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Black and white: Rita Christian

Twentieth-century fiction in America, Europe, Africa, and Asia has all been much concerned with racial themes and issues, from Camus to Ralph Ellison, from Primo Levi to Alice Walker. This essay takes a specific area of fiction dealing with such themes, and looks at some favourite examples.

Caribbean and African-American writers of fiction have always been preoccupied with racial themes. This, I believe, is due to their similar histories of enslavement and colonization. In the Caribbean the variety of races thrown together has created a melting-pot, and Caribbean writers often tend to focus on racial prejudice and colour hierarchies; while many African-American writers tend to examine the link between race and economics. Because African-Americans have been subject to some of the worst forms of political, social, and educational deprivation as well as grinding poverty, these experiences are often manifested in their fiction. The writer has, more often than not, lived the experience.

My first recommendation is James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man (1912). Johnson's novel tells the story of a light-skinned African-American who, until one of his teachers refers to him as a ‘nigger’, believes he is white. Despite this, he grows up to discover pride in his African origins, race, and colour. However, the story takes an interesting turn when the narrator-protagonist decides to pass himself off as a white businessman because of his ‘Italian like appearance’ which gives him entry into the white man's world. At the end of the novel, he freely admits to having ‘sold his birthright for a mess of potage’, by choosing an easier life which would otherwise have been fraught with racial hatred and prejudice in America in the early part of this century.

Race and racial conflict is ever present in the novels of Edgar Mittelholzer, the Guyanese writer who is hailed as a pioneer of the modern Caribbean novel. Mittelholzer's ancestry was both Teutonic and African and he was to carry a sense of inferiority because of his African ancestry all his life. A number of Mittelholzer's characters seem to be imbued with his own ideas of good and evil: the evil which he was convinced stemmed from contamination due to racial mixing. This conflict is reflected in his writing where white is represented as good and black as evil. Corentyne Thunder (1941), his first novel, is set in the Corentyne region of Guyana. It is the story of an Indian family. Here we are presented with the racial stereotype of the Indian in the Caribbean: miserly penny-pinching Ramgolal, who waters down the milk before selling it. He eats badly, walks around in rags and keeps his children short of money. The notion of good and evil is manifested in his grandson, Geoffrey, a brilliant young man whose father is English and whose mother is Ramgolal's daughter. In the character of Geoffrey, Mittelholzer demonstrates his own views on racial mixing, for one witnesses not only pragmatism inherited from his European father, but also his peasant sensibility from his Indian mother's side.

Mittelholzer's A Swarthy Boy (1963) is an autobiographical novel, focusing on a young boy growing up in colonial British Guyana where colour determined one's social class. The novel charts Mittleholzer's formative years during which he suffered dreadfully because of his ‘swarthy’ complexion. The fact that he was dark-skinned compared to his sibling and was constantly reminded of this by his relatives contributed greatly to his own fragmented inner self. This ever-present conflict within Mittelholzer probably contributed to his suicide in later life.

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) examines racial issues in a sensitive and poignant way. It tells the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove. Set in Ohio in the 1940s, The Bluest Eye looks at the structure of American society where blacks are at the bottom of the economic ladder and where poverty is synonymous with colour. Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl, prays every night to have blue eyes like the little white girls of her neighbourhood. If she were white her mother would love her as she does the white children that she cares for. Morrison's novel leads us into a nightmarish world of the black underclass of American society.

This is also true of Richard Wright's Native Son. It was first published in 1940 and gained the author almost instant notoriety. Wright depicts his protagonist, Bigger, as a young man brought up in the ghetto who harbours an almost obsessive hatred of whites, and who is very much the product of a brutal and racist society. He portrays Bigger as the stereotypical young ‘nigger’ whose killing of a white woman can only be perceived as sexually motivated. A novel as dramatic as it is disturbing, but well worth reading.

Black Shack Alley (1950) is an autobiographical novel set in Martinique in the 1930s. Joseph Zobel aptly shows through the eyes of young Jose, the protagonist, the startling divisions between the rich plantation owning bekes (the local whites) and the overwhelming masses of poor blacks who work on the plantation for a pittance. Jose grows up with an increasing awareness of the realities of life for blacks in a French colonial society.

Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (1956) is a humorous novel, dealing with post-war migration to Britain mainly from the English-speaking Caribbean. The reader will enjoy ‘hanging out’ with Galahad in Bayswater and ‘liming’ with the boys and Moses in his room on a Sunday morning. Despite the lighthearted camaraderie and apparent easy-going lifestyle of the characters, the harsh realities of everyday life in London are also vividly highlighted. As they all try to make ends meet, cope with racism and appalling job prospects, and battle with the unfamiliar English weather, each episode in this realistic novel is brought strikingly to life by Selvon's clever use of language.

My next recommendation takes us back to the Caribbean, this time to Belize. Zee Edgell's novel, Beka Lamb (1982), is the story of the coming of age of the young heroine, Beka, whose development into womanhood is set within the context of Belize's struggle for independence. Edgell's novel looks at the changing political situation in a small colony where education offers the black Belizean students an alternative to domesticity. Education, on the other hand, also means embracing European values and lifestyles. Beka's convent education forces her to adapt and conform to the standards of a culture which conflicts with her own local creole culture. Edgell also shows the tragic results associated with attempts to cross the race barrier, in a black girl's relationship with Emilio, a young man of Spanish origins.

Set both in Haiti and New York, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) is the first novel by Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat which focuses on the relationship between three generations of Haitian women. We also get a glimpse of life under the brutal Duvalier regime. Migration to New York is perceived as an opportunity for a better life; however, this poses its own problems of racial prejudice and harassment as all Haitian migrants are treated with suspicion and blamed for spreading AIDS.

For another novel which gives a different perspective on race, I suggest Danticat's most recent novel, The Farming of Bones (1997). Sensitively and movingly written, it is a demonstration of racial prejudice against Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. Based on historical events both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic—two countries sharing the same land mass divided by a border—it deals with the massacre of Haitian labourers by Dominican troops in 1937. Because of their lighter skin many Dominicans tend to view their darker-skinned Haitian neighbours as inferior. The novel examines the persecution of a group of people, and it particularly shows how racial prejudice affects the lives of Amabelle, a young Haitian maid, and her lover Sebastian who has also come to the Dominican Republic from Haiti to work in the canefields. The author examines the existence of a people who are persecuted simply for being Haitian but who are willing to work hard doing menial jobs in a country where they are not really welcome. But it is Danticat's writing that gives the novel its appeal.

My next recommendation, In Another Place, Not Here (1996), is Dionne Brand's first novel and is set both in Canada and the Caribbean. As a Caribbean woman writer exiled in Canada, Brand's novel examines issues of racial oppression and the struggle for equality in Canada as well as the fight against exploitation of the working class in the Caribbean. Brand highlights problems of sexism and racism which affect black people, in particular, black women in Canadian society.

We return to Guyana in the 1970s to examine racial tension between the African-Guyanese population and the Indo-Guyanese in Oonya Kempadoo's novel, Buxton Spice (1998). This is a novel about growing up in Guyana and is set against the backdrop of a country in decline and undergoing severe political and economic changes. It also examines the racial tension between the two most prominent racial groups in Guyana.


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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction