greed hijacks morality.
The work of a renowned statistician and man of science, “Race Traits” employed the use of scientific method to deliberately arrive at an unscientific conclusion. Although still regarded as having set a precedent in its field, it was eventually discovered to have employed bias against blacks, demonstrating the era’s zeitgeist. Hoffman’s work was a prime mover in institutional racism, a dishonorable example of how widespread racism in American society influenced the fortification of the Jim Crow laws that derailed the African American desire for equality. No matter how much Hoffman emphasizes his "neutrality," his betrayal of the principles of science and research just attests to his surrender to the era's attitude. There is no explicitly stated racism in Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro; it is the context surrounding the purpose of the work that was racist.