Themes in Literature

Literary Race

Literary Race

The theme of race has been and continues to be hotly debated in the modern world. Questions of whether race is a biologically determined grouping of characteristics or whether it is merely a socially constructed means of classifying and dividing people are still asked in every field imaginable, including science, legal studies, politics, and literature. Even defining the term race is a complicated and sensitive task, particularly since race has been a justification for suppressing and oppressing large groups of people across the globe and throughout history. Two main schools of thought exist regarding the definition of race, and importantly, both developed in the modern era. One belief asserts that race is a genetically determined factor that influences external and internal characteristics, such as skin color, features, and predispositions to illnesses. The other philosophy contends that race is a socially constructed characteristic, arbitrary and hurtful in its exclusionary application. Whichever school one believes, and many scholars and critics acknowledge some truth in both, the use of race as a characteristic to divide groups of people and to control or eliminate them is the central problem bound up in the theme of race.

The concept is instantly polarizing— whether or not one believes race is a significant biological issue, it is clear that as humans we tend to separate according to race. In some cases it is selfseparation, while in others it is forced separation. In their introduction to Theories of Race and Racism, John Solomos and Les Back suggest that while race is still a primary theme in our daily lives, it has shifted somewhat in focus all over the world. Throughout the years leading up to and including the 20th century, institutionalized racism—slavery, disenfranchisement, lynchings—was the primary way in which racism was expressed, but according to Solomos and Back, “in recent times questions about race and racism have been refashioned in ways that emphasize cultural difference” (4). This move toward seeing a larger, more globalized picture of race and racism coincided with the end of colonialism and the creation of postcolonial literary criticism. Scholars who focus on the theme of race and related issues in postcolonial studies analyze literature from the perspective of the underprivileged, the suppressed, and minority characters and people. Thus, race becomes an underlying—or, in many cases, overarching—theme in works that may not include minority characters or “colonial” locales. For example, race becomes an unsettling theme in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the Eastern European “other” makes his way to England and engages in a process some have called “reverse colonization,” by taking victims and making them into vampires like himself. In countries that were former colonies of imperial powers, literature addressed the issues of race that surrounded independence movements and the winning of autonomy by nations such as India, Pakistan, and the Philippines, to name just a few. In literature, race often takes on characteristics of being divisive or oppositional. Frequently, stories involving themes of race involve “clashes” or struggles between white groups and minority, or “native” groups. Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “the white man’s burden” in his poem of the same name, in 1899. The phrase, at the time a description of the stated motivations of colonial behavior, has come to also refer to white support for minority individuals and the “civilizing” effect it is purported to have on native peoples. In addition to postcolonial politics, race has been a recurring theme in literature, most pointedly beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An early novel to deal with the issues and effects of race was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a story about slavery in the United States. While Stowe’s novel has endured its fair share of criticism and close study, the author always maintained that she wanted to engage readers’ sympathies and change their minds about slavery.

Certainly, novels and other literary works that featured black characters or were written by black authors gained prominence before Stowe’s work—from the English writer Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave to the former American slave Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry, both of which were written in the 18th century. Mark Twain’s famous novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn features an African- American character named Jim who escapes slavery himself. From the 20th century onward, race moved to the forefront of politics, especially in the United States, where institutionalized racism was the law of the land until the late 1960s. In 1903, the African- American writer W. E. B. DuBois suggested that the biggest problem of the 20th century would be the problem of race. As the 20th century progressed, race became a key theme for writers, especially writers of color. In 1940, the African-American author Richard Wright published Native Son, the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who, largely on the basis of his race, gets caught up in poverty, violence, and judicial mistreatment. All the actions Bigger takes are directly related to or motivated by race in some way. He comes into his first job because his employer wishes to help African Americans improve their lives. He accidentally smothers Mary Dalton to prevent her blind mother from noticing Bigger in Mary’s bedroom late at night. Fearful of the punishment he might receive as a black man who murdered a white woman, Bigger tries to dispose of the body in the family furnace, and his situation continues to worsen.

Native Son graphically represents the deep divide between white America and black America while illustrating how pervasive the theme of race is in our lives. For Bigger, it is inescapable in the mazes—literally and figuratively—of Chicago. Race and the divide we allow it to create are not merely an American invention, however. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, white missionaries arrive in Nigeria and begin to set up a new religion, law, and justice among the Umuofia clan. What results is a confusing and violent clash between cultures, with the white colonists taking power by force and manipulation in order to “civilize” the native Africans. Unlike Native Son, which portrays the youth of color as one against overwhelming forces beyond his control, Things Fall Apart is about invasion from without:An entire society crumbles in the face of the violent threat of colonialism. The race of the colonizers becomes important to the story because it is their version of law and order that ultimately controls the African village and forces the villagers to cooperate. Okonkwo is unable to reconcile the two clashing ideologies—he does not want to be punished for his crimes by white men from another continent. Thus, race becomes a basis for the threatening relationship between interloper and native. As the 20th century progressed, race pride and power became a dynamic facet in literature, building on progressive political movements around the world. In the United States in particular, the progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s were key for a new wave of race pride. In the poetry and drama of Amiri Baraka, for example, the theme of race becomes a source of strength and power for African Americans. In Baraka’s play Dutchman, a white woman and a black man enter into a verbal sparring match over racial difference that ends with the woman’s murder of the man. Race is figured in Dutchman as an insurmountable barrier, a theme as old as time itself. While Dutchman examines race relations in the supposedly free and equal American society of the late 1960s, Athol Fugard’s play Master Harold and the Boys takes apartheid-era South Africa for its setting for exploring the theme of race.

The play centers on the young Master Harold, a white South African teenager who discusses life, love, literature, and history with his family’s two black servants, Sam and Willie. Sam and Harold have an equal footing—a long relationship that goes back to Harold’s childhood, in which Sam often stood in for Harold’s own father. The two are so familiar with one another that Sam calls Harold by the nickname “Hally.” However, the relationship sours over the course of the play, until Harold insults Sam and tells him to only address him as Master Harold from then on. The heretofore amicable relationship crumbles in the face of authority, represented by the return of Harold’s father, and the racial schism created through apartheid is reestablished—even though the characters had earlier proven it to be a false schism. Literary considerations of race continue to challenge, inform, and surprise, even as the Internet age continues to decrease the separation among people of all racial backgrounds. Race, whether as a source of pride, strength, pain, or sadness, will remain a dynamic element in literature. The debates over race as social construct versus race as biological feature may never be settled, but literary explorations can help readers understand their own place in the debate as well as others’ positions. Indeed, literature will undoubtedly provide entirely new perspectives as time goes on—perspectives that may change everything we understand about race today.

See also Angelou, Maya: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Chestnutt, Charles W.: “Goophered Grapevine, The”; Coetzee, J. M.: Waiting for the Barbarians; Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness; Douglass, Frederick: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; DuBois: W. E. B.: Souls of Black Folk, The; Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man; Faulkner, William: Light in August; Gaines, Ernest J.: Lesson Before Dying, A; Gordimer, Nadine: Burger’s Daughter; Hansberry, Lorraine: Raisin in the Sun, A; Hughes, Langston: poems; Jacobs, Harriet: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself; Jefferson, Thomas: Notes on the State of Virginia; Kingston, Maxine Hong: Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book; Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird; Melville, Herman: Moby-Dick; Morrison, Toni: Bluest Eye, The; Song of Solomon; Sula; Tar Baby; Marshall, Paule: Brown Girl, Brownstones; Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country; Shakespeare, William: Merchant of Venice, The; Othello; Tempest, The; Toomer, Jean: Cane; Wright, Richard: Black Boy. FURTHER READING Carby, Hazel. Race Men. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Hooks, Bell. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: H. Holt and Co., 1995. Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” McClure’s Magazine 12 (February 1899). Solomos, John, and Les Black, eds. Theories of Race and Racism. New York: Routledge, 2000. Sharyn Emery

4 thoughts on “Literary Race

  1. I’m in a Literary Anthology in January 2013 w/other writers….then my new essays/sex manual “Feminists Need Dick Too” in …

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.