Race Relations in American Literature: 1850-2009

Relations between black people and white people has been a relevant and important topic, now more than ever. The issue has been discussed and critiqued in works of American fiction, beginning in the 1850’s with ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ These novels, generally speaking, reflected peoples’ perceptions of race relations at the time of their publication, and encouraged debate and change.

Harriet Beecher Stowe penned ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in 1852 in an attempt to reveal the horrors of slavery, and to attract the issue greater attention. Stowe herself had helped slaves escape the South, which encouraged her to view the institution of slavery from the black perspective. It was people in the North that initially fought against slavery, and discouraged its extension to the West, putting them at odds with the South, leading to the American Civil War. Stowe’s novel followed the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law Act, 1850. This law stated that everyone had to help catch runaway slaves, and refusal to do so would lead to a $1000 fine, and six months in jail. The South still advocated the existence of slavery, explaining Stowe’s decision to set the novel in Kentucky. In the novel, Uncle Tom is sold into the harsh world of slavery and is eventually whipped to death by his white owner Simon Legree, after sacrificing himself for his family. Uncle Tom is portrayed as a religious man, who is morally superior to the white people within the novel. This makes his savage murder all the more upsetting. Stowe’s novel made people acknowledge the harsh lives of slaves, and also set up the stereotype of the simple but kind black slave who is unfairly treated. The novel reflected the attitudes of Stowe, and other northerners like her who opposed slavery. According to legend, Lincoln even credited Stowe’s novel with starting the ‘great’ Civil War. The novel encouraged others to view slavery as an immoral institution, and its publication alone shows that perceptions of race relations were beginning to change.[1]

Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ written in 1884, used satire and the perspective of a child to subtly critique the institution of slavery, maintaining some of the themes set up by Stowe. The book was published twenty years after the Civil War, and people still argued that black people were inferior beings, who were now out of the control of the state. Twain did not criticise slavery as heavily as Stowe did, as he wished to sell his book to the North and to the South, taking into account their differing views on slavery. The novel follows the relationship of black slave Jim and white child Huck Finn, as Finn begins to realise how harshly black people were treated slaves. Like Uncle Tom, Jim too is killed when sacrificing himself for his white owner, Tom Sawyer. Speaking through Finn, Twain’s views mirrored northern views that slavery was an unjust and unfair institution.[2]

Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’ proposed a different view of slavery to the previous novels. It chronicles the lives of the O’Hara family, living at their plantation at Tara, where the slaves are treated well and lead happy lives. When given the opportunity to eventually leave, black nurse Mammy decides to stay with white girl Scarlett. This idyllic view of slavery is interrupted with the freeing of the slaves following Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ in 1863. This was a real-life act, that freed 3.5 million slaves. The social disruption caused by this forces characters in the novel to conclude that black people were better off as slaves. The novel taps into previous Southern beliefs about slaves at the time of the Civil War, and the ‘Positive Good’ argument. White people argued that black people could not take care of themselves, and therefore had to be cared for through the institution of slavery, for their own safety and protection. At the time of the novel’s publication, in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was pushing his ‘New Deal.’ These were a series of economic programs and reforms that were designed to help the American economy following the Great Depression. This appealed to black Americans, as they believed that the Deal would help them, and further the civil rights movement. However, this was criticised by white senator Josiah W. Bailey, in his 1937 ‘Conservative Manifesto.’ He protested at the amount of money being spent on New Deal programmes, inspiring others, especially in the south, to oppose further social and economic reforms. In retrospect, the reforms did not last, and only helped black people moderately. The novel accurately reflected perceptions of race relations at the time, as white people were unwilling to help black people, and still viewed them as inferior beings. This is highlighted in the book, through the characterisation of certain black characters, like the simple Uncle Peter, and the dishonest Prissy. Their portrayal reflected white people’s stereotypical perception of black people, which prompted their advocation of slavery, as they believed black people to still be inferior.[3]

The publication of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ follows the story of Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of rape. White lawyer Atticus Finch defends him in court, but the town condemns Tom because of his race. The novel is told from the perspective of Atticus’ daughter, Scout, who learns from Atticus that people should not be treated differently because of their race. Black journalist Ida B Wells argued that being accused of rape was the main reason why a black man would be lynched in the 1890s. Considering that the novel is set in 1933, it could be argued that Harper Lee took inspiration from this fact. The 1950s marked the beginning of the active Civil Rights movement, beginning with Brown vs Topeka in 1954, which led to the desegregation of schools. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, which, following black peoples’ refusal to board public buses, led to their desegregation. The Greensboro and Nashville sit-ins followed in 1960, as groups of students sat at lunch counters and refused to move. This led to the desegregation of lunch counters. The desegregation that occurred around the country showed that race relations were changing, as reflected in Harper Lee’s novel. The novel shows Tom Robinson as a respectable young man, in contrast to white characters such as Bob Ewell, an idea established in Stowe’s novel. These ideas mirrored the decision of the Supreme Court to desegregate certain institutions, as people in power began to actively implement laws in attempts to secure racial equality. It is upsetting to think that Scout’s advocation of absolute racial equality has not been fully realised, even today.[4]

Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel ‘Beloved’ tells the story of former slave Sethe, who is haunted by her baby that she killed in an attempt to stop it being sold into slavery. The baby, known as ‘Beloved,’ represents the haunting legacy of slavery. The novel looks at slavery in retrospect, informing the reader that although slavery no longer exists, its ramifications are still felt. Morrison lived in Ohio in the North, and her novel follows a long line of northern ideas, that slavery was an unjust and brutal institution. The novel was written in a period after the end of legal segregation, following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Acts of 1964, which prohibited racism in public places, and 1968, which discouraged racism in housing and employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave government agents permission to ensure that voting practices were being carried out properly, and that black people were allowed to exercise their right to vote. The establishment of Affirmative Action, a set of laws ‘intended to end and correct the effects of a specific form of discrimination,’ emerged from the Regents vs Bakke case in 1978.[5] This demonstrates that the novel reflected changing perceptions of race relations at the time, as people in power continued to push for legal racial equality.[6]

In Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, ‘The Help,’ white journalist Skeeter publishes the stories of several black maids in a book, giving them a voice and empowering them. For some, the inauguration of Obama as president in 2008 represented an end to racism and discrimination. 125,000 people assembled in central Chicago to see the announcement, and Civil rights activist, Jesse Jackson, who took part in sit-ins in the 1960s, was caught openly weeping with joy on camera. Obama himself heralded his presidency as a new era and people around the world recognised the importance of America’s first black president. Again, the novel raised the issue of race relations, and acknowledged the poor treatment of black people, as detailed in the novel. This acknowledgement from Stockett, who gained her ideas from Mississippi maid owners and maids, demonstrates that the novel accurately reflected changing perceptions of race relations.[7]

Majority of the novels accurately reflect the views of the author, and by extension, changing perceptions of race at the time of publication. Despite the changes that these novels have tapped into and encouraged, it seems that recent events have proven that so much more needs to be done to encourage and ensure racial equality.[8]

Thanks for reading!


[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (London, Penguin Classics, 1981).

[2] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (London, Penguin Classics, 2014).

[3] Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, (London, Pan Publishing, 2014).

[4] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, (London, Arrow Publishing, 2010).

[5] Walter Feinberg, ‘”Affirmative Action” in. The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics,’ (ed.) H. Lafolette, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005).

[6] Toni Morrison, Beloved, (New York, Vintage, 2007).

[7] Kathryn Stockett, The Help, (Penguin, 2010).

[8] Additional information taken from:

D. Murphy, Civil Rights and Race Relations in the USA, 1850-2009 (London, Pearson Education, 2016).

And my own knowledge.


Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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