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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: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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At the heart of most literature about race and prejudice is the idea of exclusion—exclusion from opportunities, exclusion from resources, and even exclusion from physical spaces. Segregation is the physical separation of people of a certain race, ethnicity, or class from other people. Sometimes this involves wholesale relocation, as with American Indians in the nineteenth century and Japanese Americans during World War II. However, segregation can also manifest itself as exclusion from certain places or services; during the first half of the twentieth century, for example, many restaurants in the American South refused entrance or service to "coloreds." Despite these examples, segregation is not limited to the history and literature of Americans; a survey of world literature reveals that segregation is a common theme across all boundaries of culture and geography.

Jim Crow

From the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction in 1877 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legalized racism flourished in the southern United States with the encouragement and protection of "Jim Crow" laws—laws that kept black and white Americans segregated in many areas of life. One of the most well-known figures in the fight to end segregation in America is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1956, he helped organize a boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus Page 561  |  Top of Articlesystem in an attempt to end segregation on public transportation. Eight years later, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., King gave what would become his most famous speech: "I Have A Dream." In it, he notes the promise of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which was meant to free blacks from "the long night of captivity" that was slavery. One hundred years later, King argues, blacks are still not free, but are "crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." According to King, segregation has created "a lonely island of poverty" for blacks "in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity" for whites. The speech is a plea for all Americans to settle for nothing less than an end to segregation:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

In fact, a deeper reading reveals that King's stated goal is not just an end to segregation; the "dream" King mentions in the speech is genuine integration. He dreams of an America where, as he describes it, "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers." King did not dream just of equality, but of cooperation and brotherhood between races.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), written by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, offers a different perspective on the issue of black segregation in America. After a troubled early adulthood that leads to crimes and prison, Malcolm X becomes active in the separatist Nation of Islam movement, which seeks to end the injustice of whites against blacks by forming an entirely separate nation for blacks. The first part of the book represents his early endorsement of segregation for the benefit of those who are oppressed; in doing so, it offers the cynical viewpoint that whites and nonwhites might never be able to achieve the harmony sought by Dr. King. Instead, Malcolm X proposes that black Americans seek common ground outside their home country:

I reflected many, many times to myself upon how the American Negro has been entirely brainwashed from ever seeing or thinking of himself, as he should, as a part of the non-white peoples of the world.

Some statements toward the end of the book—as well as his formal break with the Nation of Islam—indicate a softening of Malcolm X's militant separatist views. His 1964 journey to Mecca in particular expands his ideas about how whites and blacks can interact. However, once he returns to America, he still routinely denies whites the opportunity to join his movement. He is assassinated the following year, before he has a chance to solidify any practical shift in his attitudes toward segregation and separatism.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is widely regarded as a classic coming-of-age story that tackles the issue of race relations in the American South. It tells the story of an innocent black man named Tom Robinson put on trial for the rape of a white woman through the eyes of the white girl whose father is defending the case. The incident reveals how quickly the small, tight-knit town of Maycomb divides almost to a person along racial lines; only the white Finch family breaks the color barrier, with father Atticus defending Robinson and the Finch children watching the trial from the "colored" balcony in the courthouse.

However, To Kill a Mockingbird also depicts a different kind of prejudice and segregation equally important to the novel's theme. Boo Radley, a neighbor of the Finches, is a mysterious shut-in who is feared by the neighborhood children. His appearance and harsh upbringing are obstacles that prevent him from becoming a Page 562  |  Top of Article
Federal troops escort nine black students to Little Rock High School, Arkansas, 1957, after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering integration of public schools Federal troops escort nine black students to Little Rock High School, Arkansas, 1957, after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering integration of public schools AP Images part of normal society. Throughout the course of the novel, the children come to understand that their initial prejudices about Boo were wrong. In response, they encourage Boo to extend himself into the world outside his home, and accept him as a part of their community. This acceptance of others is a central theme of the novel, and is hinted at in Chapter Three by Atticus himself: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

In Black Like Me (1961), a white journalist named John Howard Griffin takes Atticus Finch's suggestion a step further. With the goal of confronting white Americans with the realities of segregation and racism in the American South, Griffin undergoes skin treatments that darken his skin, then travels the South posing as a black man so he can chronicle the experience firsthand. After weeks of being denied basic rights and services by whites, Griffin decides to alternate his appearance in the same location; first he enters a town as a black man, and then later returns as a white man. The difference in treatment only confirms what he has already come to know: even when white and black Americans are not segregated geographically, they exist in two entirely different worlds.


While American writers have helped to provide a deeper understanding of black segregation, especially in the South prior to and during the civil rights movement, world literature contains many works that document equally compelling experiences in other countries. In particular, the issue of segregation strikes a resonant chord with many writers from South Africa who lived with the country's history of state-sponsored racial segregation, apartheid. The word "apartheid," which comes from the Afrikaans language spoken by white Dutch settlers of South Africa, actually means "separateness."

The books Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton (1948), and A Dry White Season, by André Brink, (1984) offer two different views of apartheid in the South African city of Johannesburg—one black, and the other white. Cry, the Beloved Country tells of a rural black reverend's quest to recover his family from the Page 563  |  Top of Article
Child refugees push a cart filled with their belongs through Katlehong, South Africa Child refugees push a cart filled with their belongs through Katlehong, South Africa AP Images danger and decay that eats away their spirits in urban Johannesburg. The reverend, Stephen Kumalo, discovers that his estranged son Absalom is involved in the killing of a white man named Arthur Jarvis. Absalom is tried and sentenced to death. Kumalo meets the victim's father, James Jarvis, and the two form an unlikely friendship born from the tragedy. In A Dry White Season, a white teacher named Ben du Toit becomes friends with Gordon Ngubene, a black janitor at the school where Ben teaches. When Gordon's son disappears during an anti-apartheid demonstration, Gordon becomes suspicious; Ben, however, is not willing to believe that the government would be involved in malfeasance. After both Gordon and his son turn up dead, Ben is forced to confront the ugly truth behind his country's peacekeeping methods. Although the two books were published more than three decades apart, they show that apartheid was a perverse evil that often brought tragedy to both black and white South Africans.

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995) tells the story of one of South Africa's most important opponents of apartheid. Mandela grows up in a rural part of South Africa still ruled by tribal custom, isolated from the white Afrikaner areas of the country. As he gets older—and as apartheid becomes official state policy—he realizes that the separation of races is being enforced by violence and oppression, and that the government is attempting to create "homelands" for blacks separate from the "real" South Africa to keep them from being classified as citizens. Mandela notes that tribalism further divides black South Africans, making it difficult for blacks to fight for equality against the minority population of whites.

Although the young Mandela supports sabotage and destruction to achieve goals, he does not see the situation between blacks and whites as hopeless. Even at his 1964–1965 trial for sabotage, which results in a sentence of life imprisonment, he speaks clearly against separatism and segregation:

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

Mandela is eventually released from prison in 1990, as the South African government begins the process of dismantling apartheid. He becomes the first democratically elected Page 564  |  Top of Articlepresident of South Africa four years later, and is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with former South African President F. W. de Klerk. However, Mandela cautions that even though apartheid has been defeated, the long walk to freedom is an ongoing journey.

Beyond Black and White

Wladyslaw Szpilman's The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939–1945 (1999; originally published in Polish in 1945) offers a glimpse at a specific, swift, and brutal example of segregation: Jewish relocation and internment by the Nazi government during World War II. In Warsaw, where Szpilman works as a classical musician, German occupying troops first force all Jews into a "ghetto," or a district designated specifically for a certain minority. Later, as the Nazis decide upon the "Final Solution" for dealing with Jews, the Warsaw ghetto is cleared and all inhabitants are forced into concentration camps, where many are systematically killed. Szpilman stays behind, hiding out in an attic and depending upon the essential goodness of others—including one sympathetic Nazi officer—to survive the unspeakable genocide that befalls so many other Polish Jews. Even amidst the terror, hatred, and methodical murder by the Nazis, it is Szpilman's ability to recognize and appreciate universal humanness that keeps him alive that makes his account so memorable and important.

In some ways, the oppressed become the oppressors in Joe Sacco's Palestine (1993–1995), a graphic novel that depicts the turbulence of the Middle East through the author's own experiences and through the stories of others. Sacco's work concentrates on the Palestinian population that lives under occupation by Israeli troops. Intent on securing the safety of their homeland, the Israelis insist that they must occupy this area to protect themselves. After centuries of persecution, the Israelis are so determined to keep themselves safe that they engage in forced relocations and violent tactics against Palestinians. Though such actions are not always unprovoked, and Sacco is careful to depict the frequent ugliness of Palestinian behavior as well, the book can be seen as a warning about the dangers of oppression in any form, for even the most understandable reasons.


Segregation as a theme in literature underscores the all-too-real tendency toward exclusion of certain people that has existed throughout human history. This might seem disheartening at first glance, but literature's greatest accomplishment is the expression of the universality of the human experience. The fact that such works can evoke outrage, indignation, and understanding in readers across all cultural boundaries shows that literature's power lies in its ability to include rather than exclude. Perhaps the theme of segregation, then, appears so often because it acts as a unifying force—a call for self-examination and a challenge for all readers to be better humans.


King, Martin Luther, Jr., "I Have A Dream," as printed in Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Peaceful Warrior, by Ed Clayton, Simon Pulse, 1991, originally published in 1968, pp. 110-18.

Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird, HarperCollins, 1999, p. 33, originally published in 1959.

Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Back Bay Books, 1995, p. 368.

Paton, Alan, Cry, the Beloved Country, Scribner, 2003, p. 71, originally published in 1948.

X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballantine Books, 1992, p. 398, originally published in 1965.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2661800061