Race and Prejudice in American Literature

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Themes for Students: Race and Prejudice
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 18
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Race and Prejudice in American Literature


Is literature a mirror held up to nature, which can render the fullness of life, in all its goodness and evil? Or is literature a lamp that shines out to illuminate all it touches, rather than a mirror that merely reflects? Reading literature is simply a way of opening our eyes to the new, of seeing more, and so we should embrace both of these perspectives, the mirror and the lamp.

The mirror metaphor helps the reader see why the world reflected in literature is full of both ugliness and beauty; literature spares nothing in its hunger to reveal life just as it is. The lamp metaphor takes readers to the same place, shining a light on various aspects of human experience. Throughout the history of the United States, many of the most painful issues of the day—prejudice, discrimination, violence, exclusion—have found their way into the stories and accounts of American literature. In examining texts dealing with race and prejudice throughout the course of American history, readers can see what has changed, and sadly, what has not. Discrimination based on differences—skin color, religion, gender, and the like—continue to plague this country even today. If the mirror of literature reveals actions and perceptions, the lamp of literature shows the effects of these actions and perceptions, and thus it implicitly suggests what might be done to change them.

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From the Greek root ethnos (tribe, social group, community), ethnicity refers to one's primary cultural setting: for instance, black, Asian, white, Hispanic, or Jewish. American authors bring a wide range of ethnic backgrounds to the reader's consideration. Ignorance is often a major factor in promoting racial prejudice, but knowledge and understanding are powerful forces toward overcoming such surface differences based on the color of one's skin or the country of one's origin. Literature shows readers the world through someone else's eyes, and thus can broaden the experience and tolerance of strangers for strangers.

Writer Laurence Yep has experienced the effects of mainstream American prejudice toward Asian cultures. Yep attended school in Chinatown but lived in an African American neighborhood of San Francisco. This diverse exposure made him sensitive to racial difference in general, and to his own particular difference from mainstream America. His young-adult novel The Star Fisher (1991) deals with prejudice toward Chinese Americans in 1927 Clarksburg, West Virginia. Yep's historical perspective allows readers to see how racial prejudices have changed between the time in which the story is set, and the contemporary time in which it was written.

At the start of the novel, Joan Lee and her family have moved to Clarksburg, where her father sets up a laundry business. There are no other Chinese in the town, and the Lees feel isolated and lonely. Though the three children of the family acclimate fairly rapidly, the parents—as is so often the case among immigrants—remain torn between two cultures. As the intermediaries between two cultures, the children experience strife from both sides. It is only toward the end of the novel, during a pie social, that the family begins to gain some acceptance. That seemingly trivial social event proves to be the catalyst for a new racial sensitivity in the community, and afterward, the Lees' Chinese heritage no longer seems an impediment to living a happy life in Clarksburg.

A powerful firsthand account of a childhood awash in discrimination before World War II and during its early years is Maya Angelou's memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Angelou is a highly influential author, historian, playwright, and civil rights activist.

Her first full-length literary work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells the story of her early life through the end of high school. She and her brother are shuttled between the stability and security of life with their grandmother in the impoverished, segregated, and potentially violent South in the 1930s, to the material comfort but psychological and physical danger of life with their mother in St. Louis, to the empowerment of life in the relatively integrated world of World War II-era San Francisco. After a tragic and traumatic episode in the young girl's life, she meets Bertha Flowers, whom she describes as "the lady who threw me my first life line." She recalls this lesson from Mrs. Flowers:

Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That's good, but not enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.

Throughout her formative years, Maya (then known as Marguerite) relies on her intellect, determination, and family to build the strength and insight that will lead her to become a civil rights activist and United States Poet Laureate in later years.

Farewell to Manzanar (1973), by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, continues the theme of struggle and triumph. Jeanne Houston describes her family's experience as Japanese Americans living in California in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The consequences of that attack, for the Wakatsukis and many other Japanese American families, were dramatic and rapid. As suspicion and fear of Japanese increased, Executive Order 9066 required people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast to relocate to internment camps. The Wakatsukis were therefore transferred to the Manzanar internment camp in the California desert, where they lived confined for three years. Farewell to Manzanar traces the humiliation and psychological strain imposed by internment, told from the point of view of seven-year-old Jeanne, who witnessed firsthand how "[t]olerance had turned to distrust and irrational fear. The hundred-year-old tradition of anti-Orientalism on the west coast soon resurfaced, more vicious than ever." The memoir follows their return to their old life and the humiliation and confusion from the sanctioned racism that follow the author into adulthood.

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David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) also takes the reader to the world of Japanese American culture, this time a decade after World War II. Guterson's novel is set on San Pedro Island, off the coast of Washington State, in 1954, at a time when the lingering influence of wartime hostilities are still keenly felt. When a murder occurs on the small island, the latent racism of the community rises to condemn a man based on his ethnicity.

The novel opens on the trial of a fisherman, Kabuo, a member of the Japanese community on the island. He is charged with the murder of a fellow fisherman. The racially tense climate casts suspicion onto the Japanese fisherman, but justice demands more than suspicion. In addition to the main plotline of the murder and accusation, several developments greatly enrich Guterson's story, and make this book an inquiry into ethnic consciousness. Readers are introduced to a local newspaper man who had a love affair with the woman who became Kabuo's wife before the incarceration of the Japanese community during the war. Readers also meet the German wife of the dead fisherman, and are introduced to an irony: no one feels suspicious of this bigoted German, who in all social respects contrasts poorly with her Japanese fellow community members.

Alice Walker, renowned author of The Color Purple (1982), was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in literature. In her story "Everyday Use," a mother and her younger daughter, Maggie, await the visit from Dee, the older daughter, who has grown away from the family and become part of a more mainstream Americanized generation of blacks. Walker's short story examines how concepts of racial identity vary from generation to generation. Dee has become involved in the Black Consciousness movement, and has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, because, as she states, "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me." Her mother reminds her that she was named after her aunt Dicie, but Dee refuses to relent. She then begins to collect items from around the house—the butter churn, some quilts—items that the narrator and Maggie use every day, to use as display pieces: "I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table … and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher." Dee's misguided attempt to identify with her heritage turns her connection with her past into cold, unusable museum pieces. "Everyday Use" illustrates how older and younger African Americans can inhabit different worlds in a twentieth century that increasingly divides the pre-civil rights cultural world from the post-Martin Luther King world.

Like Houston and Walker, Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes reveals her experiences of life through the filters of her ethnicity and the self-identity that arises from it. Though America has always been a melting pot, and at its best has absorbed multiple racial energies, there has unofficially always been an underclass based on ethnicity—black, Native American, and until recently, Hispanic. However, as Cervantes illustrates in her poem "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War between Races" (1981), intellect has nothing to do with it. She argues, "Racism is not intellectual," and people are often unwilling to admit to modern issues of discrimination in the home of the free:

    Every day I am deluged with reminders
    that this is not
    my land
    and this is my land.
    I do not believe in the war between races
    but in this country
    there is war.

Sherman Alexie, born in Spokane, Washington, and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, has earned a place as one of the most distinguished Native American writers of the day. In his novel, Indian Killer (1996), he presents John Smith, a Native American of an unknown tribe living with his adoptive white parents. It is clearly with irony that Alexie names his protagonist John Smith, the same name as the English explorer associated with the first American settlement in Jamestown and the Indian princess Pocahontas. This man is a construction worker on a skyscraper, and at the same time, appropriately, a loner given to reflection on his heritage. In his mind, Smith imagines that by a single stroke of white murder, he might symbolically wipe out the whole history of oppression of Native Americans.

Having committed this symbolic murder, Smith goes on to systematic revenge against the white man, and the city of Seattle teems with racial tension and fear. In this thriller are diverse types who become drawn into the orbit of Page 6  |  Top of ArticleSmith's action. An Indian student activist, a white anthropologist student of Native American culture, an ex-cop who fancies himself a spokesman for the Indians, and a right-wing talk show host: all these and more demonstrate the multifaceted communal response to the Indian killer's actions. Like Guterson in Snow Falling on Cedars, Alexie uses a thriller to bring intense issues of American culture to the fore.

William Bell's Zack (1999) is an original and thought-provoking work of young adult fiction about a young man living in Toronto, the son of a white Jewish father and a black southern mother. Zack has never taken interest in his mother's background until, one day, he is rummaging through a box in the family attic. He finds there an old musket ball and a piece of interlocking iron circles; vestiges, he discovers through his research for a high school paper, of the possessions of Richard Pierpont, a black slave who made his way to Canada in 1812. With this discovery, Zack grows curious about his mother's family in Mississippi, and the side of his heritage he has never been interested in before. This curiosity leads Zack to travel to Mississippi and meet his maternal grandfather, a gentle old man who harbors unreserved hatred of whites. This man's voice is only one of many bigoted voices, both black and white, that Zack encounters on his trip to the U.S. South. Essentially the novel consists of Zack's learning experience, and it tells the truth about the reality of racial discrimination, but at the same time it also asserts the individual's ability to grow and understand.

The Native American, the Asian, the Chicano, and the African American components of American culture comprise precious contributions to the unique voice of this country. Unlike European countries, the United States has never been homogeneous, and thrives on diversities and the unprogrammed contributions of these diverse ethnic groups. From Maya Angelou to William Bell, these texts cry out for the rights of the individual, regardless of his or her race.


When European settlers first arrived in America, they brought with them an established social and cultural gender bias that cast women as second-class citizens. This subjugation of women was at that time nothing new, and has existed in almost every culture on the globe. However, as the newly formed nation of America grew, the role of women was constantly reexamined. While women long remained persecuted and limited in choice, movements toward equality and recognition began to spread. Women in the twentieth century finally earned the right to vote, and the right to make their voices heard.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) is set in colonial Boston of the mid-1600s, not long after the first arrival of the Puritans on the east coast of America. It is a story about the place of and expectations on women in a Puritan society, and the double standards that can ruin a woman and leave a man unscathed. The Puritan theocracy was in full sway at the time the novel was set, providing a claustrophobic religious atmosphere that lies behind the tragic events of the tale.

The story tells of a woman, Hester Prynne, who for understandable but "unacceptable" reasons has committed adultery with the local minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. As her punishment she must wear a scarlet "A" as an outward symbol of her adultery, publicly displayed across the bosom of her dress. Despite great pressure, Hester refuses to reveal her lover's identity. In fact, the town never seeks to condemn the man involved with Hester, and Dimmesdale never comes forward in her defense. She is left to bear the burden of the affair alone, with dignity and integrity intact despite her circumstances, as Dimmesdale lives silently with his guilt. Hawthorne masterfully illustrates the consequences of a soul-thwarting religious environment, in which hypocrisy, guilt, and jealousy consume people's lives. When Hester and Dimmesdale must part at the end of the novel, she asks him what he sees for their future. While she hopes that they might be together in the afterlife, as "surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!", the scarlet letter Dimmesdale wears on his conscience prevents him from thinking such: "The law was broke!—the sin here so awfully revealed—let these alone be in thy thoughts!"

In 1873, Louisa May Alcott published Work: A Story of Experience, in which she explores the limitations of her culture as they impinged on women's work possibilities. Alcott, author of Little Women, records her unhappy experiences as a domestic servant. She is acutely sensitive to inequalities in labor practices toward women, actions that would Page 7  |  Top of Articleconsidered sexual harassment today, and conflicting atmospheres between men and women that hinder the process of organized work. Like Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth, Alcott sees labor on all levels as essentially valuable and honorable, and insists on an appropriate setting for women in the workplace. Work: A Story of Experience was written in a time when, by and large, women did not work outside of the home, and if they did, it was in "feminine" occupations such as nursing and teaching. However, as the end of the nineteenth century neared and attitudes toward women in the workplace were shifting, Alcott became an important voice for increasing women's rights.

Just over twenty-five years later, Kate Chopin published The Awakening (1899), which combines elements found in both The Scarlet Letter and Work: A Story of Experience about the changing world of women with regard to sex, independence, and a life outside the home. The book caused profound shock across the country, with many readers and critics calling it vulgar and inappropriate, as the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, broke every social convention expected of polite, well-mannered women.

Over the course of a summer at Grand Isle, a retreat for the wealthy off the coast of Louisiana, Edna falls in love with Robert Lebrun and begins an "awakening" as to how she wants to live her life. As she allows herself to entertain forbidden thoughts—admitting that she is not a "mother-woman," that she does not really love her husband, and that she is entitled to a life of her own choosing—she feels a "certain light … beginning to dawn dimly within her," and she begins to "realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her." Now fully awake to the world and its possibilities around her, she cannot return to her old life. Turn-of-the-century New Orleans, however, only allows for women to be mothers and wives, or lonely spinsters. Her society is not ready for a woman like Edna, and she is shunned and whispered about. In a final act of self-possession, proving that she does not belong to her children or her husband or even the limited society of New Orleans, Edna ventures into the ocean alone, to "wander in abysses of solitude."

Both Alcott and Chopin write of women and women's issues as they are embedded in an immediate social context, whereas Hawthorne, writing a half century earlier, deals with "the woman issue" of his day on a relatively abstract and moral level. The link between Hester Prynne in the seventeenth century and Edna Pontellier in the nineteenth century is interesting, however; though over two hundred years have passed between each woman's story, both are punished and ostracized for their sexuality and conduct because they are women. Neither of the men in these stories is subject to any such scrutiny.

Like The Awakening, Willa Cather's O Pioneers! (1913) is concerned with the issues of women's inner development. O Pioneers! introduces the Bergsons, a hardy family of American settlers who are faced with making a living on the austere plains of Nebraska, where even today one can find the occasional sod house that recalls the rough living conditions of yesteryear.

Many of the settler families move off the plains to easier living but less productive soil; however, Alexandra Bergson, who inherits her father's farm after his death, decides to remain there with her mother and three brothers. Through her hard work and determination, the farm eventually becomes a success. The novel focuses on Alexandra, as she gains peace of mind with the relative success of the farm, and is then beset by problems. The life of a female farm owner among male farmers is very difficult, and many doubt Alexandra's abilities to make decisions on her own. But the farm makes her happy, and she is determined, like Edna in The Awakening, to be fulfilled on her own terms, and like Alcott, she struggles against preconceived notions of what a woman can and cannot do. Cather writes, "The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman."

The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan, was one of the seminal texts of the later twentieth-century feminist movement. By the time of this text, more than a half century has passed since the works of Chopin and Cather. Women had the right to vote since 1920, and two world wars had brought women into the workplace in droves. The new birth control pill enabled women to separate their sexual identities from their reproductive destinies. Though domesticity and traditional female social roles remain prized, in the 1960s a liberation movement took place and questioned those roles and expectations, changing the position of women in America forever.

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A Japanese American family with their belongings waiting for internment A Japanese American family with their belongings waiting for internment National Archives and Records Administration

In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan sympathizes with women in roles that require them to be financially, intellectually, and emotionally dependent upon their husbands. Her careful analysis tracks this state of affairs in her own moment, to the cultural psychology of middle-class suburban America after World War II. Men returned from the war wanting mothering from their wives. Women, who had been a presence in the wartime workplace, returned home to the responsibilities of caretaking and homemaking. At the same time, there was a revolution in technology that confused the older conceptions of women's housekeeping roles. Thanks to frozen dinners, premade mixes, washing machines, and dryers, housework was no longer the all-consuming chore it had been. Women were at last free to do something personal with their lives. The Feminine Mystique examines the limited and stifling place that society has made for women, and how social conventions have long subjugated women in detrimental ways.

Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, is a dominant voice in examining the experience of African American women in a largely white culture. In her novel Sula (1973), Morrison devises a provocative and profound plot that seems to apply some of Friedan's concepts about society's influence on women. Two friends take different paths in life in their hometown of Medallion, Ohio. Nel remains at home, leading a conventional womanly life, while Sula takes off for the big city. She goes to college, spends time with men, and generally tests the bounds of her place in the world, as it was defined for her in 1920s America. Page 9  |  Top of ArticleWhen Sula returns to Medallion, she and Nel have great trouble restoring their original closeness. This important detail clearly illustrates Morrison's subtle way of working through the issue of African American women's freedoms, both in relation to society as a whole and in relation to each other as women: "Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be." Like Alcott, Cather, and Chopin, Morrison is concerned with women and their human development; unlike the other three, however, Morrison sets the problem in the context of race, with its discriminatory aspects, a factor that greatly complicates the women's freedom issue.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is a dystopian tale of a future nation where women's sole functions are reproduction and domestic labor. Due to the ravages of pesticides, nuclear radiation, and pollution, most of the women in Gilead have become infertile. The few women who are fertile are transferred to camps and trained to be handmaidens, and as such they give birth to the upper-class citizens. Infertile women from the lower classes are "Marthas," who serve as house help. Women are not allowed sexual freedom, as they are today; they are allowed to engage in sex only for the purpose of reproduction. The women in Atwood's novel are slaves who live in a world of limited freedoms much more reminiscent of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter than The Awakening or The Feminine Mystique.

The central figure of the novel is Offred, whose name means literally "of Fred"—women's identity only exists in terms of the males who own them. In a complex set of plot turns, Offred is assigned to a general and his wife to give them an heir. At first the general's wife is too jealous to permit the process, but ultimately she arranges for Offred to sleep with her chauffeur in order to become pregnant and give her a child. Satire, eroticism, and a lightning fast plot establish a complex portrait of the future, and about the place of women in it. In terms of the place of women in society, Atwood's imaginary future cautions about the possibility of a regressed society that considers women as possessions, not individuals.

From Hawthorne to Atwood, these books revolve around issues of gender, identity, and freedom. They show not only how American society has viewed women over the centuries, but also how women view themselves and each other. In the literature of race and prejudice, the topic of gender discrimination crosses all ethnic and cultural lines, as women of every background struggle to define, fulfill, and rejoice in their roles in life.


Prejudice can hinge on religion in many different ways. In some cases, religious beliefs can become a tool of intolerance and discrimination against other people's values. At the same time, religious followers themselves can become the victims of prejudice and shunned by mainstream society. Religious wars can pit one vast institution against another, and in a country like the United States, that prides itself on religious freedom and tolerance, religion can be a powerful tool for both uniting and dividing.

Cotton Mather's Decennium Luctuosum (Gloomy Decade) (1699) springs from a cultural context that is difficult for modern readers to understand. It is worthwhile to reach back into that world using literature as a lamp, for it challenges readers to rethink the contemporary world. Mather's essay is concerned with the Puritan settlers' war against the Indians, and he establishes a stern polarity between the two forces. The battle between Christian good (the settlers) and pagan evil (Native Americans) is at stake here, in a battle not only military, but a battle fought on the spiritual level as well. Mather's view sharply highlights the character of contemporary society, where is it often the case—as it was in Mather's time—that people of different beliefs are assumed to be evil, and therefore must be controlled.

Set during the same time is Arthur Miller's play The Crucible (1953), which focuses on the witchcraft trials of seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. This play was written during the period of Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings into anti-American and Communist activities. In fact, McCarthy's own inquiry methods resembled those of some of the Salem Puritans: innuendo, rumor, hearsay, false allegation, the stirring of public alarm.

The events Miller portrays in this play have their origins in late seventeenth-century Puritan texts, like those of Cotton Mather. Early in the play, an African slave from the Caribbean and Page 10  |  Top of Articleseveral young girls are found dancing around a cauldron in the woods. Onlookers suspect them of a witchcraft rite; one of the young girls, Mary Warren, worries, "the whole country's talkin' witchcraft! They'll be callin' us witches." The rumor turns into a full-blown investigation, charges circulate, and a whole circle of rumor-accused "witches" is found guilty and hanged. This is the same world of irrational mass judgment that pinned the "A" on the bosom of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. As Miller notes in act 1, the religious hysteria justified otherwise taboo actions, as the witch hunt was a "long overdue opportunity for everyone so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victims."

Religious persecution did not end with the Puritans or even with the forming of the American democracy. It persists to this very day. In "David's Star" (1999), a short story for young adults by Jacqueline Dembar Greene, readers learn of the pride and distress that young Jewish people can experience in contemporary culture. The distress often lies in a painful dilemma: whether to announce one's Jewishness, and be open about it—and possibly vulnerable—or to hide it, and remain secure. In "David's Star," the protagonist chooses to keep her religious identity quiet, until her boss's blatant anti-Semitism forces her into action. The star referred to in the title of the story is the hexagram often used to symbolize Judaism, similar to the Christian cross. For the protagonist, religious expression wins out, for it is an intense facet of her personality. The central dilemma in the story, and in everyday life in general, is how to balance respect for one's own religious beliefs and respect for those that differ.

John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003) examines the Mormon fundamentalism that leads to violence and murder in the real life case of the Lafferty brothers in 1984. Historically, Mormons have been largely shunned by mainstream America for their practice of polygamy (now abandoned), secretive rituals, and clannish tendencies. To radical Mormon Fundamentalists, the abandonment of polygamy one hundred years ago was indicative of the church's straying from its founding mandate. With this departure, discrimination arose within a church that was itself more or less discriminated against by the mainstream: those who believed in following the original mandates of plural marriage against those who no longer practice it. Fundamentalist sects exist throughout North America, and live on the fringes of society; as Krakauer notes, "leaders of the mainstream church are extremely discomfited by these legions of polygamous brethren." It was within one of those sects that the Lafferty brothers, believing to hear God's voice, murdered their sister-in-law and her toddler child in 1984.

Crossing Over: One Woman's Exodus from Amish Life (2001) tells the tale of Ruth Irene Garrett, who was imprisoned within the strictures of the Amish environment as tightly as any ethnic, sexual, or dysfunctional fetters could hold her. In a traditional Old Order Amish family—there are some one hundred and fifty Old Order Amish communities scattered through North America—the father wields great dominance, the women are submissive, and the entire outside world is viewed with suspicion. In fact, the greatest sin in this culture is to abandon one's home setting. The penalty for such abandonment is that one is banned, or shunned, according to the dictate that henceforth such an exiled person is not to have communication with any Amish person. It is a wholly insular world, such as that depicted in Krauker's Under the Banner of Heaven.

This ban carries a painful consequence for Garrett. Her need for freedom and her natural passion lead her away from her Amish home. After marrying a non-Amish man, she is shunned, and pays a heavy price in broken relationships. Her father and the community are merciless, though her mother's natural love provides some space for communication and compromise. Religious doctrine clings like a tight noose around Garrett's neck. From the standpoint of the Amish head of a family, his religious belief system is not one arbitrary choice among many; it is the only right choice, with no room left for compromise.

Religious prejudice can lead people to oppress others as easily as it can lead them to be oppressed themselves. In a paradigm that readily casts believers as righteous and nonbelievers as heathens, antagonists in matters of religious difference may discount each other's very humanity. More than with other sources of prejudice, people may choose or reject a certain religion as their conscience demands. If Page 11  |  Top of Articleliterature casts light on the experiences of others, then tolerance and respect may emerge from the reading experience as valid choices, too.


The battle over sexual preference has been bitterly engaged during the twentieth century, and is very far from over. Literature on the topic tends to support sexual freedom, and yet such support is far from assured in America today.

Gertrude Stein's Melanctha (1905) begins late in the protagonist's life, as she cares for her friend Rose Johnson, whose baby has just died. Melanctha has had an unhappy childhood, contributing to a tight bond between Rose and Melanctha. In one flashback, readers witness a fight between Melanctha and her father, James Herbert. It is clear from that fight that Melanctha prevails over her father, and in that way gains a sense of her own power. She begins to take an interest in that power, and in order to learn more about it, she begins "wandering," a hard-to-define activity that continues throughout her life. "Wandering" tends to mean loitering in the parts of Bridgepoint where she meets and toys with male manual laborers. She flirts with these men, watches them at their work, and listens to them tell stories, all the while observing her effect on them. Sexual energy pervades the whole narrative. There is a bisexual mystery to Melanctha that draws her both to Rose and the male laborers.

The erotic suggestiveness of this tale caused difficulty for Stein, who was already under constant criticism. It is possible to see Melanctha herself as an early Stein, sexually hungry and diffuse, profoundly observing, and faithful to her friends, just as she remained faithful to her own lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas.

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956) is a classic of gay consciousness literature. The story begins with David, an American who leaves his family to go to Paris. While he is there awaiting his girlfriend Hella, who is traveling in Spain, he becomes involved with an Italian bartender named Giovanni. David is led to question his sexual identity, but not to define himself as a homosexual. After Hella returns, David leaves Giovanni to return to her. In the meantime, however, Giovanni falls on desperately hard times. When a rich bar proprietor tries to demand sexual favors from Giovanni in return for a job, Giovanni murders the proprietor, and is sentenced to die on the guillotine.

As a result, David experiences overwhelming guilt for having abandoned Giovanni. David starts having sexual encounters with sailors, and when Hella discovers this secret life, they break up. Baldwin's tale itself is well crafted and sensational but also self-probing. It raises the question of sexual identity as a part of the universal quest for self-understanding. Like Stein, Baldwin is primarily interested in personal liberation.

Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) is an intricate tale of rape, incest, love, and family ties. Protagonist Celie has borne two children, both the result of rape and both taken from her. To escape a similar fate, her sister Nettie leaves the country with a missionary family bound for Africa. Celie's life is dominated by harsh and violent men that affect her self-image; thus she comes to see herself as ugly and worthless. When Shug Avery, a soulful singer and lover to Celie's husband, enters her life, Celie falls in love with her, and in that relationship finds some peace and joy: "I look at Shug and I feel my heart begin to cramp." In her relationship with Shug, Celie feels tenderness and love for the first time, and finds the strength to leave her abusive husband and make her own life.

Zami, A New Spelling of My Name (1982), by Audrey Lorde, takes its origins from the Caribbean culture of Grenada. The book is what the author calls a "biomythography," an account of her life as a black gay woman growing up in New York City. The author's pride and panache ultimately allow her to keep her head above the tides of prejudice and social limitation. During the process of a Catholic schooling, her struggles in library school, and her emergence as a poet of distinction, the physical passion and buoying energy of the erotic keep the author conscious of her identity and pride. The title of the book is a key to her spirit: "Zami" is a Caribbean name for women who work together as lovers and fellow laborers. In both Walker's and Lorde's works, their sexuality provides the freedom they need to live their lives well.

Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits (1989) is set in a small town in North Carolina. It concerns a young man, Horace Cross, who is raised in a deeply religious family, and who studies theology with the hope of becoming a pastor. He struggles to define his intellectual identity among the more traditional believers of Page 12  |  Top of Articlehis family. He must also come to terms with his sexuality; he is a homosexual in a community that has no tolerance for that lifestyle. The religious and the sexual identity themes come together as the plot progresses, and Horace seeks to reconcile those two facets of his life. He has always been drawn to the demonic-exorcist dimension of his religion, and he experiences his sexual preference in accordingly dramatic terms:

I remember watching men, even as a little boy. I remember feeling strange and good and nasty. I remember doing it anyway, looking, and feeling that way. I remember not being able to stop and worrying and then stopping worrying.

In reading these works, from Stein to Kenan, one has a consistent sense of the pleasure that comes with expressing one's sexuality. Yet among these examples, only Lorde exults in that pleasure wholeheartedly, without a sense of guilt or furtive secrecy. For Baldwin and Walker, for example, the quest for sexual satisfaction is part of a complex dance of the mind. For Kenan, the homoerotic appears to be tinged with the unholy. Each generation of literature examining the struggles of being gay in a straight world creates a little more understanding among the reading public, and thus paves the way for readers and writers alike to express themselves more freely.

Social Class and Caste

More than ever, people's social standing is entwined with their net worth. Families of "genteel poverty" may once have had easier lives than the laboring classes, and families of "old money" may have looked down on the gaudy "nouveau riche," but those distinctions of heritage have all but given way to simple distinctions of numbers of dollars. In the United States, prejudice against the impoverished has supplanted the prejudice formerly generated by the class system. The disadvantages of poverty are visible with ever greater clarity—in housing, medical insurance, and access to education—as the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" widens and never stops expanding.

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) is an extensive novel of manners. Its protagonist, Lily Bart, is a socially prominent young Manhattan woman targeted by a variety of aspiring suitors, all of whom are attracted by her basically flirtatious nature, combined with her refusal to play the high social game. Throughout the novel, Bart spars with social conventions. She is far from a maverick, yet she is impatient with what is required to be a social conformist. An ominous turn in Lily's fortunes occurs toward the end of the novel, and with this the story makes a groundbreaking statement. After becoming addicted to gambling in response to a sudden need for quick money, she is faced with poverty and dependence. She makes the decision (a radical one for someone in her class) to find a job and earn her living. She takes a job in the millinery business, sewing on the line and sharing the destiny of the ordinary worker. Lily's decision illustrates Wharton's argument that one can be trapped even in high comfort, and freed while in servitude, though her protagonist perceives just the opposite reality.

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) is a fictionalized account of the author's firsthand observations of raw industrial capitalism in nineteenth-century Chicago, when working conditions in factories were often unsanitary and unsafe, and management cared little for employees. Jurgis Rudkus, and his wife and baby, are Lithuanian immigrants who find themselves introduced into this cutthroat world: Jurgis gets a job in a meatpacking plant, and he and his small family take lodgings in a ratinfested apartment. The job is filthy and dangerous, work that only desperate immigrants are willing to take. The companies exploit their workers, knowing that the jobs are their only source of income and that they generally have no other options. While Jurgis is initially excited to be a part of the slaughterhouse—"to be given a place in it and a share in its wonderful activities was a blessing to be grateful for"—he quickly sees that the management of the company is corrupt, and that his fellow workers hate their demeaning, demanding jobs: "Jurgis … thought he was going to make himself useful, and rise and become a skilled man; but he would soon find out his error—for nobody rose in Packingtown by doing good work."

The immigrants are taken advantage of, swindled, and worked until they are ill and then cut off without pay while they recover, until they either die early or are forced into crime to survive. Their poverty and desperation makes them expendable nonhumans to the powerful industrialists. Intending to shed light on the class inequalities of capitalism, Sinclair instead focused world attention on the failures of the Page 13  |  Top of ArticleU.S. meatpacking industry, sparking reform and leading to the Meat Inspection Act and federal inspectors in the industry.

Tillie Olsen's poem "I Want You Women Up North to Know" (1934) was triggered by a letter written by a Mexican American woman in Texas, harshly criticizing management in the San Antonio garment industry. The letter raised fundamental questions of workers' rights, and specifically charged indifference to the underclass workers in San Antonio. This letter coincided with a growing prominence of the Communist Party of America, the workers' labor movement, and unions; Olsen was involved in all of these. Like the undervalued workers in Sinclair's The Jungle, Olsen exposes the immigrant and lower-class labor used to make clothing for the upper class:

    i want you women up north to know
    how those dainty children's dresses you buy
    at macy's, wannamakers, gimbels, marshall fields,
    are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh,
    down in San Antonio, "where sunshine spends the winter."

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) deals with the epic struggles of the Joad family. They are Oklahoma farmers caught in the nightmare of the Dust Bowl, the drought and dust plague of the central United States plains during the 1930s that drove hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers west to California in search of work and new lives: "They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food."

Steinbeck introduces readers to a powerful selection of victims, and conveys an overwhelming sense of the dignity of these people's struggle to survive. His fictional account assumes a historical quality as he records visions of the farmers moving west, for a chance to start over, hopeful that their futures will be prosperous. There are evils and con men along the way, but in their moments of rest, these migrants share their lives with one another and empower each other's determination: "The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever." Like Upton Sinclair and Tillie Olsen, Steinbeck brings to light the harsh realities of the laboring-class—always vulnerable to the economic necessities of the moment, and likely to be disregarded by government and industry.

The Outsiders (1967) by S. E. Hinton is the story of rivalry between two teenage gangs, the Greasers (poor kids) and the Socs (mainstream popular kids). Initially, young Ponyboy Curtis, a Greaser, sees the rivalry as a kind of game. But when one of his fellow Greasers, Johnny, kills a Soc during a fight, Ponyboy is forced to reconsider his lifestyle, which he never wholeheartedly embraced in the first place. He has a romantic temper and is sensitive to nature, two characteristics not often found—or expected—of lowerclass gang members. By a complex series of chances, Ponyboy comes off unscathed and uncharged from several street fights, though he loses two of his best friends in one night. At the end of the tale he is back in school with an assignment to write a composition for English class. As he is fumbling for ideas, he opens a book in which there is an old letter written to him by Johnny, now dead. In that letter, Johnny urges Ponyboy to remain "gold," and to continue to enjoy sunsets. Ponyboy is deeply touched, and comes to a realization that gangs of any sort have a social function, in that they embrace people who are longing for some goodness they can only crudely express. Hinton's novel shows the Greasers, poor but not wretched, with every bit as much worth and humanity as their wealthier rivals.

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001) addresses the dark side of America's fast-food industry. Within that industry, Schlosser sees the origins of many contemporary ills: the leveling out of local difference and regional character; the promotion of mall culture; the epidemic of obesity; the growing split between rich and poor; the expansion of American cultural imperialism throughout the world; and the exploitation of a lower income, often immigrant, workforce. In many ways, Schlosser's book echoes Sinclair's The Jungle, as it exposes the degrading conditions and employment practices used in a popular and successful industry. Like turn-of-the-century meat packaging plants in Chicago, fast-food restaurants and modern slaughterhouses rely on cheap, unskilled, replaceable labor to keep costs down. As Schlosser points out, once fewer teenagers were seeking employment at fastfood chains, they "began to hire other mar-ginalized workers: recent immigrants, the elderly, and the handicapped." He argues that Page 14  |  Top of Articlethe industry basically exploits its workers because they have no other options: the industry "now employs some of the most disadvantaged members of American society … people who can barely read, whose lives have been chaotic or shut off from the mainstream."

The literature of social class discrimination and oppression is often concerned with the harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions faced by the poor. A century ago, it was an eye-opening revelation for most Americans to learn both that money does not buy happiness and that poor workers are often exploited. Though social and legal changes have been tried to level the ground between "haves" and "have-nots," the same challenges and misconceptions between the classes still exist. For this reason, the literature of social class discrimination and oppression is still vital to our ethical evolution.

Disability, Illness, and Social Stigma

Prejudging, that is, making up one's mind in advance, is a fundamental part of human psychology. It speeds decision making and interactions, and often proves helpful, as when it lets us decide that people in uniform are responsible, smiling people are friendly, or people with body art are unconventional. A prejudgment is not necessarily correct, but neither is it discriminatory. Discrimination enters in when we assume that people with a certain trait—race, religion, ethnicity, economic status—are bad because of it. Disabilities and illnesses often provide such a trait, and harmful prejudice against their victims can be particularly insidious.

William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" (1930) is a short study of the personal price paid by victims of harsh social standards. The story is narrated in the first-person plural of "we," which extends to the reader the feeling that Emily is an outsider from the rest of the community. Emily is a member of a distinguished Southern family with significant sway in their small town. As she was growing up, her father never approved of any of her suitors and did not allow her to date. Upon the death of her father, Emily turns quickly to finally find a boyfriend. The man whom she chooses is quite naturally the kind of person her father would have rejected: a Yankee, and a laboring man.

Emily and the young man appear in public, and though the community may find this startling, they show signs of love. Over time, the community learns that her suitor is "not a marrying man" who "liked men," but they believe that Emily will change him. The townspeople believe briefly that they have married, but the man disappears. She falls sick, and is hardly seen in public for decades, becoming the subject of speculation and gossip around town. When Emily finally dies, her relatives come to the house after the funeral. They enter a remote locked room, and there they find Emily's suitor reduced to his skeleton, lying in a bed. On the pillow beside him is the indentation of a head, and on it a strand of the aged Emily's iron gray hair. The stigma and embarrassment of unreci-procated love was too much for Emily to bear, and so she shut herself in her house with a body, which, silent and dead, could not judge her nor refuse her love.

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937) is about two itinerant ranch workers, George and his friend Lennie, who is mildly mentally disabled. Lennie is a large powerful man with a weakness for soft furry animals, which he often pets so enthusiastically that he kills them. George tries to protect Lennie, but they get tangled up with a jealous husband and a flirtatious wife working on a ranch. The wife tries to comfort Lennie after he accidentally kills a puppy, letting him stroke her hair. She screams when he touches her too roughly, and he accidentally kills her as well. At the end George finds Lennie and consoles him, but shoots him rather than let the angry mob get their hands on him, apparently yielding to the only possible solution. This story is bleak and potent. Lennie is a gentle giant whose disability promotes occasional, and disastrous, loss of control. While he deserves the reader's pity, Steinbeck also makes it difficult to exercise that pity.

Just as Steinbeck's novel concludes with George deciding Lennie's fate, Jay Gould's essay "Carrie Buck's Daughter" (1984) concerns the actions of others with regard to disabled individuals. The essay discusses the famous 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court of the United States supported Virginia's forced sterilization policy to prevent "defectives" from reproducing. Carrie Buck, a poor young lady with an illegitimate seven-month-old child, was judged to be "feebleminded," as was her infant daughter. The court argued that rather than perpetuate a cycle of mental disability, the best course of action was to sterilize Buck to Page 15  |  Top of Articleprevent further "feebleminded" children who might someday give birth to future generations of "feebleminded" children. It later became clear that Carrie Buck was institutionalized not because of her "defective" intellect, but because of her pregnancy, which was most likely the result of a rape. Though her daughter, a student of average abilities, died in childhood, Carrie Buck lived into her seventies and proved a normal, productive person. The forced sterilizations in Virginia continued until 1972, and though they were a thing of the past at the time of Gould's essay, he writes so that their victims may be recognized, mourned, and honored.

Alice Hoffman's At Risk (1988) is a novel about an ordinary American family: Polly, a mother struggling to establish her career as a photographer; her husband Ivan, an astronomer; and two children: eleven-year-old Amanda, an aspiring gymnast, and Charlie, who is eight and attracted to the sciences. They are a happy and typical American family, fully normal until Amanda is diagnosed with HIV/ AIDS, the consequence of a blood transfusion five years earlier. In 1988, HIV/AIDS was a heavily stigmatized disease that spelled certain death. The story traces the widespread fallout of this crushing diagnosis, taking the reader from one perspective to another as the community comes together in concern. At Risk is the story of how a global disease is a personal struggle for the victims and their loved ones, but also an opportunity to find strength and hope.

While most individuals would not choose to have a disability or illness, the Binewski family in Katherine Dunn's National Book Award-winning Geek Love (1983) purposely create "freaks" for their own traveling circus. For example, the narrator, an albino hunchback dwarf, recounts how her parents prepared for her birth, after the birth of her limbless older brother and conjoined twin sisters: "My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities." In the Binewskis' world, deformity is normal, and even desirable. The realm in which this family lives is an ordinary world seen from a totally topsy-turvy inner perspective, with all norms overthrown and abandoned.

Don Trembath's young adult novel Lefty Carmichael Has a Fit (1999) addresses the disease epilepsy, a disability with a fallout that often exposes the sufferer to public attention and embarrassment. As people are usually fearful of things they cannot understand or control, many see Lefty's illness as something to be afraid of. Lefty, brought up in a working-class community, has great trouble dealing with his affliction, which causes difficulties with his classmates, problems with his romantic life, and expulsion from school. His identity becomes linked with his illness. Ultimately, good medical suggestions and advice from a girlfriend help get the situation under control, and Lefty is able to live peacefully with his illness, rather than let it control his life.

The illnesses, disabilities, and social stigmas discussed in these works all illustrate how people's lives can be affected not only by physical and mental ailments, but also by the reactions and reception of others. As readers sympathize with characters like these, they realize that, as difficult as diseases and disabilities are to endure, the reactions of other people may be the cruelest affliction to endure.

Ethnic Cleansing, Genocide, and Exile

Throughout the history of the New World, there has been conflict between indigenous populations and incoming settlers that usurp the land and resources. The conflict frequently leads to oppression or expulsion of the earlier landholders, and in some cases, the extermination of entire cultures. In North, South, and Central America, Europeans and their American descendants destroyed native populations and cultures.

The Spanish priest Juan Giénes de Sepúulveda, in The Just Causes for War Among the Indians (1550), presents what he sees as a justification for the Spanish wars of colonization in the New World. He argues that the native Indians are naturally inferior to the Spaniards, and therefore should serve as slaves and have no role in governing themselves. De Sepúlveda's rhetoric is echoed in Cotton Mather's Decennium Luctuosum, which was written one hundred and fifty years later. Although many of the native populations were technologically advanced with solid infrastructures and local governments, the Spaniards refused to see them as equals. By casting themselves as superior to the native Indians, the Spanish justified taking the land and resources that the Indians had. One of the most severe examples of this subjugation Page 16  |  Top of Articleof native peoples is recounted in John Hemming's The Conquest of the Incas (1970), which examines the gradual destruction of the Incas' advanced civilization in present-day Peru. Inca culture was militarily, administratively, and architecturally developed when the Spanish entered their kingdom in the early sixteenth century. Spain itself was growing explosively and rapidly extending its overseas empire. Hemming provides the perspective of both the Spanish Conquistadores and the Incas, as a band of one hundred Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizzaro, began the series of spectacular conquests that within a century subdued a vast native empire.

Some three hundred years later, Native Americans in the United States faced the same oppression and displacement as the Incas. The Trail of Tears (1975), by Gloria Jahoda, details the removal of thousands of Native Americans to reservations in the western United States. The trigger to this mass exodus was the passage of the Indian Removal Act in Congress in 1830. By the terms of this act, available state lands west of the Mississippi River could, at the discretion of the President, be allocated for Indian tribal resettlement. This was the background to what, in Jahoda's telling, is a compassionate look at the Native American plight.

Joseph Bruchac's The Journal of Jesse Smoke (2001) presents a fictionalized young adult account of the Indian removals treated in The Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Nation is forced to relocate from their lands in the U.S. South more than one thousand miles to Oklahoma. More than one in five Cherokees die on the journey. Jesse Smoke is a teen among the thousands of Cherokee boys involved, and in his diary entries he tells of his daily miseries during the exile, the deaths along the way, the curses of the government militia, and the total uncertainty waiting at the other end. With such accounts of the cruel inhumanity of white men's earlier attitudes toward native peoples, readers are struck by how easily Europeans seeking freedom from oppression in the New World become oppressors themselves. These accounts help modern readers recognize that righteousness is not inherent in a people but is defined by their behavior.

Native Americans are not the only Americans to have experienced ethnic cleansing. In Everything is Illuminated (2003), Jonathan Safran Foer writes a novel about the search for answers and understanding of how the Holocaust continues to affect families around the world. In the summer after his junior year of college, the protagonist—also named Jonathan Safran Foer—travels to the Ukraine, looking for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The novel gives an account of genocide, sixty years and a continent removed. The effects of World War II and the treatment and extermination of Jews in Europe continues to haunt the generations that came after the war. Jonathan searches for the woman who saved his grandfather, but is also deeply affected by the fates of those who were not able to escape Nazi extermination. While on the search, one of his elderly guides thinks back to his own experience with the Nazis, which fills him still with regret and shame remembering it over half a century later:

the guards put him in the synagogue with the rest of the Jews and everyone else was remaining outside to hear the cryingofthebabies and the cryingoftheadults and to see the black spark when the first match was lit by a youngman who could not have been any older than I was … it illuminated those who were not in the synagogue those who were not going to die.

The modern-day histories and fictions about the Trail of Tears and the conquest of the Incas and other native cultures remind readers that genocide and ethnic cleansing leave a mark of great loss on history. However, Foer's book differs markedly from the studies of the subjugation and extermination of the Incas or Native Americans. His character's quest is more personal, to renew contact with a blessed force in his own history.


The forced labor of millions of Africans and, in much smaller numbers, Native Americans is as old as the American Republic. By the eighteenth century, African slavery was the mainstay of the economy in the South. Overall, the treatment of slaves, beginning with their nightmarish transatlantic passage, was devastatingly harsh: labor conditions were unsparing and families became separated, with compensation almost nonexistent. It is therefore not surprising that the institution of slavery was a chief reason for the U.S. Civil War, or that the problems of racial tension remain acute in the United States today, even after the strides of the civil rights movement.

Page 17  |  Top of Article

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in a scene from the 1926 film The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in a scene from the 1926 film The Scarlet Letter Springer / Corbis-Bettmann

One of the best-selling books in the United States during the nineteenth century was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). The book was hugely influential in arousing sympathy for black slaves in America, and raising awareness of the evils of the slave system. The story is involved but affecting, and in the end makes the reader weep with sympathy for Tom, who has been a faithful slave, aiding his masters, and spreading love around him. He does this so successfully, say detractors, that "Uncle Tom," has (ironically enough) become a derogatory epithet for a black person who has sold out to the white world.

Whether that "Uncle Tom" charge is true of Stowe's protagonist is debatable. What is certain is that Uncle Tom's Cabin was the first major American novel to address the harsh conditions of slavery in hopes of bringing about a change. Even one of Tom's first owners, Mrs. Shelby, calls slavery "a curse to the master and a curse to the slave!"

Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind (1936), writes about slavery from a different perspective, in terms of both time and geography. While Stowe wrote of conditions a decade before the Civil War from a Northern perspective, Mitchell writes seventy years after the war from a Southern point of view. Like many Southern writers of the time, Mitchell' depicts the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South, including slavery, in a romanticized way. Though her protagonist Scarlett O'Hara lives on a large, successful Georgia plantation, the plot of the story pays little attention to the slaves that keep the plantation running. Several of the slaves and house servants are secondary players in the story, but never once do they complain about their conditions, nor is the institution of slavery depicted as anything but pleasant and satisfying. The slaves in Gone with the Wind appear content, happy, and more than willing to continue in a life of servitude. If Stowe presents an unyieldingly harsh perspective on slavery and slave owners in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mitchell certainly whitewashes the reality of slavery in her novel.

Alex Haley's Roots (1973) traces his own African American family's history back to Kunta Kinte, captured as a boy by West African slave traders and taken over the dreadful Middle Passage to the Americas. The tale advances through seven generations, from slave ship to plantation to the Reconstruction, to the Page 18  |  Top of Articlepresent day of Haley's writing, in the form of his telling the historical story to his daughter, who will then pass it on to her children. Haley's vision of this history reached a large audience through a successful television miniseries. With all the suffering, cruelty, perseverance, and triumph of the greatest dramas of Western literature, Haley brings his own family's drama to life and inspired countless Americans to discover their own roots.

Slave ships like those that brought Kunta Kinte and millions of African slaves to the Americas traversed Atlantic and Caribbean waters for hundreds of years. David Pesci's Amistad (1997) recounts an episode of the slave ship Amistad (which ironically means "friendship" in Spanish). The ship was headed from one Cuban port to another when the slaves onboard rebelled and took control of the ship. They tried to steer it east toward Africa, but the Spanish navigator managed to bring the ship close to the coast of Connecticut. The Spanish filed suit against the slaves for mutiny and murder, but the U.S. Supreme Court found that the initial transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas was illegal, so they were not legally slaves and therefore free. The Africans returned home to Africa in 1842. The case may be considered an early victory for the Abolitionist cause, which was soon to prevail entirely, and to usher in the demise of slavery in the United States. Unlike Stowe's Uncle Tom or the slaves in Gone with the Wind that were depicted as content or resigned to their fates, the men described in Amistad and the characters in Roots embody resistance to the horrible existence of slaves, and provide a perspective that for many years went unnoticed.

Joyce Rockwood Hudson's book Apalachee (2000) deals with slavery of a different kind. The novel brings together Native American tribes living in the Eastern Panhandle of Florida, sandwiched between exploitative missionaries and English soldiers with their Indian allies. The friars have brought disease and a foreign religion, Christianity, which they attempt to impose on the native population. But all that changes when the English, coming in from the colony of Carolina, invade Spanish Florida with the help of the native Creek Indians. In the clash of colonial forces, the native peoples lose regardless of which side wins the actual physical battles.

This cultural conflict is presented through the eyes of a Native American shamaness, Hinachuba Lucia, who is caught up in the turbulent cultural conflict around her. After being driven from her homeland by the English, she is captured by Creek Indians and sold into slavery in Carolina. She becomes a house slave on a turpentine plantation near Charles Town. Through this novel, readers see a different side of American slavery than the one that comes most readily to mind.

Another lesser-known aspect of American slavery was that in some instances, black people could also be the enslavers. Edward Jones's The Known World (2004) enters the domain of black slave ownership, and probes through that set of relationships to a fresh understanding of the damaging ripple effects of slavery. With the help of his mentor, a white man of power in the county, Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, is enabled to set himself up with his own plantation and his own slaves. Townsend, as a black slave owner, is not an anomaly in the county, either: "In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families … and eight of those free families owned slaves." At his death his widow falls into despair and can no longer maintain the plantation, and the relative calm of the farm collapses: slaves start to escape and to fight among themselves as they had not done before. White speculators hang around the Townsend plantation, looking for escaping slaves they can capture and sell. At the same time, white slaveholders from other plantations begin to sense the discontent of their slaves, who realize their own economic value. Jones's novel offers a perspective on slavery that seems more alarming than previous ones in that freed slaves—once the property of others—opted to own slaves themselves.

One hundred and fifty years separate Uncle Tom's Cabin from The Known World. In that interval, African Americans have excelled in every area of American life, and the evil of slavery is more recognized around the world. Pesci, Hudson, and especially Haley help readers see that slavery was a complex and long-lasting institution with far-reaching consequences.


In the years following the Civil War, African Americans made great progress on the social, Page 19  |  Top of Articleeconomic, and political fronts. They owned farms and businesses, enjoyed the right to vote, and held public office. But in 1877, with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the end of Reconstruction, the period of progress ended. The U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) determined that state-mandated segregation was permissible as long as the races had "separate but equal" facilities; they may have been separate, but they were rarely equal. That state of segregated affairs was maintained until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) abolished segregated schools, and the Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed discrimination in schools, restaurants, and businesses. Even still, change was slow.

In his 1945 poem, "Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?," Langston Hughes voices the thoughts of a black soldier at the end of World War II. After fighting for his country, seeing his friends die, and making a patriotic sacrifice, the soldier wonders if, after he returns to the United States, he will still receive inferior treatment because he is black. After years of fighting and having "dropped defeat / Into the Fascists' laps," and fighting against Hitler and his plan to exterminate a group of people based on ethnicity, he fears America will cling to "Jim Crow" laws that oppress and segregate black citizens: "When I take off my uniform, / Will I be safe from harm—/ Or will you do me / As the Germans did the Jews?"

C. Van Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) speaks to the concerns raised by Hughes's returning soldier. Woodward's book argues that the era of slavery in America after the brutal Middle Passage of the Atlantic (outlawed in 1807), was more human, even more humane, than the era that followed the Reconstruction. For Woodward, that "Jim Crow" era was consciously contrived within the Southern states as a way of legalizing the underclass status of blacks by institutionalizing it through supposed "separate but equal" statutes and laws that segregated blacks from the opportunities and resources of mainstream white culture.

As tyrannical as segregation was, Mildred D. Taylor's young adult novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry! (1976) offers a view of one family's efforts to resist it. This novel is the story of a black family in the South in the 1930s whose fortunes are more prosperous than its neighbors, and tries to use its influence to enable other black families to boycott a white-owned supply store they depend on but that takes advantage of them. The plot unfurls into increasing crisis—the children both experience and retaliate against racist incidents, the father is shot for trying to patronize a different store, one of the children's friends is duped into a robbery by white boys and is threatened with lynching, and the family's crop is destroyed. The only resolution in the end is the children's realization of the injustice of their situation in life and the dawning will to resist.

Charles Fuller's drama, A Soldier's Play (1981), contains two interwoven plotlines. The primary action takes place on a fictional army base in Louisiana after World War II. The environment is deeply segregated, and in that atmosphere a black sergeant is murdered on the base. The Army, anxious to give a cloak of legality to the proceedings that will follow, calls in a young black Army lawyer to investigate the murder. The Army expects and anticipates a whitewash, but gets the opposite. The captain finds the murderer, to no one's satisfaction. None of the cliche expectations is realized, either concerning the murderer's identity or the racist atmosphere surrounding the trial.

The second plotline of the play concerns flashbacks to the relationships between the murdered black officer and the black soldiers he commanded in the field. With this thematic complexity of the play, readers become aware of the intricate social interrelations that racial tension brings upon all who are involved. These intricacies are similar to the ones in Jones's The Known World, where the plaguing mysteries of racism are intensified between people of the same race. A Soldier's Play highlights the point that, while not all whites are racist, not all blacks are friends of liberty. The truth can be confusing as well as liberating.

Walter Dean Myers's Now is Your Time!: The Afro-American Struggle for Freedom (1991) is a study of the lives and historical contexts of a number of highly successful African Americans. He takes the reader into the lives of a freed slave, an investigative reporter, an artist, and an inventor, thus offering a broad palette of role models for young adult readers. As someone who grew up on the streets of New York and experienced Jim Crow racism and its devastating effects on millions of black men and women, Myers has Page 20  |  Top of Articlemade it his mission as a writer to provide encouraging stories of hope and triumph within the black community. By offering profiles of blacks in a variety of fields and professions, Myers continues to show a way beyond the limits and oppression of racism.

Rosa Parks and James Haskins wrote Rosa Parks: My Story (1992), a young adult biography of Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955 fanned the flames of the civil rights movement. This was indeed an epoch-making refusal, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott headed by a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Surrounding these history-making events a remarkable life of dignity and determination unfolds. She details her difficult search for educational opportunity, her loving and supportive husband, and her dawning awareness that women's contributions to the civil rights movement were undervalued by their male colleagues. More than anything else, Parks and Haskins's book reminds readers that individuals absolutely have the power to change the world and make it a better place.


What conclusions can be drawn by looking through the lens of literature onto the wide palette of American prejudices? Perhaps that, despite the imperfections of this society, it may benefit yet from a lively chorus of critical intelligences, of writers able and willing to look the facts of prejudgment in the eye, and to help readers understand some of the pains imposed upon the people in society. With all this reflection and illumination of prejudice, margin-alization, discrimination, and transcendence, the literature serves both as a mirror and as a lamp. Literature is a powerful tool for recording those reflections, capturing the illumination, and in the end, perhaps, helping humankind inch toward incremental improvements in the world.


Angelou, Maya, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Bantam Books, 1993, originally published in 1969, pp. 93, 98.

Cather, Willa, O Pioneers!, Signet Classic, 1989, p. 50, originally published in 1913.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2661800013