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Volume 7377

Race Issues in Edgar Rice Burroughs Fiction
Understanding Context in the Tarzan Stories
Part One: Black Slurs
by Alan Hanson 

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Race Issues in Edgar Rice Burroughs Fiction
Understanding Context in the Tarzan Stories
Part One: Black Slurs
by Alan Hanson
The Accusers
At Howard University on April 22, 1967, Muhammad Ali gave a speech on the lack black pride in America. “We’ve been brainwashed,” he said. “Everything good is supposed to be white … Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white.

On June 16, 1972, UPI news service reported that the chairman of the Oregon Black Caucus protested Portland TV station KATU’s broadcasting of a Tarzan series. “The ‘Tarzan’ movies are an insult to black people,” Dr. Lee P. Brown said. “They perpetuate the myth of white superiority. They are demeaning of the African nations as well as Americans of African decent.

Nine days later, a letter to the editor from Russ Manning appeared in The Register, an Orange, California, newspaper: “When the chairman of the Black Caucus, Dr. Lee P. Brown, noted the possible racial slurs in the Tarzan movies, he showed his understanding of the situation by attacking the movies, and not Tarzan himself. Dr. Brown has evidently read the original novels and knows that Tarzan is above prejudice and intolerance, that Tarzan mistrusts the entire human race, particularly ‘civilized’ man and puts his truth in the individuals, black or animal, who have proved themselves worthy of it.

On the afternoon of April 9, 1989, the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest met in the Chicago suburb to hear Edgar Rice Burroughs collector Jerry Spannraft talk about the author, who had once called Oak Park his home. During the question and answer period following the presentation, an unidentified man in the audience stood up and began reading a prepared text.

As it became clear that the statement was critical of Burroughs’ treatment of blacks in his fiction, the ERB faithful in the audience began to interrupt. “He was typical of his time!” “Have you read the books?” “Make your point!” “Write a letter to the paper.” A black man representing the NAACP then rose in the back of the room to accuse the historical society of honoring a “racist” author in Burroughs. As emotions heated up in the room, the historical society’s president ended the meeting.

Now well into the 21st century, the criticism of Tarzan continues to cast a shadow over his creator. The 87-year-old Harry Belafonte, on receiving an honorary Oscar in Los Angeles on November 8, 2014, spoke of the adverse effects the character of Tarzan has had on the minds of young African Americans:

In 1935, at the age of 8, sitting in a Harlem theater, I watched in awe and wonder incredible feats of the white superhero, Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan was a sight to see. This porcelain Adonis, this white liberator, who could speak no language, swinging from tree to tree, saving Africa from the tragedy of destruction by a black indigenous population of inept, ignorant, void-of-any-skills population, governed by ancient superstitions with no heart for Christian charity.

Through this film the virus of racial inferiority — of never wanting to be identified with anything African — swept into the psyche of its youthful observers. And for the years that followed, Hollywood brought abundant opportunity for black children in their Harlem theaters to cheer Tarzan and boo Africans … But these encounters set other things in motion. It was an early stimulus to the beginning of my rebellion. Rebellion against injustice and human distortion and hate.” 

ERB’s Use of the “N-word”
In dismissing Harry Belafonte’s racial indictment of Tarzan, Burroughs fans today could simply assume the same fallback position that Russ Manning stated over 40 years ago — the ape-man created by Edgar Rice Burroughs was a different, nobler, more open-minded Tarzan than the one conceived by Hollywood.

As a Burroughs enthusiast, I certainly never considered him a racist author. Along with the multitudes who have read his Tarzan stories, I was drawn to the author’s exceptional story-telling ability. The ape-man’s extraordinary capability to mold his environment to conform to his inherent sense of right and wrong appealed to me. However, as the examples above show, down through the years, Tarzan has from time to time been branded a racist character. In the politically correct era in which we live, such accusations will continue to surface occasionally, and even if they are aimed at the film portrayals of Tarzan, they must inevitably reflect upon the reputation of the ape-man’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Had I been in the audience at Oak Park back in 1989, I might well have risen to defend Burroughs as others did. In reflection, though, it seems to me that ERB fans need to be less emotional and more thoughtful about the strategies they use to address accusations that Burroughs was a racist author. For example, to say he was “typical of his time,” is no defense at all. It’s essentially admitting that he was a racist, just like many other white people during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were some whites, however, who had the courage to stand up and speak out for black civil rights during that era, and if some ERB fans think he should be counted in that group, then they have to provide justification to support that contention. Is there such evidence in Burroughs’ fiction to suggest he was sympathetic to the rights of black people? Perhaps, but it would require first overcoming some difficult obstacles in the Tarzan stories.

That leads to another problematic line of defense a Burroughs enthusiast voiced at the Oak Park meeting in 1989 … “Have you read the books?” It’s certainly fair to question the critical statements of someone who has not read ERB’s fiction. But might suggesting that such critics read the Tarzan stories backfire? Is it possible that they might find there more evidence they can use to support their racist charges? For instance, the author has been accused of implying white superiority in Africa through his common usage of the term bwana in his Tarzan stories. (See “Tarzan and the Bwana Indictment” at

The present purpose here, though, is to consider ERB’s use in his fiction of other, more sensitive and emotional terms, namely black racial slurs. In his 1972 letter noted above, Russ Manning inferred that racial slurs do not appear in Burroughs’ Tarzan stories. In fact, by my count, Burroughs used the term nigger, the most sensitive of such slurs, 44 times in 10 of his published Tarzan stories, starting with The Eternal Lover in 1914 and continuing through Tarzan the Magnificent in 1937.

Some Burroughs fans find the discussion of such a topic concerning their favorite author distasteful. However, the accusation that ERB is a racist author is not going to just go away. It will resurface from time to time, and if Burroughs fans want the ability to mount a reasoned defense, they must know what appears in his writing that critics might use against him.

These days the mere appearance of black slurs in Burroughs’ works would be enough for some activists to condemn him, but knowledge of the context in which he used those terms can be the basis for a strong counter argument. We know, for instance, that in some communities, zealots have tried to have books, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, banned from local libraries and schools on the sole basis that the term nigger appears in the text. Anyone who has read those stories, however, knows that in both novels the term is used in a negative context to further the author’s theme that discrimination against black people has always been irrational and harmful.

It’s not fair, then, to Twain and Harper, or to any author, including Burroughs, to criticize the use of the term without first examining how and for what purpose they employed what was a commonly used slur in the first half of the last century. Racial segregation was then legal and widely practiced in many sectors of American society, including in schools and in the military.

Examining the context in which Edgar Rice Burroughs used black racial slurs in his fiction will help clarify how he should be judged, as an author, on the subject of racial tolerance. 

The Evidence: The “N-word” in the Tarzan Stories
When I originally read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories in Ballantine paperback editions back in 1963 and 1964, the author’s use of the word nigger escaped me. For the most part, that was because it had been edited out or replaced by innocuous alternate terms in all but one of the Ballantine editions. (For the record, the nine Ace Books Tarzan titles published in 1963 were faithful in all respects to Burroughs’ original text.)

It wasn’t until over three decades later, when my aging eyes prompted me to switch to the larger type in Grosset and Dunlap hardback reprints, that I realized Burroughs had used the racial slur in some of his Tarzan stories. Burroughs also used the term in a handful of non-Tarzan titles (The Mucker, Marcia of the Doorstep, The Man-eater, Pirate Blood), but this survey will focus solely on its use in Burroughs’ far more prominent Tarzan stories.

Burroughs first used the slur in The Eternal Lover, written in 1913. In the story, when an American woman, Virginia Custer, is apparently abducted from Lord Greystoke’s African estate, Tarzan and several other men set out to track and rescue her. When they later come upon Nu, a resurrected cave man from a bygone era, William Curtiss, a suitor of the missing girl, confronted the suspected kidnapper. “Where is Victoria Custer? And when you speak to me remember that I’m Mr. Curtiss — you damned white nigger.

Burroughs portrayed Curtiss as an arrogant and intolerant young man. Neither Tarzan nor Barney Custer, Victoria’s brother, used the slur in the story. In fact, Barney patiently tried to explain the reason for Curtiss’ anger to Nu. “‘I see,” said Nu. “And what is a ‘nigger’ and a ‘mister’?” Burroughs noted only that, “Again Barney did his best to explain.

The following year the author used the slur just once in his third Tarzan novel, The Beasts of Tarzan. The term surfaced in dialogue by Gust, an unsavory Swede, who engaged in mutinous intrigue with other cutthroats on a pirate schooner. Gust’s use of the degrading slur infuriated a shipmate:

Ah!” exclaimed Gust, “there is where you are wrong. There is where you are lucky that you have an educated man like me to tell you what to do. You are a poor nigger, Momulla, and so you know nothing of wireless.”

The Maori leaped to his feet and laid his hand upon the hilt of his knife. “I am no nigger,” he shouted.

Burroughs used the slur again in his next Tarzan story, 1915’s The Son of Tarzan. This time two evil Swedes got into an argument after one attempted to molest the captive Meriem.

You’re getting damned virtuous all of a sudden,” growled Malbihn. “Perhaps you think I have forgotten about the inn keeper’s daughter, and little Celella, and that nigger at—

Shut Up!” snapped Jenssen.

Between 1916 and 1921, Burroughs wrote four more Tarzan novels, but did not use the slur in any of them.

Then, in 1922’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion, the term appeared eight times. All were voiced in dialogue by disreputable members of a band of conspirators, who came to Tarzan’s Africa intent on stealing a fortune in gold from the treasure vaults of Opar. Four of the conspirators used the slur in reference to African natives, either porters employed by the conspirators or tribes that threatened the safari.

Adolph Bluber: “It takes more as a bunch of niggers to bluff Adolph Bluber.

Flora Hawkes: “You just tell Owaza that you’re thinking of going after Tarzan of the Apes and his Waziri to take the gold away from them, and see how long it’d be before we wouldn’t have a single nigger with us.

John Peebles: “What in ’ell are we goin’ to do wanderin’ around in this ’ere jungle without no niggers to hunt for us, or cook for us, or carry things for us, or find our way for us …

Dick Throck: “I guess there ain’t nothin’ else to do, but blime if I likes to run away, says I, leastwise not for no dirty niggers.

It would be five more years before Burroughs would again use the notorious slur in his fiction. In 1927’s Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, American big game hunter Wilbur Stimbol revealed a deep-seated racial streak by repeatedly referring to his safari’s porters and askari with the demeaning term. He called a porter who dropped his load, a “damned clumsy nigger,” and told another, “I’m not paying you damned niggers for advice. If I say hunt, we hunt, and don’t you forget it.” Later he told his hunting partner James Blake, “I don’t chum with niggers.

After deciding to go his separate ways following an argument over Stimbol’s treatment of the native carriers, Blake suggested they offer the men extra pay to split the safari. “My men will live up to their original agreement,” Stimbol declared, “or there’ll be some mighty sick niggers in these parts.” Later, when his “boy” didn’t come to Stimbol’s tent when called, the American grumbled, “The lazy niggers. They’ll step a little livelier when I get out there.” He soon learned that all his men had left, leaving him alone in the jungle.

The next time the offensive slur appeared in a Burroughs Tarzan novel, a much different and unexpected character gave voice to it. Having grown up in Alabama, Robert Jones would have heard countless racial slurs directed at him and other Southern blacks. Apparently they became part of his own vocabulary, as he used the most common one twice while serving as the cook at the 0-220 airship’s expedition to Pellucidar in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.

After awaking from a nap on the ship’s landing, he, “yawned, stretched, turned over in his narrow berth aboard the 0-220, opened his eyes and sat up with an exclamation of surprise. He jumped to the floor and stuck his head out of an open port. ‘Lawd, niggah!’ he exclaimed; ‘you all suah done overslep yo’sef.” And later, as he watched 10 Waziri warriors leave the ship to search for Tarzan, Jones swelled with pride. “Dem niggahs is sho nuf hot babies,” he murmured. 

Burroughs’ stereotypical portrayal of Jones and other black American characters in his fiction is another racial theme that needs to be considered. Keeping to the present topic for now, though, it’s clear that Robert Jones’ use of the slur in question was Burroughs attempting to use a stylistic idiom of self-expression used by many black Americans of that era in reference to each other.

In Burroughs’ next Tarzan novel, Tarzan the Invincible, the racial slur is used twice during a confrontation beneath the haunting walls of Opar. Russian villain Peter Zveri and his fellow conspirators had brought 10 native followers with them to pillage Oparian gold to finance their plot to foment a European war. When Zveri ordered the reluctant askari to enter Opar, guns were raised on both sides. “Lay off, Peter,” said one of the other conspirators. “You will have the whole bunch on us in a minute and we shall all be killed. Every nigger in the outfit is in sympathy with these men.” 

Entering the edifice without the askari, the conspirators’ nerves were rattled by the echo of a warning scream. “Shut up,” Zveri told one of them. “Stop thinking about it, or you’ll go yellow like those damn niggers.”

In Tarzan Triumphant, the slur is used only once, and that, for a change, by a likeable character. Danny “Gunner” Patrick, a small time Chicago racketeer hiding out in Africa, intended to compliment his hometown African Americans when he told his traveling partner, “most of ’em is regular, at that. I knew some nigger cops in Chi that never looked to frame a guy.” (The lovable, uneducated Chicago hood also used a variety of other slurs to refer to blacks. Those will be detailed in Part 2.)

When Burroughs wrote Tarzan and the Lion Man in 1933, he used nigger in narration for the first and only time in his fiction. Referring to Tom Orman, the director of a Hollywood movie company filming on location in Africa, the author noted, “It seemed to him that everything had gone wrong, that everything had conspired against him. And now these damn niggers, as he thought of them, were lying down on the job.” It should be noted, though, that Burroughs made it clear parenthetically that he was, in effect, quoting a character’s thoughts.

Portraying Orman as an arrogant and angry alcoholic, Burroughs had him repeatedly demean his black porters. On learning one morning that some had deserted during the night, Orman declared, “We still got more niggers than we need anyway.” And when other members of the company counseled him to put an end to the expedition, the director growled, “Well, turn back if you want to, and take the niggers with you. I’m going on with the trucks and the company.”

 Another character, Jerrold Baine, an actor in the company, earlier had advised Orman, “to treat those niggers rough.” It should be noted that in 1933 Burroughs was able to sell the first serialization of Tarzan and the Lion Man to Liberty magazine, and so reach a much wider audience than available through the pulp magazines that published his other Tarzan stories. 

In the two parts of Tarzan the Magnificent, written by Burroughs in 1936-37, he used the slur 10 times, by far the most among all of his Tarzan stories. (For some unknown reason, although Ballantine Books excised every use of the racial slur from all the other Tarzan books it published, none of its appearances were removed from Ballantine’s first 1964 paperback edition of Magnificent, nor from any of its subsequent printings.)

All 10 uses of the slur appeared in dialogue voiced by Spike and Troll, a pair of felonious African hunters in the story:

Spike: “I never knew it to fail that you didn’t get into trouble with any bunch of heathen if you started mixin’ up with their women folk — especially niggers. But a guy’s got it comin’ to him that plays around with a nigger wench.

Spike: “You (Tarzan) mean to say you’re goin’ to give the big rock back to the niggers and we don’t get no split?

Spike: “The bloke’s balmy. The nerve of him, givin’ the Gonfal back to them niggers.

Troll: “An he (Tarzan) gives the emerald to that damn nigger wench (Gonfala). Wot’ll she do with it? The American’ll (Stanley Wood) get it. She thinks he’s soft on her, thinks he’s goin’ to marry her; but whoever heard of an American marryin’ a nigger.

Spike: “You (Troll) may need another gun in some of the country we got to go through. You’d never get through alone with just six niggers.

Spike: “In the first place we got to see that she (Gonfala) doesn’t get to touch it (the Gonfal). One of us has got to carry it — she might get the nigger to let her touch it some time when we weren’t around.

Spike: “Come on, you niggers! Come on, Gonfala! We’re trekkin’—the sun’s been up an hour.

Troll: “You (Gonfala) don’t want to go to that there valley and spend the rest of your life with Spike an’ a bunch o’ niggers, do you?

The Context
Now that all of the uses of the term nigger in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories have been revealed, it’s time to take a close look at the context in which Burroughs used that slur.

To recap, in Burroughs’ 28 published Tarzan stories, the term nigger appears 47 times. Two-thirds of those are crowded into four stories — Tarzan and the Golden Lion; Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle; Tarzan and the Lion Man; and Tarzan the Magnificent.

All but one of the 47 uses appear in dialogue voiced by various characters in the stories. As noted earlier, the only time Burroughs used the offensive term in narration was in Tarzan and the Lion Man. It that instance, he made it clear that he was, in effect, quoting a character’s thoughts. In effect, then, Burroughs only used black slurs as a characterization tool in his Tarzan stories. The question then becomes: What type of characters voiced the term nigger in Burroughs’ fiction?

It must be made clear up front that Tarzan, himself, never voiced a black slur of any kind in Burroughs’s fiction. Of the 46 uses of the term nigger in dialogue, 39 were spoken by white men, 3 by a white woman, and 4 by black men. Most of ERB’s white male characters who uttered the term were unmistakably evil villains. Two examples are the American hunter Wilbur Stimbol in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and the African hunters Spike and Troll in Tarzan the Magnificent. Burroughs only created one endearing white male character who constantly used black slurs. That was Danny “Gunner” Patrick in Tarzan Triumphant. The only Burroughs white female character to use the term was Flora Hawkes in Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

Burroughs presented Stimbol as an egotistical counterpart to the kindly James Blake in Lord of the Jungle. A thoroughly arrogant bigot, Stimbol’s cruelty toward the safaris’ native porters is established early in the story:

“‘You damned clumsy nigger!’ he cried, "and before Blake could interfere or the porter protect himself the angry white man stepped quickly over the fallen load and struck the black a terrific blow in the face that felled him, and as he lay there, Stimbol kicked him in the side.

James Blake at first tried to temper Stimbol’s cruelty. The young American attempted to convince his older partner that the porters would have responded much better to kindness than to intimidation.

These black men are human beings. In some respects they are extremely sensitive human beings, and in many ways they are like children. You strike them, you curse them, you insult them and they will fear you and hate you. You have done all these things to them and they do fear you and hate you. You have sowed and now you are reaping.

The malevolent Stimbol ignored Blake’s advice, and after the young American insisted that the safari be divided and each go their separate ways, Burroughs made Stimbol pay for his bigotry. After his native carriers deserted him in the night, a frightened Stimbol experienced a series of setbacks that left him near death. At the end of the story, Tarzan ordered the racist American out of Africa. 

Burroughs gave much the same treatment to the racist white African hunters Spike and Troll, who collectively used the term nigger 10 times in Tarzan the Magnificent. After Tarzan helped the two men escape captivity among the Kaji tribe, they repaid the ape-man by stealing from him and kidnapping a woman he had taken into his care. Eventually, Tarzan tracked down the inveterate villains and expelled them from Africa. 

As the only woman who used racial slurs in Burroughs’ Tarzan series, Flora Hawkes in Tarzan and the Golden Lion warrants a closer look. As one of the leaders of a band of conspirators intent on raiding the gold vaults of Opar, she was initially painted as a villain by Burroughs. In that role, she three times crudely referred to her safaris’ native retainers as “niggers.” However, Burroughs subjected her to the horrible punishment of being kidnapped and raped by one of her fellow conspirators, and at the story’s end she was redeemed only after dropping to her knees and begging the forgiveness of Tarzan and Jane.

Also in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Burroughs employed irony by having Flora’s fellow conspirator Adolph Bluber use racial slurs in referring to African natives. The German resented his collaborators disparaging his Jewish heritage, but he failed to see the absurdity of his own use of black slurs. On one hand, he objected to bigotry directed toward him. “Ven you get mad at me you call me a dirty Jew,” he told his white partners, “but Mein Gott! You Christians are worser.” But when he maligns natives using slurs, he forgets that Tarzan’s Waziri warriors saved his life by routing the native warriors who attack the conspirators. Burroughs, then, clearly characterized Bluber’s use of racial slurs as insensitive behavior by a man who, as a target of ethnic slurs himself, should have known better.

Establishing that Edgar Rice Burroughs employed the racial slur nigger in only 10 of his 28 Tarzan stories, and then almost exclusively in dialogue voiced by villainous and/or uneducated characters is an effective argument in defending the author against charges of racism. However, those charges can extend well beyond the use of slurs, and so Burroughs defenders must be prepared with a much more comprehensive argument on his behalf.

— to be continued in Part Two —

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Eternal Lover

Tarzan the Magnificent
The Mucker
Marcia of the Doorstep
The Man-Eater
Pirate Blood
The Beasts of Tarzan
The Son of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Golden Lion
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan at the Earth’s Core
Tarzan the Invincible
Tarzan Triumphant
Tarzan and the Lion Man
Tarzan and the Bwana Indictment

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