Friday, June 3, 2011

Discussion Post: Racism in books

There is a predicament that I seem to come back to time and time again when I read certain books or books by certain authors. Should I avoid books that contain racism? I don't mean books by authors like Toni Morrison which have racism in them to educate the reader and highlight the problem, but books that are racist for racist's sake?

I raise this because you may have noticed from my latest review that I've recently finished a collection of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, and Lovecraft is an author well known for being incredibly racist. For the most part, at least in the stories I read, there was very little overt racism but every now and then there'd be a sentence like this;

"a typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region, who corresponds exactly with the 'white trash' of the South", for whom 'laws and morals are nonexistant' and whose general mental status is probably below that of any other native American people." 

That is the single only racist line in the story (Beyond the Wall of Sleep) but it tainted the whole thing for me, at least to an extent (I still consider that story my favourite of the ones I listened to). I make myself feel better by reminding myself that he's a talented author with an amazing propensity for words, beloved by people I respect greatly (i.e. Stephen King) and supposedly realised the error of his racist ways towards the end of his life when he began to travel more. But then I worry that by recommending Lovecraft I am, in essence, absolving racism of it's harm and detriment if it at least delivers enjoyable books.

Last year during my 'Australian Fictions' class we discussed racism in books because it is a huge factor in early Australian literature. Many of the stories for children and adults alike featured horrible, racist representations of Indigenous Australians which today would never be published because the content is abhorrent. One such story was a favourite children's book of mine, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs. For the most part these were adorable picture books about little gumnut baby/fairy things that lived in the Australian bushland. It has recently been criticised for the Banksia men characters who are the villains of the tales and quite obviously depict certain characteristics that were used predominantly as negative connotations of the Indigenous Australians (their colour, nose, lips, evil nature etc). Did May Gibbs mean to be racist or was she purely drawing the characteristics that best suited the Banksia cones that were model for the character? Is it ok to be a little bit racist because at the time everyone was racist and it was expected?

There is a movement to eliminate these negative aspects of books so that they can be republished free of their racist undertones and freely enjoyed by a new generation of children/young adults. However there are opponents to this idea who say that eliminating those words eliminate the racism that was such a huge part of Australia's settlement and history, essentially absolving the authors of their racist behaviour. Which brings me back to my earlier point about Lovecraft, just because his work is a benchmark for early horror writing is it ok to background his racism, which for him was an extremely prevalent part of life?

To take it a step further, do you separate the (wo)man behind the book with the actual book itself? If a member of the Klu Klux Klan wrote a book that rivaled the works of Neil Gaiman, Charles Dickens, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King combined and contained no racist messages would you read it or would you ignore it on principle?

I'd love to hear your views on this topic.


  1. For me, it depends on when the book was written. Racism has never been okay, but it was looked at a lot differently.

    I hate the N word or any kind of racial slur. But, in Mark Twain's time, it was just part of everyday speech. While I think the word is still racist and ugly, I don't think Mark Twain's works should be changed because it's part of history.

    As far as the KKK question, I don't think I'd read it on principle. But, I guess I'd have to know what it's about.

    Great discussion post. Hard to answer.

  2. I know what you mean Jenni, it's such a difficult issue to answer. I think I agree with the people who say we shouldn't change books, like with Mark Twain, as you said it was part of everyday speech then, and if we removed that we'd be removing the overt and prominent racism that was once so common.



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