Column: Undercurrents: Examining the Racism of Jack London J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 19, 2005

What should progressives do when confronted with the fact that they live in a city that honors a figure who has advocated beliefs or committed acts that progressives would normally condemn? 

Berkeley faced that dilemma some weeks ago after a majority of the Jefferson Elementary School community voted to change that school’s name because of Thomas Jefferson’s status as a man who kept African captives. The Berkeley School Board later decided to keep the school name, but not without agonizing over the decision. 

Oakland may some day—if it so chooses—face that same difficulty over its most famous favorite son, author Jack London. While Mr. London is best known for his writing (such as The Call of the Wild) and somewhat lesser-known as a socialist activist (which Oakland’s corporate community would like us to conveniently overlook), it is an open secret that Mr. London was almost certainly an open and unashamed racist during a period when the term had a clear and present meaning. 

Mr. London’s mostly-forgotten 1911 novel Adventure starts with the passage: “He was a very sick white man. He rode pick-a-back on a woolly-headed, black-skinned savage.” It gets worse. The novel’s black-stereotype contents prompted UC Berkeley’s digital library, where the entire book is posted, to include the notation in the link to the book: “Located in the Solomon Islands, this devastating portrayal of copra plantation slavery has scholars arguing whether London was criticizing the racism of the colonialists or approving of it.” 

We are reminded, again, of Mr. London’s views of the darker races of the world by the recent release—by Heyday Books of Berkeley and Santa Clara University—of a collection of Mr. London’s San Francisco Bay boys’ stories Tales of the Fish Patrol. In his foreword to the book, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jerry George notes, a little gingerly, it seems, that “Considering the atmosphere of Jack London’s times, it’s not surprising that the villains—cunning, conniving, and arrogant, perfect for youthful adventure—are Chinese and Greek fishermen. …[W]e cannot expect the stories to be written with 21st century sensibilities about ethnicity.” 

We will resist the temptation to debate Mr. George about what we might expect or not expect from writers of the early 20th century (after all, in the face of the raging anti-African propaganda that was sweeping the country 20 years before Mr. London’s birth and 60 years before the Fish Patrol stories were written, a little New England woman named Beecher Stowe managed to write a whole book that portrayed black people as whole human beings). 

But a glance at the first story in Tales of the Fish Patrol, “White and Yellow,” shows immediately what Mr. George was referring to. Unable to communicate with a group of Chinese shrimp-fishermen about the fact that their boat is about to sink, Mr. London has the main character, the 16-year-old hero, resort to child-like, Chinese-stereotype gibberish to try to get them to understand. “Allee same dlown, velly quick, you no bail now,” he tells them. “Sabbe?” 

(For those born in a different, more enlightened time and never exposed to this kind of oddly-written language, Mr. London’s character was mocking the fact that because there is no “r” sound in some Chinese languages, native speakers of those languages regularly substitute an “l” for an “r.” Many Africans were similarly ridiculed because they—we—came into this country during the slave trade often came from countries with no “th” in their language, and so they substituted a “d” for a “th.” And so Margaret Mitchell has the captive African Mammy ask Missy Scarlett, in Gone With The Wind, say the almost incomprehensible concerning the Tarleton twins, “Is de gempmum gone? Huccome you din’ ast dem ter stay fer supper, Miss Scarlett? Ah done tole Poke ter lay two extry plates fer dem.” 19th and 20th century authors often used the device to show ignorance in the darker races—how dumb of them that they can’t grasp our language is the subtext—but it is, of course, a cultural-physical phenomenon rather than a mental defect. Those who don’t learn these linguistic tricks in childhood most often find them impossible to pick up in later years. Native English speakers sound equally awkward trying to trill our r’s, and one wonders how that is portrayed in Spanish literature.) 

In any event I’m sure the merchants and shoppers in Oakland’s Chinatown would be highly offended if I walked the six or seven blocks from Jack London Square—where the author of Tales of the Fish Patrol is honored by the citizens of Oakland with a statue and other such stuff—and stood in front of one of the grocery markets and asked people to get out of my way “velly quick.” 

So does that mean that Oakland needs to rethink its honoring of Jack London based on a reappraisal of the anti-black, anti-Chinese, anti-dark-folk aspects of the author’s beliefs and work? Absolutely. If Jack London continues to deserve our honor, we should give it only with full knowledge of all of his public attributes, the bad as well as the good. Private matters such marital infidelity can be overlooked—President Dwight Eisenhower and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. come immediately to mind on that score—when these are things which our heroes attempted to keep hidden from public eye, and when they do not contradict the things for which the honored one is honored. But though Oaklanders have been doing a pretty good job of it, it is hard to pretend not to notice the sentiments that Mr. London prominently promoted in his books when it is for the writing of those books, alone, that he is being honored. 

But does that mean that Oakland should stop honoring Jack London? Not necessarily. (Since we are the children of the children of those times—and thus continue to carry the prejudices and the results of those prejudices with us—it would do some good to understand why a man like Jack London, who championed the little white guy against the “iron heel” of the American corporations did not seem to understand how the dark races and nations suffered equally under the “iron heel” of the European imperial powers of his day.) Or, for that matter, suffered under the prejudice of Mr. London’s own writings. What was it about him—or the times he lived in—that gave Mr. London such a blind eye? Answering such questions might give us some insight into our own lack of sight. 

A public dialogue on Mr. London’s prejudices might also lead to an understanding of how men like Tom Jefferson and George Washington were ready to sacrifice their lives to win democratic rights for the landed planters of Virginia and the merchants of Massachusetts, but did not believe that such “inalienable rights given by God” were also due to women and blacks and all people without property. 

Discussions of the long-hidden backsides of longtime honorees can be painful, of course. But if we want our heroes and heroines to be real men and women whose examples of struggle can be followed—rather than gods and goddesses merely to be worshipped—then such discussions are necessary.