The Intersection of Racism and Slavery in American Realism Stories

Zora Neale Hurston in American realism literature

I always share the big important essays and stories I write for class (previously shared here and here), and this semester will see five final research papers. This essay is about the intersection of racism and slavery in American realism stories as I focus on narratives by Joel Chandler Harris and Zora Neale Hurston! I hope you enjoy it!

The infection of racism has infiltrated American soil like weeds since before the country was established on Native American land. Genocide and forced displacement of Native Americans, enslavement of African people, immigration bans and internment of Chinese and Japanese Americans, and colonization of Polynesians were the collective effects of racist ideologies and policies. Because racism was and continues to be planted in the heart of American society, stories— both fiction and nonfiction— tell of the horrors of violence toward and dehumanization of people labeled ‘others’ throughout history. American realism literature focuses heavily on how the relationships, or lack thereof, between different races were affected by negative views on each other. Author Joel Chandler Harris illustrates a harrowing story about a free man and how the invisible chains of slavery and historical trauma kept a person with full freedom and agency stuck in one place in his story “Free Joe and the Rest of the World.” The struggle that Joe finds himself in as he’s stuck between two places in a world that hates him is similar to that of Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, where the protagonist longs for a better life after growing up without the ability to choose. The main characters in both Harris’ short story and Hurston’s novel experience racial violence and oppression while they grapple with what it means to be free in an America that wasn’t made for them.

Joel Chandler Harris’ incorporation and appropriation of African American jargon caused the dehumanization of his characters. Harris grew up on a plantation, practicing as an apprentice during the time before the Civil War. Because he grew from a child into a man living on a plantation setting surrounded by African slaves, Harris only knew a world where Black people were not considered human beings. He incorporated these beliefs he accumulated of Black dehumanization into his writings, which angered both authors and readers alike, especially in communities of color, who watched Harris appropriate African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and craft characters who were considered stereotypes and caricatures of African people. One of the ways that Harris’ critics have targeted his work is through their critique of his use of African American dialect and jargon. In “Geographic Context and Ethnic Context: Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker,” author Ellen Johnson discusses how Harris’ use of AAVE as a white man is problematic, saying, “Many readers draw the line between humor and ridicule based on whether the writer is a member of the group that is represented or not. Both his outsider status by virtue of his race and his preponderant use of dialect spellings could lead to an indictment of Harris,” (Johnson 241). In what could be seen as an author interpreting a different culture’s jargon to readers who are giving Harris the benefit of the doubt, most audience members, especially those from the African American community, are negatively analyzing his incorporation of AAVE as a form of racist cultural appropriation. In “Free Joe and the Rest of the World,” Harris creates Joe, a free Black man, as a seemingly foolish and childish person whose language consists only of small sounding words, which is shown when he says, “Yessum, dat’s so, but me an’ my ole ‘oman, we ‘uz raise terge’er, en dey ain’t bin many days w’en we ‘uz’ ‘way fum one ’n’er like we is now,” (Harris 157). This part of the story reveals Harris’ internalized racism as he co-opts AAVE for his own gain, treating Joe as a minstrel character who has no sense of what the world is like and why slavery was a horrific creation. Johnson elaborates more on why the use of harmful language and appropriated stories is harmful when she writes, “Besides his use of dialect spellings and humor, Harris’ glorification of plantation society and his attempt to portray the slavery that supported it as benign, perhaps even pleasant, negatively influence the modern reader’s perception of his work,” (Johnson 242). Language and dialects are of most importance to communities whose histories have been wiped away, such as enslaved people from African countries and Indigenous populations, so Harris’ incorporation of his own childlike vernacular pushes the argument that his writing about a group he didn’t originate from is inherently racist.

Harris fell from grace after audiences, specifically Black readers, felt his white identity and his damaging views on the establishment of slavery harmed the stories he wrote about African American experiences. Because most American realism stories focused on the everyday details of life for regular people, it was important for all communities to have realistic depictions of their struggles and trials in the literature they read. Harris attempted to illustrate the realities of slavery versus freedom for Black people in his writings, such as in “Free Joe and the Rest of the World,” but fell short as his beliefs in the upholding of slavery tainted the stories themselves. In “Free Joe and the Rest of the World,” Harris created a life for his character who lived through slavery and became a free man. However, Joe’s separation from the rest of his Black community who were still enslaved left him in a precarious and uncomfortable position as he no longer fit in with the people who were in chains, but also couldn’t find a home with other free citizens. Joe’s story portrayed slavery in a slightly positive light that Black readers found appalling as Harris narrates Joe’s living conditions, saying “For several years Free Joe had what may be called a jovial time. His wife Lucinda was well provided for, and he found it a comparatively easy matter to provide for himself; so that, taking all the circumstances into consideration, it is not matter for astonishment that he became somewhat shiftless,” (Harris 154). Harris’ portrayal of Joe’s easy lifestyle and happy temperament was disconcerting and frustrating for readers who lived through slavery or understood how cruel and vile the practice was. As a white author, Harris wasn’t able to easily co-opt the stories of Black experiences without integrating his own skewed perceptions of their lives and being subtly, or overtly, racist. Interestingly, Harris often chose to write realism stories in the perspective of Black characters, or narrated pieces about Black characters, instead of focusing on the white ones. Arguments could be made that Harris tried to influence his audiences about the topic of slavery and a lack of agency for Black people by creating protagonists who held the same ideas and values as he did. In the article “Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris,” author Robert Cochran echoed this argument, saying, “Harris in his own voice describes slavery as ‘an institution which, under Providence, grew into a university in which millions of savages served an apprenticeship to religion and civilization,’” (Cochran 22). Cochran continues when he discusses Harris, writing, “A white man, in short, was peddling a black culture he didn’t understand, and he was turning it to purposes it could not serve,” (Cochran 23). The article examines Harris’ upbringing as a young white boy who lived and worked on a plantation and learned about slavery from slaves themselves, which he turned into his later stories. However, those stories of slavery in a realistic context were inaccurate and romanticized. Joe’s experiences, for example, showed the life of a man who lived and died alone, waiting for his enslaved wife to visit him every night. Harris even tries to make an argument for the re-enslavement of Joe and other freed people when he describes the former’s life, writing, “He realized the fact that though he was free he was more helpless than any slave. Having no owner, every man was his master. He knew that he was the object of suspicion, and therefore all his slender resources…were devoted to winning, not kindness and appreciation, but toleration; all his efforts were in the direction of mitigating the circumstances that tended to make his condition so much worse than that of the negroes around him— negroes who had friends because they had masters,” (Harris 155). This passage alone was worthy of alienating his Black reader base as Harris described Joe’s life as worse off being free than being enslaved and treated like less of a human. Harris’ racism and support of slavery was fully incorporated in the passage as he fully immersed himself in the narrator’s position. Harris also used his secondary characters as support for his own background as they were all nicer white people who helped Joe and didn’t try to have him returned to a life of slavery, despite their complacency with the whole institution of slavery. Instead of accurately and realistically writing about the majority population of white citizens in the South who owned slaves, Harris added a handful of characters to maximize his position on both his own people and slavery itself, which in turn, demoralized any Black readers he may have had at the time.

Throughout American realism literature and other pieces written during and after the time of organized slavery, Black slaves were used as tools to further the racist gap between Black and white people during the time of slavery as authors formed them into narrators and friendly aunts and uncles in their stories. Many authors employed this tactic of distorting the identities of Black slaves who fought back against the system of slavery and instead made them into happy caretakers who loved and taught the white children by whom they were surrounded. Realistically, the caricatures that authors like Harris created were the exact opposite of who many enslaved people actually were, especially those who led riots and rebellions as they were beaten and killed for fighting for their lives. These racist views of who slaves were and how they reacted to the white people around them perverted the legacies of the enslaved people who died for their causes. Harris’ Joe is depicted in a similar fashion, befriending the poor white people who live near the plantation where his wife is enslaved, as he writes, “One night he went to the Staley cabin, cut the two old people an armful of wood, and seated himself on the doorsteps, where he rested. He was always thankful— and proud, as it seemed— when Miss Becky gave him a cup of coffee, which she was sometimes thoughtful enough to do. He was especially thankful on this particular night,” (Harris 160). Joe is constantly described as a parody of a free man, admiring the white people he befriends and thinking nothing less of the cruel slave master who owns his wife. In the article “The Mammies and Uncles of the South: The Subversive Tales of Joel Chandler Harris and Kate Chopin,” author Iulia Andreea Milică specifically analyzes how the caricature of peaceful and happy slaves were created through realistic literature that employed enslaved Black people as caretakers who convinced white owners and white children that they were happy with their living situations. Milică’s argument rings true to Joe’s story of restlessness in freedom and the urge to return to slavery where his wife is through the racist representation of Black narrators as fools and jovial protagonists dependent on the kindness of white strangers and the money provided by slave masters. In her article, Milică writes, “One of the techniques used by the Southern writers at the end of the nineteenth century was the introduction of the black narrator as a spokesperson for the past, a witness of plantation days whose stories seem to carry the message that the white Southerners want, namely that of the white supremacy justified by the aristocratic roots of the Southerners, but also gaining in authority and genuineness as they come through the voice of the former slave turned into a freed but loyal servant,” (Milică 28). This technique of using Black narrators as slavery apologists was, as Milică describes, an important part of swaying Northerners’ views of slavery in a positive light. By making Joe a happy and content free man who waits in peace for his enslaved wife to return to him, Harris reveals his own belief that slavery wasn’t as harmful and evil as history would have the rest of the country believe. Milică writes, “In this time of forgiveness and reconciliation, it is the black narrator who receives a crucial role: to validate the story of the Old South and justify slavery as a system that was more beneficial to the slave than the modern prospects of poverty,” (Milică 29). This idea is shown throughout “Free Joe and the Rest of the World” where Joe finds himself relying on the food and resources that Miss Becky and Micajah Staley provide, as readers, especially white ones, may begin to believe that Joe in slavery would be happier and more satisfied than Joe in freedom. The article references stories of young white children learning from their enslaved ‘aunties and uncles’ who provided both historical education and kind nursing, almost raising the children as their own, which reflects Harris’ own upbringing as a white boy on a plantation. In Milică’s article, she narrates, “Time and again, the boy is depicted as mesmerized and fascinated, not only with the stories, but with everything in the life of the old man: his whims and habits, the manner in which he smokes, his activities. Anyone would trust his/her child with such a caretaker, and it is no wonder that the late nineteenth-century readers accepted this narrative construct,” (Milică 36). The perverted belief that slaves were happy and taken care of by their masters was simply a racist propaganda tactic to convince Northerners at the time that Southerners were right about slavery all along, despite the fact that slaves were actually living in horrible conditions, were often beaten and killed, and treated as less than human.

The New South Movement, which denounced the practice of slavery and embraced slightly progressive (at the time) beliefs about rights for Black citizens, was on the opposing side of Harris’ values, which affected his American realism writings— especially shown in “Free Joe and the Rest of the World.” Although Harris refers to Joe in a humanizing manner— acknowledging all of the struggles he faced before freedom, Harris is also extremely condescending and patronizing toward his protagonist. Throughout the story, Harris employs the idea of protection for Black citizens through caring plantation families. Harris was of the conservative belief that Black people, free and enslaved, were dependent on white people like the slave masters and other white folk like the Staley siblings for their existence, all while being extremely childlike and innocent. On the extreme side of the conservative movement, people believed that Black citizens were no more than animals, referring to them as savages and even beasts who needed to be tamed by their white masters. Harris fell somewhere in between both value systems, as James Kinney describes in his article “Race in the New South: Joel Chandler Harris’ ‘Free Joe and the Rest of the World,’” where he writes about Joe’s story, saying, “On one level the story appeals to Northern liberals and Southern blacks by stressing the common humanity of blacks and whites. On another, it bolsters the Conservative mentality of Southern whites who believe that African Americans have an economic role to play but need white guidance if they are to do so effectively. Finally, it subverts the Radical racism that attempts to present free blacks as savage beasts once they have been released from the constraints of slavery,” (Kinney 243). The article explains how Harris tried to appeal to both Northerners and Southerners through his writings, crafting characters who were simple enough to not offend any of the target audience members. In his story, Harris moves in the direction of all Black citizens needing some form of white leadership or ownership in order to survive and live happier lives. This technique is shown in “Free Joe and the Rest of the World” as Joe “Seeks comfort and advice from the lowest whites on the social scale, the ones who are, like Joe, outside the plantation system,” (Kinney 246). Instead of living a life free from the constraints of slavery or any white master’s hold, Harris makes Joe need the safety and guidance of white people; any white people he can find, even though, “When he was a slave Free Joe would have scorned these representatives of a class known as poor white trash,” (Harris 155). In this way, Harris is arguing that slavery was necessary for the happiness and comfort of Black people, which was used as reasoning in the discussion with Northerners who wanted the system to be abolished. The argument continued as Kinney writes, “As new South racial Conservatives, tried to deemphasize race and eliminate it as a problem in an attempt to make shared economic interests the basis of sectional reunion, a reunion in which Northern investors and skilled managers would work with Southern businessmen and their black agricultural hands and industrial workers,” (Kinney 249). Harris also used Christianity and the Bible’s inclusion of enslaved people to justify and defend the institution of slavery, which was widespread throughout arguments in American realism literature as many authors included the same position. If God allowed his own people to be enslaved by other rulers, the argument for a similar system would appeal to both Northerners and Southerners who considered themselves Christians.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God took place in a different setting from Harris’ “Free Joe and the Rest of the World,” but protagonist Janie experienced similar difficulties as a free woman whose family lived through slavery and struggled through new pains in the oppressive intersection between race and gender. Although the novel was set in a time frame just outside of American realism literature, Hurston’s portrayals of Black life in freedom relates easily to that of Free Joe. While Janie isn’t chained to slavery as in most slave narratives at the time, her lack of agency stems from the racism she still faces as a Black woman and her inability to choose what she does with her life. Janie spends most of the novel searching for the perfect man to love— a different struggle from that of the plot in “Free Joe and the Rest of the World,” but applicable and relevant all the same to the trials that Black women faced. In this scenario however, the protagonist was written by a Black woman for Black audiences, so Janie’s collective story was more accurate for the experiences about which she was writing. Near the end of the story, when Janie was talking about her grandma’s life and how she wished hers would be different, she says, “She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me— don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere. Ah felt like de world wuz cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read de common news yet,” (Hurston 114). Janie often referenced the trials she encountered throughout her life and how although they were oppressive, they weren’t as difficult as what her grandma experienced as an enslaved Black woman. Through Janie, Hurston also explored the dynamics between the white woman’s experience versus the Black woman’s and how Black women carried the unbalanced weight of their race and their sex throughout their lives. Author Ayesha K. Hardison wrote about this distinction in her article “‘Nobody Could Tell Who This Be’: Black and White Doubles and the Challenge to Pedestal Femininity,” where she analyzes the differences between white women and Black women’s lives throughout history and how at times, they intersect and diverge from one another. One of the central subjects of Their Eyes Were Watching God in relation to the classic American realism encounter was how Janie searched for love throughout her entire life, but was met with violence and sexual assault from both white and Black men. The need for love and marriage has always been crucial to the everyday American experience— documented well through American realism literature, but Janie’s depictions of her yearning for romance and seeing only pain contrasted the many experiences of white women who were able to seek safety in a way that Black women couldn’t. During Janie’s first marriage, she saw mostly cruelty and despair from her husband Joe, which Hurston narrates, “She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over,” (Hurston 72). While white women in similar marriages faced these types of struggles as an effect of their sex and position as women, Black women’s pain was often taken a step further. Hardison’s article examines the structures in which both Black and white women lived during the time, saying “Black, white and ethnic women are linked in a chain of signification, tied together by their sexual oppression in a culture that privileges white masculinity,” (Hardison 90). Although white men were often depicted as strong yet cruel leaders of the household who treated their white wives as simply bodies, Hurston shows that Black men could operate in the same way. However, Hurston also shows how white women distanced themselves from Black women’s experiences, despite shared circumstances, in order to uphold white supremacy and powerful structures from which they benefitted. Hardison wrote about the ways in which white women collected power, saying, “However, masculinist white social structures frequently legitimized white women’s allegations of rape against black men, effectively reinforcing white supremacy, ideals of racial purity, and patriarchy, while such structures disavowed interracial sexual violence targeting black women, essentially denying blacks’ subjectivity,” (Hardison 96). The goal for white women, according to both Hardison and Hurston, was to reject blackness in any way possible, even if Black women were able to empathize with the painful and violence experiences white women had at the hands of men

After suffering through a life of racist hardships and sexual oppression due to her status as a Black woman, Zora Neale Hurston argued that desegregation would never benefit her people and they should instead create a community only for themselves and apart from white citizens. Her argument was based on the idea that Black people should self-associate, which would lead to more self-respect and protect against any attacks or violent racism from white citizens. Hurston’s belief stemmed from the decades of pain from which she witnessed her community suffering, as she shared throughout the American realism literature she wrote. At the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston reveals a single and peaceful Janie who finally began to live the life of which she dreamed. Hurston wrote, “The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see,” (Hurston 193). The novel is complete with its final image of a content Janie who swore to live her life as she pleased without worrying about the people around her. Hurston’s portrayal of Janie followed her statements of self-sufficiency and survival that Olivia Marcucci writes about in her article “Zora Neale Hurston and the Brown Debate: Race, Class, and the Progressive Empire.” Hurston described the difference in power between the colonizers— white men, and the subjects— Black people, recognizing that in her opinion, neither could exist with the other and especially not the latter with the power of the former. Marcucci illustrates, “In her heritage she could see hope, a means of survival, strategies for becoming and overcoming, and a way of being in the world that could mitigate conflict and create harmony. She could see it in the strength and creativity essential to an uprooted and oppressed people,” (Marcucci 20). Although Hurston’s novel shared the life of a Black woman who overcame all odds to survive sexual violence and racist injustices, Hurston’s beliefs in a world where Black people could live in harmony with only themselves was a small thread running through the entirety of the story and in her own personal life.

American realism literature featured stories of everyday people accomplishing life-changing feats, but it also shared stories of violence, oppression, and racism normalized for people of marginalized communities. Joel Chandler Harris’ “Free Joe and the Rest of the World” and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston both touched on the regular racism that Black people faced as enslaved people and once their freedom was given back. The importance of American realism stories that showcased narratives about such difficult topics was the chance to share unfamiliar hardships and injustices that mass audiences had never experienced, therefore creating more opportunities to craft empathy and awareness so characters like Joe and Janie would be remembered forever.