Race in Literature

Literature is influenced by social phenomena and movements in a given historical period. Race and race relations have been significant social and political issues for centuries, and literature abounds in topics based on race.

As slavery is part of American history, it also takes an important place in American literature. Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is a bright example of the reflection of both overt and subtle racism in literature. Written after the Civil War but set in the pre-war period, the novel tells the adventures of 13-year-old Huck Finn who escapes home together with slave Jim. Twain uses irony and satire to ridicule the social norms of the South and to demonstrate how slavery might transform into institutional racism after the war. After its publication the novel raised criticism due to its unrefined language and the use of words such as "nigger".

Race is also a central topic in Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Both novels deal with race-based accusation for a crime. The allegation of a black man attacking a white woman is one of the most racially marked social issues in the American history. Both Bigger Thomas's murder of Mary Dalton in Native Son and Tom Robinson's alleged rape of Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird result in guilty verdicts, emphasizing the racial prejudices and the race-based social injustices at the time.

Jose Antonio Villarreal's Pocho (1959) and Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1984) deal with racial issues from the Mexican American point of view. Both Juan Rubio in Pocho and Esperanza Cordero in The House on Mango Street are writers who confronted racial oppression and prejudice at a young age. Juan and Esperanza struggle against social pressure aiming to make them feel inferior. The characters face overt racism in school and in the neighborhood, while institutional racism is represented by the internal borders people confine themselves to.

Margaret Craven's I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1973) and Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977) in turn address race-related issues concerning Native Americans. The characters in both novels realize that sticking to their own culture is the best way to react to a dominant racist civilization. They choose to keep their connection with nature rather than embrace the so-called civilized world. The values and beliefs of the Native American culture helps the protagonists live in harmony and not feel inferior to Whites.

The Asian-American prospective is also presented in race-related topics of literature. Hyun Jin and Sookie in Nora Okja Keller's Fox Girl (2002) are forced to struggle against racist attitudes even in Korea because of their mixed race. The novel shows how American-influenced Koreans tend to apply racist stereotypes toward people with darker complections, while white complection is associated with American-like success. The protagonist of Arlene J. Chai's The Last Time I Saw Mother (1995) in turn has to struggle both with her identity as shaped by her biological and legal parents, and with the mixed blood of her own daughter.

Race-based conflicts between Italian Americans and Blacks are exposed in Rita Ciresi's Sometimes I Dream in Italian (2000). The novel deals with the forms of subtle racism against Italian Americans on the part of other whites.

Chaim Potok's The Chosen (1967) and Amy Wilentz's Martyrs' Crossing (2001) represent respectively the Jewish American and Jewish-Arabic point of view. The novels involve both racial and religious issues.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium
Michele Elam.
Stanford University Press, 2011
Playing the Races: Ethnic Caricature and American Literary Realism
Henry B. Wonham.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Race, Citizenship, and Law in American Literature
Gregg D. Crane.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Mulattas and Mestizas: Representing Mixed Identities in the Americas, 1850-2000
Suzanne Bost.
University of Georgia Press, 2003
Assessing What Was African American Literature?; or, the State of the Field in the New Millennium
Daniels, Melissa Asher; Laski, Gregory.
African American Review, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter 2011
Growing Up in the Margins: Asian American Children in the Literature of the New South
Cha, Frank.
Southern Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 2009
Transcending the 'Tragic Mulatto': The Intersection of Black and Indian Heritage in Contemporary Literature
Claire, Lindsey.
Ethnic Studies Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, April 3, 2003
The White Image in the Black Mind: A Study of African American Literature
Jane Davis.
Greenwood Press, 2000
The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature
Juda Bennett.
Peter Lang Publishing, 1996
South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature
Trudíer Harrís-Lopez.
University of Georgia Press, 2002
The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture
Jon Panish.
University Press of Mississippi, 1997
Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper
John Ernest.
University Press of Mississippi, 1995
Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker
Elliott Butler-Evans.
Temple University Press, 1989
Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic
Elisabeth Anne Leonard.
Greenwood Press, 1997
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