Published:  12:33 AM, 05 January 2019

Racism and Afro-American fictional legacy

Racism and Afro-American fictional legacy Alice Walker Robert Hayden Toni Morrison

Arguments over the origins of racism often suffer from a lack of clarity about the term. Many fuse recent forms of racism with earlier instances of ethnic and national disputes. In most cases ethno-national rifts arose from wrangles over land and strategic resources.

In some cases ethnicity and nationalism were harnessed to wars between great religious empires (for example, the Muslim Turks and the Catholic Austro-Hungarians). As Benedict Anderson has suggested in Imagined Communities, ethnic identity and ethno-nationalism took the shape of a breeding ground for animosity within such empires with the rise of print-capitalism.

In its modern form, racism gradually mounted with European discoveries and conquest of much of the rest of the world, and especially after Christopher Columbus had explored the American continent. As new different places and their inhabitants were confronted, fought and ultimately subjugated, theories about "race" began to develop. Another probable source of racism is the deliberate or unwilling misapprehension of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution.

Some intellectuals took Darwin's theories to denote that since some "races" were more civilized, there must be a biological basis for the difference. At the same time they appealed to biological theories of moral and intellectual traits to impart a 'legal' platform to racism.

 Europe has witnessed the rise of neo-Nazism since 1990s which suggests that far from being a sporadic activity, racism, violence and radical nationalism have become normal in some communities. The problems could have been tackled much earlier in schools and with social programs, but the concerned government authorities also seem to lack the true desire to remove racism. In this way, racist discontentment often flares up in most terrible ways in the west between the white fellows and black or coloured immigrants all on a sudden.

 Ethnic minorities in one country can often be abused as a scapegoat by the majority during times of economic crisis. That is one reason why Nazism remains so popular in countries like Germany, Greece and Russia till today. Vicious, murderous racists called 'skinheads' are common on the streets of Russia, Germany, even in a relatively safer and more peaceful country like Finland, who prey on non-white foreigners every now and then.

 Racist attacks and sentiments have further spread in the west due to the unresolved Palestinian issue in the Middle East where Arabs and Jews have been on extremely antagonistic terms for over 60 years. South Africa is still suffering intermittent racial riots between black and white citizens despite the fact that this was supposed to have ended up through the victory of Nelson Mandela as the President who came with a strong optimism to eliminate apartheid in his country.

 The pernicious riots of 2011 in London and other cities of England also originated from racism when Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black young man was shot dead by some English policemen. Thousands of vehicles, shops and restaurants were plundered, vandalized and burnt by unruly people which is a glaring indication of their outrage at the discrimination they have been facing in England for ages.

Of late, racist skirmishes have erupted in some parts of the United States too following the murders of some black Americans. A terrific racist mayhem broke out in France in 2006 as a result of the killings of two African immigrants by French cops. So, racist hazards and mishaps have been destabilizing the west every now and then.

Racism was deplored by the leading authors of the United States in their books during the 19th Century while the Americans were fighting against their fellow countrymen to eliminate slavery of the black community. Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alex Haley, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and John Steinbeck touched the hearts of millions of readers worldwide with their tremendous anti-slavery novels.

James Fenimore Cooper, one of the earliest fiction writers of America, narrated vividly in his novels The Last of the Mohicans and The Leather-Stocking Tales how the white Europeans got involved in armed combats with the native American tribes during the initial days of settlement.

 A highly remarkable event regarding literature addressing racism is the Harlem Renaissance that bloomed in the United States during 1920 to 1940. The Harlem Renaissance triggered a profuse outburst of the artistic, philosophical and literary feats of a cluster of Afro-American litterateurs.

Poets, artists and authors who thrived during the Harlem Renaissance added a massive power to the literary and cultural drive of the African masses living in major American cities. It brought about an avalanche of stories, essays, verses and artworks by some black Americans illustrating their thoughts and visions of life.

The Harlem Renaissance was a resurrection of African values amid the white-dominated American academia. The pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance are Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, James Mercer Hughes, Clarissa Scott, James Baldwin, Rudolph Fisher, Hubert Harrison and some more.

Southern Road, The Last Ride of Wild Bill, The Walls of Jericho, Nigger Heaven are some of the memorable literary works generated during the Harlem Renaissance. The Souls of Black Folk is another valuable book on the racial issues of America written by William Du Bois, a Professor of Sociology in Atlanta University during the initial years of 20th century.

 Racism and apartheid formulated the themes of some outstanding novels by two top-brass South African authors J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. Both of them received Nobel Prize for their stunning literary works. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee fictionalizes a post-apartheid South Africa where the white inhabitants are cornered and assailed by their black counterparts.

Nadine Gordimer's July's People tells the story of a civil war in a fictitious land where several white people take shelter in the home of a black fellow who used to be their slave once upon a time. A radical shift in the conventional racial scenario is the most notable tenet of both these novels.

 Racism has been touched upon by some oriental authors too. Mulk Raj Anand addressed the subhuman lives of lower-caste porters and workers of India in his masterpieces Untouchable and Coolie. Arundhati Roy's books The God of Small Things, The Shape of the Beast and Listening to Grasshoppers also strongly castigate the racial and communal viewpoints of the upper class people of India. Edward Said, the most eminent orientalist of the world also focused on some race-oriented controversies in his books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism.

 Noam Chomsky once said, "The police can go to downtown Harlem and pick up a kid with a joint in the streets. But they can't go into the elegant apartments and get a stockbroker who's sniffing cocaine." Since Harlem is mostly inhabited by black people, the American law-enforcement agencies are always found squeezing that place harder but the same thing doesn't happen in other areas of the United States where wealthy white people reside-that's how we can interpret the above words by Noam Chomsky.

 Racism is still a major social stigma in the United States where discrimination against the Afro-Americans, non-white immigrants and Hispanics are common phenomena. Even Barack Obama, who is the first ever black man to have won the presidential polls in the USA, also faced racist expletives and catcalls during his presidential campaign several years back.

When leaders from the front-ranking political hierarchy cannot escape racism, combat against such a horrendous social ailment has very remote chances to succeed. Dreams cherished by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X seem to be far away from fulfillment.


The writer is a literary analyst for The Asian Age

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