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How do you feel about racist innuendos in classic novels?

I'm reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The main character, Mary, and the servant, Martha, are discussing people from India, referring to them as "blacks", and Mary is enraged to hear that Martha thought she might be black when she heard Mary was coming and before she met her. Then when speaking of her clothes, Mary says she hates black things. Now, I know she has a nasty little personality to begin with, so do you think the writer just put this in to show just how nasty she is?

Also, last year I had started reading The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White, and this hawk or falcon (I forget, it may have been a goshawk or gyrfalcon, not sure) actually used the word "n****r". I think he was going to be killed or something and was getting angry. I didn't understand why a bird would use that word, and I was upset to read it, so I didn't finish the book.

If anyone has read these books and remembers these parts, or if you happen to have a copy of one of the books and look this up, I'd really appreciate your opinion on this topic. Personally, I don't like to read books that would condone or brush over racism. I think it sucks. Let me know what you think. Am I overreacting? Is there another meaning behind the text in these books? Thanks.

Update:

Thanks for the answers so far. Yes, I guess it was just "a sign of the times".

14 Answers

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    I was re reading books by Enid Blyton that i had read as a kid and i has HORRIFIED to read some of the racist and sexist things she says! they talk about gollywogs and call a boy with dark skin "sooty" i can't believe it!

    but i thought about it and it shouldn't take away from how much i enjoyed the books as a kid. i didn't realise it was racist and aside from the terrible stuff there is a good kids book there.

    so although i cringe at the racism in many books i still read them. i don't think i'm overlooking racism, but i find reading these books gives me an understanding of what the world was like then, so you read the story in the book and the story of what the world was like when the author wrote the book. i think it's exciting reading 1 book but getting 2 stories!

    i don't think you're overreacting at all, the n word always gives me a sick feeling in my stomach but i think there is so much we can learn from these books and they are classics because they are so fantastic that perhaps if you try to think of it in context to the society you will learn to handle it. i'm reading to kill a mockingbird at the minute and they drop the n word like it's no big deal which revolts me but it's a story about a white lawyer fighting for a black man's freedom even though he knows he's not going to win. there's a lot we can learn from this story so i am forcing myself to read it even though some of the characters are disgusting.

    good luck with your reading, i hope you'll try to read some other classics if you decide not to continue with the ones you've tried. there really is some fantastic literature out there!

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  • 1 decade ago

    I'm not defending the use of casual rascism used in such a cavelier way in these books, but you have to put them in contexte for the times they were written. We can look back on those comments with the enlightenment that comes from decades--sometimes centuries, depending on the book--of education and experience.

    For example, Martha, a serving girl of her social station at the time probably had never seen an Indian before, so all she knew were the things she'd been told. It's not racism, it's all she knows. It doesn't make her an evil person, just ignorant.

    Or, put it another way. Have you ever read Jane Austin? Loads of women today have and her books remain some of the mose well loved books in literature. But all of her books are, fundamentally, about women who's goals are pretty much confined to catching husbands. By today's enlightened standards, that's idiocy. Does that mean Jane Austin was a sexist who believed a woman's purpose in life is to find a husband?

    Well...yes, actually. Because that's what a woman's goal was *in the time period when she wrote her books*. But that doesn't mean we should hate her books now; we should just take them in the spirit in which they were written, and enjoy the good story she told.

    Don't hate Secret Garden because of Martha's comment. It's a wonderful book.

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  • 1 decade ago

    In a modern context, yes, it's pretty shocking, but, as everyone else has said, times change. The fact is, when most of these books were written that was just how things were, and no one would go out of their way not to say it. I don't think I would be too happy about a book that was written today that had that attitude, but for older works I tend to be a little more lenient because for the time, it was normal. I don't know if you're overreacting or not, but it might help, if you want to still be able to read the books, to keep reminding yourself that when it was written that was the cultural consensus.

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  • 1 decade ago

    I have not read either of those books, but I would have to agree that it was a "sign of the times."

    The beauty of living in the 21st century and, for the most part, a post-imperialist society is that we can see the narrow thought and the general convictions of the white "race" in the 15-20th centuries. I put the word "race" in quotations because in today's time it is generally thought that race is a social construction- there is no such tangible thing as race which distinguishes humans from one another based on skin color.

    To get off that tangent. I am not saying we live in a racist-free society. There is still bigotry everywhere. However, these novels were written by white people who bought into the general consensus of the day that anyone who was not European was "black." Black in this time was a deragatory term which described those who were not of "pure" European blood, whether they were of African descent or not.

    You are very much allowed to have your own opinions on the book and to be bothered by such views. In fact, the topic of race and patriarchal, heterosexual, and white-centric thought in these novels is a very large point of criticism for modern day critics and literary intellectuals.

    However, though this caucasian-type thought was predominant during the time these novels were written, it does not mean that every person living in this time believed it nor took it as completely true. It is entirely possible that authors during this time- and some did- used the subject of race as a way to make commentary upon dominant ideologies of the time which kept those who were not white, middle to upper class, male citizens oppressed.

    For me, I will read works like this. I try to keep an open mind and to contribute such narrow views to the thought of the time or to even attribute such characteristics in these novels as a social commentary provided by the author.

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  • I haven't read either book in years, and don't remember the hawk. I think in the case of The Secret Garden, Burnett was depicting Mary as an unpleasant little girl, but was also trying to show her profound isolation-- as an orphan, as an expatriate, and as a naive child.

    You are not overreacting, but it's always important to view the historical context. Many people consider Huckleberry Finn a racist book, but they are unfairly judging it from a 21st-century perspective. The N word has changed its connotation over the years, and in Twain's time and place it was not intended as a slur.

    Another thing you may want to consider is whose point of view is being expressed. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness can be interpreted as a racist book. But when you read it carefully, you see that it is narrated by a racist, who is telling a story about another racist. Was Conrad himself a racist, or was he trying to make a point? The debate over this complex book may never end.

    Anti-Semitism ran rampant in the 1920s, one of my favorite literary periods. I am always saddened to see it marring some of my favorite works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Willa Cather, among others. You shouldn't condone it, but sometimes you just have to accept that even the most brilliant writer can be just another flawed human being.

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    You're overreacting. At the time, those words simply weren't as strong as they are now - they are what would have been used in everyday slightly crude conversation. It would be a joke for a book from that period to be censored into using "African American" or some other 21st century politically correct term.

    You need to remember that a _character_ being racist doesn't mean a _book_ is racist...and at the time that those books were written, a lot of people were racist. At least some of them, because they genuinely didn't know any better. If you've never met anyone who isn't white, and you've been told that people who aren't white aren't quite "people" the same way you are, why would you think any different? You just wouldn't know. This is like refusing to read Pride and Prejudice because the women in it don't have the same rights as the men.

    I don't understand your comment about Mary. If I remember rightly, she hates black things because she's fed up with being in mourning for her dead parents. Nothing to do with black people.

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  • chuck
    Lv 4
    1 decade ago

    That is SOOO true. I forget the name, but in that too, Black people were referred with the N-word. I think it is the society. I mean, at that time racism like such was common. The author only wrote whatever happened at that time to make it realistic. Also so that the people of that era may relate to it. BUT these books I've noticed soon die. They are really limited to one fixed time.

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  • B
    Lv 5
    1 decade ago

    It can be disconcerting. I remember one of the "Little House" books having a scene in which Pa puts on blackface for a comedy routine. Ingalls went on for pages and pages about how hilarious it was! That was very shocking, but it doesn't ruin the book for me -- the positives outweigh the negatives. And it shows how far we've come.

    annababy: I agree with you in the case of "The Secret Garden", but I think you're views on Jane Austen are astonishingly off-base. Austen did not believe that a woman's sole purpose in life was to marry and none of her books perpetuate this philosophy. Though her works did not overtly or radically challenge social standards, they were some of the first to depict realistic, multi-faceted women who refuse to conform to society's expectations of gender and status. Austen supports romance, not the shameless pursuit of husbands. Lizzy Bennet turns down Collins, Emma turns down Elton, Fanny turns down Crawford -- these are heroines who show that the purpose in life is not to snap up the first guy they can, but, rather, to live as they choose (whatever the opinions of others and whether or not there may be romance in the future). In her own life, Austen refused proposals, never married, and supported herself through writing. She was a feminist.

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  • 1 decade ago

    They probably had racist innuendos, because of the time periods in which they were published. People may have had a different way of thinking that wasn't really a problem or considered racist back then. Anyway, I think there's nothing wrong with it, if they were written in a certain time period where it was normal to think a certain way.

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  • 1 decade ago

    I recall the word ni***r being used a few times in The Shining. I don't condone racism either..but sometimes it's almost necessary I think, in some books..if that makes sense..lol.

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