On Me, Racism, Fitzgerald, Achebe and Conrad. . .and Children

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At what point can one hold a writer responsible for being racist in his life and in his literature? When he knows better? Can we even hold a writer as being a racist in his life? But what of in his literature. If he knows better? But what if he doesn’t know better?

I’m reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz”–I pause every time he mentions “negroes” and “darkies”, when they are presented as dim wits. But here’s the thing, he wrote this exquisite story, which is being enjoyed by this reader in 2014, in the 1920s. Can he have known better then?

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I am thinking, of course, of the sparking incident that formed this thing I am unashamed to say I write within–African writing. I mean the seismic shift Chinua Achebe wrought at the expense of the already then dead Joseph Conrad, especially his “The Heart of Darkness”, a novel of immense beauty written by a writer of far greater talents than even F. Scott Fitzgerald here. The younger man’s charge of his elder being a “thoroughgoing racist”.

I’ve been bothered a long time about children, how merciless they can be, how pitiless our executioners they are. Yet, I have often wondered what the wars of my fathers were, I’ve wanted, a curiousity, to walk in their boots, to carry their guns scared and cold and reenter their whys and becauses. My children will, as children will, do as they please concerning me–understand or misunderstand in their fashion. All I can do is try, in my fashion.

But, concerning Fitzgerald and I, and Conrad and Achebe, at what point can I who know better raise a finger and call out? At what point can I hold F. Scott Fitzgerald responsible for the racism in his beautiful literature?

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7 thoughts on “On Me, Racism, Fitzgerald, Achebe and Conrad. . .and Children”

  1. If we want to hold Fitzgerald responsible for what we see as racism in his literature, then we should be prepared to round up most of the writers of the American south.

    The first time I came across the word Nigger in O’Connor’s stories, I recoiled. But, is it possible to have written differently during a period like theirs?

    Perhaps, one day someone might go through our contemporary literature and recoil at the treatment of race and class too. Who knows who the next Conrad will be? I agree with you that “All I can do is try, in my fashion”. Let others pass judgement the way they see fit.

  2. I first came across Fitzgerald’s racism – if we can call it that, would he have thought of it as such? – in the Benjamin Burton story. (Is it possible that everyone recoils when one notices such? Ifeemmanuel above mentioned, Ra did too…)
    In the end, we have to live our lives and draw our lines as we can then leave whatever interpretation to whoever would.

    1. Exactly, Su’eddie. Who knows what a century would bring? Attitudes to even things like marriage have changed before our very eyes.

      Yet, it is important to have standards of critical apprIsal, why a work succeeds and why it fails. And inherent racism is a factor, I think.

  3. I can’t say I agree to the idea of holding an author accountable for a social construction such as racism. In the case of Fitzgerald, his work will be product of the time (and if you read further into his autobiography, you will see that most of his work is inspired by his experiences.) The literature makes it known. Mark Twain, however, is famous for his literature containing derogatory, racist terms that have sparked a lot of debate in the literary community concerning censorship and exposure. To pin it on the author, though, when there is enough historical evidence to support that there was a preexisting problem before the author’s work was published, seems like the wrong way to go about this. And to write not about it only ignore the problem.

    1. I agree with you largely, but there is the question of criticism–just as the author should have unfettered access to write, the critic also must have unfettered scope to criticize. And the trouble with such a thing as racism is the danger of stereotype. That’s the downside. Achebe does have a point, to my mind, when he says stories “are not harmless things.”

  4. Currently I am reading Faulkner’s Light in August. And what do I see?

    Sometimes these people do not consciously put such things in their writing: it is something inbred in the culture in which they were raised; and one has to, also, consider the period, too, as you pointed out. Bare-faced racism was still very common in the first half of the twentieth century. One could not blame Fitzgerald who was trying to capture the spirit of his time which he, himself, was involved in.

    This is markedly different from Joyce Cary and V. S. Naipual (having read Conrad, I do not believe the man is consciously racist.) who blatantly included derogatory references to the black race in their work. The fury with which I bear their cynical–and extremely ridiculous–regard for my race has definitely brought their works a notch lower in my esteem.

    1. Precisely noted there, vis Naipaul especially. And thanks for that distinction. Yet, someone brought up the case of Mark Twain who, before Fitzgerald, was seemingly clearly racist. So, it has to be a shifting balance. But we are all agreed that Naipaul is a no no.

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