A discussion has been taking place lately on the Robert E. Howard Readers Facebook page about Howard and racism. Yes, this issue has raised its ugly head again. Was Robert E. Howard a racist? The hard and fast answer: yes. Is this a pointless issue as some think it is? I guess that answer is reserved for individual opinion. The only reason I think it might still be important is due to the fact that it keeps being brought up. So, to some, it's not a settled issue and is perhaps important.
Regardless, this post is not about whether Howard was a racist. It's not an attempt to defend Howard's racism because he was a "product of his time." No. This post is about how Howard might have dealt with the issue in his stories; more specifically in his Solomon Kane stories.
When the issue of Howard's racism is discussed there are usually three main stories tossed to the forefront of the stage: The Vale of Lost Women, Shadows in Zamboula, and Wings in the Night. The first two are Conan stories, the last one is Solomon Kane. There are others mentioned besides these three, but these usually top the list. My concern is with the last story mentioned. I think Wings in the Night gets pigeon holed into being a work that "clearly" demonstrates Howard's racism. It clearly demonstrates something about the issue of racism, but not, perhaps, that Howard was being racist in the story. But, let me back up a step. Asking whether Howard was a racist is, I think, asking the wrong question. Here's what I mean.
Howard's racism has already been well established. No one is actually denying it are they? If so, they might want to get their head examined, or do a little better research on the issue. So the question is he a racist, is he not, is moot. A better question is, did Howard ever attempt to deal with his own racism? I think he did to a certain degree and I think this can best be seen in his Solomon Kane stories.
No one knows the exact chronology of the Solomon Kane stories. The Del Rey edition titled The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane has the stories in as close to chronological composition order as possible. That being the case, all one has to do is read the edition from start to finish and you'll see what I'm about to point out.
As readers of this volume we are first introduced to black African characters in Red Shadows (e.g. N'Longa). By The Moon of Skulls Howard has an entire black civilization living in an underground city that was once occupied by an ancient civilization. In these two stories Howard has referred to his black characters as "negros"; a term that dates back to around 1440 to 1442 when the Portuguese stumbled upon sub-Saharan Africa in their attempt to find a feasible route by sea to India. The Portuguese used the term negro—which meant "black"—to refer to the indigenous people. By the 1970s this term became pejorative and is now no longer used. In Howard's day it was quite common, and not pejorative, to use the term "negro" to refer to blacks. So the term certainly does not connote any form of racism by its use in Howard's stories. However, Howard has caricatured his black characters. This is done through Howard's use of dialogue and description.
In The Moon of Skulls Howard describes the black civilization in the underground city as not intelligent enough to have figured out the what would otherwise be fairly obvious hidden passageways. He also implies that this black civilization is a lesser form/status of people, and that they need to be punished for keeping captive an innocent white girl named Marilyn. So right away it seems that Howard's black characters are not off to a good start. But, one of Howard's main characters, the black queen named Nakari is elevated a bit in the story. She is described as moving like a she-leopard and having lithe beauty, Solomon even catches himself in admiration of her. Why would Howard put a black main character in such a positive light? What is he trying to tell his reader, if anything? What does Howard then do with his black characters in subsequent Solomon Kane stories? (To be continued)
[The illustration used in this post is Gary Gianni's and comes from the Del Rey edition of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.]