Top 5 English novels on racism that everyone must read

The problem of racism runs deep inside several societies, despite various attempts to eradicate it. Here is a list of five famous English novels of various ages that have portrayed how problematic and inhuman racism can be. Have you read any of these?

It was back in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln, the contemporary President of the United States of America, signed the Emancipation Proclamation; it came into effect from the very first day of the following year. It granted freedom to all the slaves held in the country and assured that they will be given equal rights on all walks of life alongside the white citizens. Unfortunately, in 1963, American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. observed in his famous speech "I Have a Dream" that "one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free". Recent happenings in various parts of the country have again shown us, more than fifty years after that celebrated oration by Martin Luther King Jr., have shown that even today racism continues to be deep inside us. We cannot tell for sure when this standing libel in the name of racism is going to be annihilated from the world; that is a matter of future. Nevertheless, what we know already is what the past has shown us – how cruel, barbaric, and inhuman racism can be at times.

As literature has always faithfully reflected the society and the culture, here is a list of 5 English novels that portray and problematize racism in minute details. In fact, there are so many good novels written on racism that it is always very difficult to shortlist any five. The selection criteria for choosing the top 5 English novels on racism here were neither their merits nor their sales figures, but my personal preference. There are several dozens of English novels that portray racism and black lives out there outside this list. To begin with here is just a list of five great novels on racism that everyone should read.

1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker, a celebrated American author and social activist, won both the National Book Award for hardcover fiction as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her 1982 novel The Color Purple. The novel is situated in rural Georgia and is based on the life of the African-American women in the southern parts of the United States in the 1930s. It is an epistolary novel, which means it makes use of letters as the main part of its narrative technique. However, despite the high critical appreciation as well as acclaim from the general readers, the novel also invited several controversies. Its explicit language, sexual explicitness and mentions of homosexuality, as well as the occurrence of violence have been time and again cited as possible reasons for banning the book. After its film adaptation in 1985, the book came into the limelight once again and caused controversies. Nevertheless, in spite of all those controversies, The Color Purple was voted by BBC as one of United Kingdom's best-loved novels in 2003. Again in the year 2019, BBC Arts listed it as one of the 100 novels that shaped our world.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Imagine anyone being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for his or her contribution to literature just for writing two books! Yes, it was Harper Lee. Although she has published only a couple of books in her lifetime - To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman - such was the magnitude of the books in terms of critical reception and influence that Harper Lee was almost instantaneously placed in the canon of American English literature. In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee's only published book since 1960 until she published Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft of the former and published as a sequel to the same, in 2015, 55 years after the publication of her magnum opus. The novel revolves around racial injustice as well as the destruction of childlike innocence. To Kill a Mockingbird is based on an actual event that had taken place in Lee's hometown in Alabama when she was just ten years old. The story is narrated by the six-year-old Jean Louise Finch alias Scout, as a black man Tom Robinson is trialled for violating a white girl Mayella Ewell, and Scout's father advocate Atticus Finch tries in vain to overturn the judgments in favour of Robinson. This book was also featured on the aforementioned list of BBC Arts.

3. Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

The Nobel Laureate American author William Cuthbert Faulkner hardly needs any introduction to the bibliophile world. His 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, is often considered one of the best twentieth-century works of fiction in the English language. Published in 1948, Faulkner's novel Intruder in the Dust expresses the southern author's outlooks to racial problems. The central character of the novel is Lucas Beauchamp, a black peasant, who has been convicted of assassinating a white man. The book makes use of the Stream of Consciousness technique, which was made famous by James Joyce in his Ulysses in 1922. The novel also broods on some long passages that refresh the memory of the Civil War in the minds of the southerners. If you want to have an idea of what racism was like in America in the second quarter of the twentieth century, William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust is a must-read.

4. A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines

The first two books on this list belonged to the first half of the twentieth century, while the third was written in the middle of it. Let us now talk about a book that was written in the last leg of the twentieth century, which is Ernest J. Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men. Published in 1983, it is set in the 1970's Louisiana, and in a span of over two hundred pages, very subtly addresses the issue of racial discrimination in late-twentieth-century America. While Ernest J. Gaines is more known for his 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, A Gathering of Old Men is also a notable work. The main characters in this novel are Candy Marshall, a white plantation owner, a white Cajun farmer Beau Boutan, his father Fix Boutan, a black man named Mathu, and Sheriff Mapes. The book was made into a film by the same title in 1987 by a famous German director.

5. Chicago by Alaa Al-Aswany

Having discussed several twentieth-century books, now let us have a look at a more recent publication. Alaa Al-Aswany is a prolific Egyptian writer who has been widely translated into several languages. He is also a leading figure in the political movement called 'Kefaya' which primarily protested against the rule of the Egyptian military and political leader Hosni Mubarak. A dentist by profession, Aswany pursued his master's degree in dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the 1980s, having graduated from Cairo University in Egypt in dental and oral medicine. Published in 2007, his novel Chicago, therefore, records his first-hand experiences in the city in which he had received his higher education. It revolves around the post-9/11 conflict between the Arab and the Western culture in Chicago, the ensuing racism, as well as the corruption in the Egyptian regime. However, several Arab readers have strongly criticized the book because of several explicit passages related to sexuality.

What are your opinions on the aforementioned books? Have you read any of those? Do you want to suggest some more good books on racism that everyone should read? Kindly post a comment below.


Author: Poulami Bakshi11 Aug 2020 Member Level: Gold   Points : 2

Many thanks for stopping by and posting a comment. The reason why I did not include Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Mask, or The Wretched of the Earth is that they are not fiction. They belong to the genre of non-fiction prose. Since this article particularly deals with English "Novels", I have kept Fanon's oeuvre and similar works out of its ambit.

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