How to Handle Racist Attitudes in Literature Part 1

Hello Everyone. How are you all this week? I’m very excited to say that last week’s blog did exceptionally well. It was the most visited blog to date, and that makes me very happy. I’m always delighted to share some writing tips and my opinions concerning writing, with you all. Today, in that similar vein, I want to begin a two part series (those of you who read last week’s blog are chuckling) on racist attitudes in literature. This week, I will write about the understandings of previous authors, and next week, I’ll deal with how contemporary writers should handle the subject. So, without further fanfare, let’s go.

Through our academic years, we all no doubt read the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Jack London and Joseph Conrad, to name a few. They are the cornerstones of literature, and their works are imortalized in various printed editions and on the silver screen. For many readers and authors today, they are the inspiration that propels them forward, their words forming some of the fabric of their being. But, writers of earlier periods were often a product of their culture, and with that culture came racial insensitivities that we as a society no longer tolerate. So, how do we handle the attitudes of these writers?

I have often asked myself this question, wondering just what I should do with two of my favorite authors, Edgar A. Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Both are macabre authors, and both are considered geniuses in their field. Both, however, have exhibted racial attitudes that can be alarming. Poe, for starters, will use common vernacular to describe the few appearances of African Americans in his works. Given the often existential nature of his writings, and the restrained amount of characters present in the writing, his use of such terminology does not appear frequently. Lovecraft, however, displays racially derogatory attitudes in most of his writings. He is insensitive to both African Americans, immigrants and, well, anyone of any socially or economically lower class. What must be understood is that both men were writing nearly 100 years ago (Poe died in 1849 and Lovecraft in 1937). Both had prolific careers spanning decades. Both were writing when customs and ideas on race relations were much different. That is key to understanding racism in literature; it is a product of its time.

It is very easy today for contemporary citizens to disregard the works of Faulkner, Twain and others because they use the ‘n’ word, or portray some of their characters in a less than desirable light. Were these men racist? Maybe. Were they products of their time? Most certainly. That must be remembered, that these men grew up in a certain time and place, and their writings are time capsules of that era. To read Poe or Twain is to see through a window into a world long past, a world not always perfect, but a world from which we all come. Their time and place is necessarily ours as well, since through that time we pass, the long march of history plodding on forever.

We cannot condone their attitudes, and we cannot condemn them, either. Ridding our contemporary mindsets of these great authors is only harming ourselves, as we are severing our own minds from our corporate history. Turning a blind eye to their faults is not acceptible, either. We must boldly face our past, as represented by the works we read, to better understand our future. We must see the stories for what they are, pieces of the fabric of time. Each story is a narrative of a moment in human history; they might not always be wonderful, but in their bleakness, we see our own progress, and how far we have yet to travel.

With that, I say, read Poe and Faulkner, but remember you do not have to agree with them, and you do not have to mirror their conception of the world. It is up to us to make sense of the situation, seeing beyond the literary mistakes to the essence of the human experience.

I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. Next week, I’ll share how we as writers can handle the issue of racism in our works. As always, thanks for reading.

If you have not already, please check out my debut novel, Autumn Leaves, a novel about one couple’s journey into the dark world of domestic abuse.





About Robert Oliver

I am a writer living and working in Florida.
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