Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism: The African and African-American Poems

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In his essay “Tevis Clyde Smith, Jr.,” Howard scholar Rusty Burke tackles the issue of Howard’s racism head on:

Both Clyde and Bob were confirmed, unabashed racists. Bob seemed to be able to “give any man his due,” judging individuals on merit – this was probably true of Clyde, as well. But both men were given to sweeping racist generalities. In the South of the 1930s, they were firmly in the mainstream, and we may simply say they were products of their time…. (Report on a Writing Man & Other Reminiscences of Robert E. Howard by Tevis Clyde Smith, Necronomicon Press, 1991)

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That “Bob seemed to be able to give any man his due” fits in with Howard’s character as a complex man who often held opposing viecrovwpoints on the same subject. Anyone reading Howard’s stories and letters will find they contain racial remarks. Reviewing these writings to discover whether he was a racist is difficult. Some were edited by publishers; others were deliberately written for the market or directed towards the tastes of his correspondent. So it is in his poetry, mostly the unpublished poems, that we search for Howard’s ability to “give any man his due,” examining each poem to consider how much Howard was influenced by the mainstream beliefs about racism that were prevalent during his lifetime.

Just picking up a dictionary and looking up “racism” would make this analysis fairly simple. The only thing to be done would be to compare each poem with the definition.However, a word may be defined differently in different time periods. A good example is the word “bully” which in Howard’s day meant a “fine chap”; today it has changed to a “person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” Even more complicated is that, according to George M Fredrickson’s book, Racism A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002) the word “racism” didn’t appear in most dictionaries until after World War II. The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1991) defines racism as:

 a belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudices based on this. An antagonism towards other races especially as a result of this and a theory that human abilities, etc., are determined by race.  (emphasis mine)

But we all have prejudices and at times feel superior to others for various reasons. While many people may agree that we are created equal in the eyes of God, the “reality” seems to be different. There are some who are smarter, faster, more beautiful, and more talented both creatively and artistically than the rest of us even within and between each of the races.

Do feelings or thoughts of superiority in and of themselves constitute racism or discrimination? Speaking from the point of view of a woman, a man who thinks all men are superior to all women is no threat. It’s easy to brush off his prejudices as “unenlightened” or “boorish.” This is possible, that is, until he begins to discriminate by enforcing “glass ceilings” so that women who are more qualified cannot advance, or in a broader application, passing laws that forbid all women from pursuing an education, owning property, or voting. In effect denying them their rights as American citizens. In addition, these things are denied to them solely because they are women. Prejudice is feelings and thoughts of superiority; discrimination includes acts to enforce and protect those feelings of superiority. Prejudice and discrimination most often go hand in hand.

Since we are allowed privacy in our thoughts and feelings, what happens to the dictionary definitions of racism: “a belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudices based on this. An antagonism towards other races especially as a result of this and a theory that human abilities, etc., are determined by race.”? Our beliefs and thoughts may reflect prejudice but do they constitute racism? And what happens when these private thoughts and beliefs are verbally expressed?

Although the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution protects the right of free speech, there are restrictions on it. For example, you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater nor incite a riot. And what about someone who expresses him or herself vocally against women, races, gays/lesbians or other religions? Should they be considered racists or are they merely offensive to the rest of us?

In his book Racism a Short History, Professor Fredrickson’s defines racism, stating that there must be more than ideas and beliefs:

But racism as I conceive it is not merely an attitude or set of beliefs; it also expresses itself in the practices, institutions, and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates. Racism, therefore, is more than theorizing about human differences or thinking badly of a group over which one has no control. It either directly sustains or proposes to establish a racial order, a permanent group hierarchy that is believed to reflect the laws of nature or the decrees of God. (emphasis mine)

And, most helpful, Fredrickson gives guidelines for recognizing racism:

(1) there is an official ideology that is explicitly racist and dissent from this ideology is dangerous; (2) this sense of radical difference and alienation is most clearly and dramatically expressed in laws forbidding interracial marriage; (3) social segregation is mandated by law and not merely the product of custom or private acts of discrimination that are tolerated by the state; (4) to the extent that the policy is formally democratic, outgroup members are excluded from holding public office or even exercising the franchise; (5) the access that they have to resources and economic opportunities is so limited that most of those in the stigmatized category are either kept in poverty or deliberately impoverished.

With this working definition of “racism,” attention can be focused on the mainstream beliefs about racism historically and during Howard’s lifetime.

As Fredrickson points out in Racism a Short History, the color-coded, or white-over-black variety of racism “did not have significant medieval roots and was mainly a product of the modern period.” He further states: “White Supremacy attained its fullest ideological and institutional development in the southern United States between the 1890s and the 1950s.” In fact, it started out as a claim that Aryans or Nordics were superior to other people normally considered “white” or “caucasian.”

When this ideology was broadened to include all whites so that any people of color were considered inferior, the resulting discrimination against African-Americans led down a path that shocked other civilized nations:

In the South, however, blacks were the victims of such hate-filled brutality in the early years of the twentieth century that even a visiting South African segregationist could find it appalling. In the era of what Joel Williamson has called “radical racism,” white southerners did things to African-Americans that few, if any, imperial powers would have allowed their white settlers to do to “the natives” once they were subjugated. Not only were Jim Crow laws passed governing even the most trivial forms of social contact, but also black males were deprived of the suffrage rights that many of them had once possessed, and an epidemic of sadistic lynching parties and one-sided “race riots” swept the South.

How could brutal acts such as those perpetrated against people of color in the United States become so prevalent in a country whose Declaration of Independence states the following:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…

And how could this practice of discrimination be reconciled with the Christian doctrine that the Crucifixion offers grace to all who are willing to receive it, making all Christian believers equal before God?

According to Racism A Short History, at first blacks were considered brothers and sisters in Christ upon their conversion to Christianity. Later, European countries identified blacks with servitude for multiple reasons: Europeans were ceasing to enslave other Europeans at the same time when African slaves became suddenly and readily available; African slaves were non-Christians; and the subjugation of Blacks was the only way to “save” them. When it was discovered that black African skin pigmentation differed from the brown skin of Brazilian natives who lived in a similar climate, a Biblical reason was offered:

One possible rationale for holding Africans in servitude regardless of their religious status was the myth of the Curse of Ham or Canaan based on a mysterious passage in the book of Genesis. Ham drew the wrath of God because he viewed his father, Noah, in a naked and apparently inebriated state and mocked him. For this transgression, his son Canaan and all Canaan’s descendants were condemned to be “servants unto servants.” The value of this legend to the ancient Hebrews was that it justified their conquest and subjugation of the Canaanites. But among medieval Arabs importing slaves from East Africa to the Middle East, the emphasis shifted from Canaan to Ham, widely believed to be the ancestor of all Africans and the physical result of the curse became a blackening of the skin.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of racism went from one based in religion to that of science. Racism a Short History lists several “scientific” theories offered as explanation for the inferiority of the Black race based on either the polygenetic theory in England or that of polygenesis that was popular in France.   The French concept of polygenesis greatly influenced proslavery writers in the USA.  The leading French advocate of this theory was Jean-Joseph Virey, “whose conclusions about blacks included assertions that they copulated with apes in Africa and had brains and blood the same color as their skin.”

Fredrickson points out however, that whatever theories the French and British may have held regarding Blacks, their treatment of Africans was vastly different from that in the United States. Black servants imported into England and France were not a separate caste and intermarriage between white and black servants occurred in both countries.

On the other side of the Atlantic, an “American School of Ethnology” which came to prominence in the 1840s and 1850s, provoked resistance from the religiously orthodox by presenting reams of “scientific” evidence to support the proposition that the country’s three main races—whites, blacks, and American Indians—belonged to separately created and vastly unequal species.)

But pro-slavery adherents needed more than the theory there were different types of men and that they were created separately and unequally. This viecrovwpoint of multiple races of men did not agree with Christians who were becoming more influential in the South. Some proslavery polemicists in the antebellum United States (those who rejected scientific racism on religious grounds) were the first to make sustained and elaborate use of the Hamitic legend to show that racial slavery was divinely sanctioned.

In fact, Fredrickson reiterates this viecrovwpoint adding:

In my view the curse was not securely linked to the polemical defense of slavery until it became an alternative rationale for southerners who resisted scientific racism on fundamentalist religious grounds.

By now slavery was defended on grounds other than race, i.e., it existed in Biblical times and was not forbidden by Christ. But it was the disenfranchisement and the segregation of and the violence against the “free” blacks in the border and northern states that gave the message that color was an obstacle to membership in the free nation. Fredrickson explains:

By the time of the First World War, the dominant discourse about blacks in the white South was shifting from one expressing utter contempt and even genocidal hatred to one characterized more often by paternalism and condescending benevolence. By this time, of course, blacks had been removed from the electorate, and the Jim Crow system was not only fully established but relatively immune to challenge from outside the South. America’s mode of white supremacy, unlike South Africa’s, originated primarily in the slave trade with Africa rather than in the colonization of that continent. n his book The Arrogance of Race (Wesleyan Univ. Press, c.1988), George Fredrickson states that toward the end of the 1880s economic conditions led to the rise in the number of black vagrants.  Black crime probably also increased and the isolated homesteads were particularly vulnerable.

Of much greater importance, however, was the fact that the same depressed economic conditions responsible for increasing the underclass of black drifters were preventing many white males from fulfilling their traditional responsibilities as good providers for their families. Unable to serve their women effectively as breadwinners, white males attempted to serve them in a different way—as protectors against the alleged threat of black rapists. This explosive combination of economic, sexual and cultural frustration led to an acceptance of lynching as a legitimate way of protecting white womanhood and bolstering the male ego.

According to Racism a Short History, the basis of the Jim Crow laws was the need to enforce segregation between the races: “Hitler invoked racist theories to justify his genocidal treatment of European Jewry, as did white supremacists in the American South to explain why Jim Crow laws were needed to keep whites and blacks separated and unequal.” (emphasis mine)

The website, The History of Jim Crow Laws: Explore the Complex African-American Experience of Segregation from the 1870s Through the 1950s elaborates on this further:

Although the rule of Jim Crow took many forms, the legal side of white supremacy (laws and court rulings) began first in the South before spreading across the nation…Violence against African-Americans spread like an epidemic across the South until the 1930s, with the most extreme expressions of racism taking the form of lynching’s [sic] and urban riots. During the Jim Crow era, the word lynching came to mean mob violence against African-Americans, capital punishment without the sanction of law, ritualized torture, and explosive race riots that erupted in nearly every part of the country. More often than not the alleged crimes committed by lynching victims were trumped up and even imaginary.

Essentially the Jim Crow laws were directed against Black-Americans but eventually included other ethnicities, cultures and religions, and were enacted in virtually all states between 1876 and 1965. These laws mandated “separate but equal” segregation of all public facilities. The “separate but equal” public facilities for blacks were far inferior to those of whites.  The laws were so strictly enforced that blacks could not sit in the seats designated for whites on a bus even though the back of the bus – the “black section” – was so crowded people were standing and there were empty rows in the “white section.”

The Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws were enforced by lynch mobs who burned to death or hanged any blacks who did not respect the color line. In the Robert E. Howard United Press Association Mailing 228, “An Age Undreamed Of” (No. 6 April 2011), Jeff Shanks describes the 1916 Waco, Texas lynching of sixteen-year-old Jesse Washington, a black who confessed to the criminal assault upon and murder of Mrs. Lucy Fryar:

Newspaper accounts at the time went into gruesome detail describing how Washington was dragged out of a courtroom, castrated, mutilated, hanged with a chain and slowly roasted for over an hour while 15,000 men, women and children watched and cheered… A professional photographer set up his camera to record the event so he could sell postcards depicting Washington’s charred body. The local newspaper account describes children pulling teeth from the victim’s severed head to keep as souvenirs.

Further research reveals that Washington, who was said to be mentally retarded, was doused with gasoline when he was dragged from the courtroom. In her book, The First Waco Horror: the Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP (Centennial Series of the Association of Former Students, Texas A&M No. 101, 2005), Patricia Bernstein, a Houston resident and a graduate in American Studies gives more information about the lynching;

The sadistic nature of the crime and the enthusiastic participation of thousands as spectators are plain in the photograph described above [below] and in others taken by commercial photographer Fred Gildersleeve that day. Even in the vast bloodbath of lynchings that washed across the South and the Midwest during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the Waco lynching stands out. There were so-called race riots in other cities, large and small, in which dozens of black people were injured or killed and whole black neighborhoods destroyed. There were also other supremely hideous lynchings of individuals and small groups of people, but most of these took place in small towns, rural areas, or out in the woods. The Waco Horror—public torture treated as a thrilling spectacle by thousands in a well-established modern city with some pretensions to culture and enlightenment—was unique.

The Texas State Historical Association on the same subject adds:

Although the American entrance into World War I delayed the NAACP campaign until 1919, the “Waco Horror” remained a vivid indication that though the frequency of lynchings had begun to decline in the United States after 1900, those incidents that still occurred often were characterized by extreme barbarity.

And not only were the lives and safety of African-Americans at risk, so were those of anyone who disagreed with the White Supremacists. REH was not kidding when he warned Novalyne Price Ellis about expressing her viecrovwpoints regarding Blacks and he emphasizes this:

“Why, girl,” Bob said. “what you said about Negroes today no man in the town would understand, and they might even run you out of town, or tar and feather you.” (One Who Walks Alone)

The fact that Novalyne was a woman would not have saved her from being assaulted. Any opinions that blacks were entitled to freedom and respect were severely dealt with by White Supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan which stamped out such ideas and actions with a viciousness and thoroughness that shocked other civilized nations. As the Peter Mansbender website states:

Imagine 170,000 hate-filled Texans organized into a secret, very powerful society. A society that openly preached white supremacy and hatred for blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants. A society so powerful that its members and friends controlled local and county politics, dominated the Texas Legislature,  and elected a U.S. senator. A society that kidnapped and beat those who disagreed with them and, because they controlled local law enforcement, did so without fear of prosecution. [emphasis mine]

On its website, the Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 lynchings of blacks and 1,297 lynchings of whites between 1882 and 1968. The creation of the Jim Crow laws, beginning in the 1890s, completed the revival of white supremacy in the South. Terror and lynching were used to enforce both these formal laws and a variety of unwritten rules of conduct meant to assert white domination. In most years from 1889 to 1923, there were 50–100 lynchings annually across the South.

The most common reasons given by mobs for the lynchings were murder and rape. As documented by Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), who was an international lecturer on lynchings in the United States, such charges were often pretexts for lynching blacks who violated Jim Crow etiquette or engaged in economic competition with whites. Other common reasons given included arson, theft, assault, and robbery; sexual transgressions (miscegenation, adultery, cohabitation); “race prejudice,” “race hatred,” “racial disturbance,” “informing on others,” “threats against whites,” and violations of the color line (“attending white girl,” “proposals to white woman”).

In Without Sanctuary, a book of lynching postcards collected by James Allen, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon F. Litwack wrote:

The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another. For the men and women who composed these mobs, as for those who remained silent and indifferent or who provided scholarly or scientific explanations, this was the highest idealism in the service of their race. One has only to view the self-satisfied expressions on their faces as they posed beneath black people hanging from a rope or next to the charred remains of a Negro who had been burned to death. What is most disturbing about these scenes is the discovery that the perpetrators of the crimes were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves – merchants, farmers, laborers, machine operators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students; they were family men and women, good churchgoing folk who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control, a way of combating an epidemic or virus that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community.

As noted previously, the KKK membership itself was community based, making it even more difficult to bring members who violated the law to justice. The website, Between the Wars, Making the Invisible Empire Visible The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, states:

Given that the Klan often reflected a cross-section of the community, its members were often deeply embedded in the local power structure. In places like Atlanta, Georgia, the Klan pervaded the political and legal system–Klansmen filled prominent positions in the police, the courts, and the city government. Newspapers sanctioned their activities and important local businesses like Coca-Cola advertised in their publication.

On the website dedicated to the history of Baytown, Texas their heritage involving the KKK gives insight into how it controlled communities:

The Klan method of operation usually began with gossip about the so-called immorality of a citizen. After the story got around, an organized mob would invade the individual’s home or business, put a sack over the victim’s head and then lead him or her away to be whipped.

In one incident after whipping a woman, the mob held a prayer meeting and then took her back home. In another incident, the Klansmen left a man and woman chained together. In yet another incident, a man and woman were beaten on a lonely country road. The assailants then cut off the woman’s long black hair and hung it from a telephone pole on Texas Avenue in Baytown. Horrified citizens attempted to organize at a called meeting, but they were afraid to speak out. After milling about for an hour, the gathering dispersed. Local law enforcement officers also were intimidated, afraid to confront the Klan.

It was dangerous to disagree with White Supremacists and became even more so as this movement spread. Again, quoting from the article “Between the Wars”:

But when the real growth came in the 1920s, the Klan spread well beyond the South. More than three million Americans joined; many of them were urban residents and it won political power in such non-Southern states as Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon. In this period, its public statements were more likely to attack Jews, Catholics, and immigrants than African-Americans.

As Fredrickson points out in Racism a Short History, it took the inhuman treatment of Jews by the Germans to finally arouse “soul-searching and moral revulsion by revealing what happened when extreme racism was carried to its logical outcome.” Still, the loss of rights and the violence against Blacks continued with little legal recourse by them until the 1950s and 1960s when new civil rights laws were enacted. This time it was done with Russia’s inadvertent help:

In the competition with the Soviet Union for the “hearts and minds” of independent Africans and Asians, Jim Crow and the ideology that sustained it became a national embarrassment with possible strategic consequences.

Many white southerners accused the U.S. civil rights movement of Martin Luther King of being a Communist plot funded by the U.S.S.R. in order to destroy the United States through miscegenation.

In 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Pace v. Alabama (1883) in a unanimous decision that declared Virginia‘s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, unconstitutional. At that time there were sixteen states that still had anti-miscegenation laws in their state constitutions. Not all the state’s repealed these laws in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Loving. There was one state that held out. According to the website

In November 2000, (emphasis mine) after a statewide vote in a special election, Alabama became the last state to overturn a law that was an ugly reminder of America’s past, a ban on interracial marriage. The one-time home of George Wallace and Martin Luther King Jr. had held onto the provision for 33 years after the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Yet as the election revealed — 40 percent of Alabamans voted to keep the ban — many people still see the necessity for a law that prohibits blacks and whites from mixing blood.

On January 22, 1906, ninety-four years before the last racism law was repealed, Robert E. Howard was born in Peaster, Texas and grew up in a world dominated by anti-black racism which was at its strongest between the end of the Reconstruction period and the First World War.


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Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism: The African and African-American Poems. (2017, Jul 18). Retrieved from

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