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

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

Surely the term nigger has always been the most offensive slur applied to black people, but there have been many other slurs aimed at blacks, about a dozen of which Edgar Rice Burroughs had his fictional characters use in his Tarzan stories. In most cases, these other slurs were used by the same disreputable characters who used the most offensive one.

Of these other slurs, the one used most often in the author’s stories is smokes. It appears first in the 1931 novel Tarzan Triumphant. In the opening pages of the story, geology professor Lafayette Smith meets Danny “Gunner” Patrick on an ocean liner bound for England. When Smith mentions that his final destination is Africa, the “Gunner” replies, “Where the smokes come from … What sort of burgh is it? I don’t think I’d like bin’ bossed by a lot of smokes, though most of ’em is regular, at that.

Patrick went on to use the smokes slur a total of 13 times in Tarzan Triumphant, along with several other offensive terms in reference to natives in Africa. If judged solely on the number of racial and ethnic slurs used, Danny “Gunner” Patrick is surely the most bigoted character in the Tarzan series. (He also used the slur “wops” freely to reference Italians in the story.) Yet, Burroughs fashioned him as a loveable character in Tarzan Triumphant.

The “Gunner” is a different kind of Burroughs bigot. His use of racial slurs came not from inborn hatred of ethnic people but from a racist vocabulary acquired during his youth on the streets of Chicago. (Burroughs patterned Patrick in the mold of Billy Byrne, who also learned life’s early lessons growing up amidst the criminal underworld of Chicago in the author’s 1916 novel The Mucker.) To remove all of Danny’s slurs of blacks and Italians, Ballantine Books’ censor had to rewrite 22 Burroughs sentences in Tarzan Triumphant. However, while in Africa, Danny never mistreated his native carriers, as had Burroughs characters like Stimbol in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, and Spike, and Troll in Tarzan the Magnificent. And despite his use of slurs, Patrick revealed his relations with blacks in Chicago were generally genial.  In the end, Burroughs rendered Danny Patrick an endearing character, his self-sacrificing acts of courage in Africa raising him above the dehumanizing effects of his urban upbringing in Chicago.

Ballantine’s 1964 paperback expunged all but one of Patrick’s 13 smokes utterances. Burroughs also used the term twice in dialogue in 1933’s Tarzan and the Lion Man and once in Tarzan the Magnificent three years later. Of those, Ballantine pulled only one usage from Tarzan and the Lion Man in their paperbacks.

Danny Patrick had several other black slurs in his vocabulary. On separate occasions, he addressed his native carriers as dinge, cotton ball, and tar baby. (Ballantine removed all three terms in their editions.)

Burroughs included the term tar baby in dialogue one other time, most regrettably voiced by Doc, one of the lead characters in his first Tarzan Twins story, written in 1927. Captured by natives, Doc was trying to trick the chief into drinking the ink from his pen: “‘Here, I’ll show him how to get it out — looky, old tar-baby,’ and Doc stepped forward and removed the cap from the pen point.

Unfortunately, Burroughs had Doc voice a couple of other slurs. The following passage describes Doc’s attempt to communicate with the native chief when the captive teen boys were first brought before him.

“‘P’r’aps he may understand English. ‘Say, Big Boy!’ he cried, addressing the fat negro. ‘Do you savvy English?The black looked up at Doc and addressed him in one of the innumerable Bantu dialects, but the American boy only shook his head. ‘Nothing doing along that line, Uncle Tom,’ said Doc.
(In 1963, when Canaveral Press published ERB’s two Tarzan Twins stories in one volume under the title Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins, it replaced all three of the slurs in the above passages with innocuous terms. “Looky, old tar-baby” was changed to “looky, old bandit.” In the second passage, “Big Boy” was replaced with “Chief” and “Uncle Tom” became “my friend.”)

In all of Burroughs’ Tarzan stories, his use of black racial slurs in 1927’s The Tarzan Twins is the most regrettable and most difficult to mitigate. The lead characters, Dick and Doc, are said to be “normal, red-blooded” boys in their mid-teens. And that age group was the reading audience ERB intended to reach with the story. The slurs are voiced by Doc, the one who was born and raised in America (although half of his education was in England). Though the author did not describe his family in depth, Doc appeared to be the product of a middle class upbringing. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Burroughs considered the use of black racial slurs to be common among most white American teenagers in the 1920s.

In Tarzan and the Lion Man, members of the Hollywood company filming in Tarzan’s country, used a handful of other slurs when referring to their native porters and carriers. Following the death of cast member Major White in an ambush by cannibal tribesmen, Pat O’Grady, the company’s assistant director, cursed, “The major was a swell guy. He was worth all the lousy coons in Africa.” Director Orman used the same slur after the company’s native carriers left in the night: “Because the coons deserted us doesn’t mean that we’ve got to sit down here and kiss ourselves good-bye.” 

In Tarzan the Magnificent, Burroughs used a little-known term in narration to describe a female member of the Zuli tribe: “Indifferently [Tarzan] appraised the woman. She might have been an octoroon, or she might have been a white woman with a coat of tan.” (An octoroon is an offensive term for somebody who has one black great-grandparent and no other black ancestors.)

Kitty Sborov, the daffy matron in Tarzan’s Quest, used the once acceptable descriptor, colored, now considered offensive, when explaining to her husband why he needn’t take a servant on their trip to Africa. “Oh, my dear, you won’t need a man in Africa. You will have a little colored boy who will do your washing and cooking and carry your gun.”

In narrating his early Tarzan stories, Burroughs used the term “negro” to identify native Africans. In his later tales of the ape-man, though, he seldom used that term, instead showing a preference for the noun black. In some of its paperback editions, Ballantine editors felt the need to replace all references to “black” skin color. Consider the following changes Ballantine made in the original text of Tarzan and the Lost Empire:

The strangers were still so far away that the blacks were unable to identify them … ” (Ballantine substituted the word “men” for “blacks.”)

“‘Come on, Gabula. This is our way to the lake, I guess,’ he said to the black.” (Ballantine removed the phrase, “to the black.”)

… and the two men found themselves covered by the weapons of a boatload of ebon warriors.” (Ballantine removed the word “ebon.”)

Tarzan of the Apes … had so filled the breast of the black youth with terror.” (Ballantine removed the adjective “black.”)

All references to “black” skin color were eliminated from the paperback edition of Lost Empire. Some, but not all, of Burroughs’ uses of the word black were also deleted from the Ballantine editions of Tarzan and the Leopard Men and Tarzan and the Forbidden City. For other Ballantine paperbacks, such as Tarzan’s Quest and Tarzan the Magnificent, none of the appearances of black were edited out.

Evidently, when it came to that term, some of the designated Ballantine editors found it offensive, while others did not. In any case, the use of the word black by Burroughs can hardly be considered a slur. The author had to apply some term to identify African natives for his readers, and whether it was negro or black, surely no offense can be inferred from the utilization of such generic terms.

In the final analysis, when ERB used black racial slurs in his Tarzan stories, with the exception of The Tarzan Twins, they appeared in dialogue voiced by either malicious or uneducated characters. Burroughs avoided such terms in narration, and in 28 published Tarzan stories never had his ape-man use a racial slur.

The Unfinished Tarzan Novel
To fairly assess Edgar Rice Burroughs’ treatment of black people in his fiction, it’s necessary to consider his Tarzan tales as a body of work over time. Critics who pick and choose passages from Burroughs’ stories to support their allegations that he was a racist author are not playing fair. The same can be said for defenders of Burroughs who can just as easily find evidence in his fiction that they say proves he was not racist.

Those willing to weigh all the evidence to be found in the 30 Tarzan stories that Burroughs penned between 1911 and 1946 will discover that the attitudes about race in the author’s fiction evolved slowly but steadily over that 35-year period. Ultimately, as with all people, the terminus of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ voyage of discovery about race relations is more important than its position at any particular point along the way. Unfortunately, nearly six decades after he closed it out, Burroughs’ final statement on race in his Tarzan was not made available to the general public for many years.

On September 7, 1946, Burroughs began his thirtieth and final Tarzan story. Unnamed and abandoned in mid-sentence, the 83-page typewritten manuscript has since been given the non-descript designation, “The Unfinished Tarzan Novel.” Copies of the partial story have been circulated among Burroughs fans for many years. In 1994, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., commissioned Joe Lansdale to “adapt and expand” the fragmentary text. The result was Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, first published as a four-part serial by Dark Horse Comics in 1995 and later that year in book format by Dark Horse Books.

In the same way that Ballantine Books edited most of the uncomfortable racial references from the original text of the Tarzan stories for their paperback editions in the sixties, for his revision Lansdale scrubbed similar passages and terms from Burroughs’ unfinished Tarzan tale, making a survey of ERB’s original manuscript necessary to assess his final approach to race in the Tarzan stories.

In addition to Tarzan, the principal characters in the story are Jean Hanson and her father, who have come to Africa on an anthropological expedition. The racial elements of the story, however, are revealed through the interaction of four “disreputable tough looking” characters — two white, and two black. Gromovich and Bloomberg are evil white fortune hunters created by Burroughs in the mold of the dastardly Swedes Malbihn and Jenssen in The Son of Tarzan and the felonious hunters Spike and Troll in Tarzan the Magnificent.

Gromovich and Bloomberg whip their safari’s native carriers, with the former doing so merely because “it gave his sadistic nature pleasure to lash them.” Burroughs also had Gromovich use offensive slurs in reference to native servants. When warned that Tarzan may send his Waziri against them, he responded, “I ain’t afraid of a bunch of niggers.

Originally partners with the white men, black Americans Woodrow Wilson Jones and Franklin E. Roosevelt Brown have a falling out with Gromovich and Bloomberg as a result of racial tensions. With backgrounds as wayward as their white partners, Jones and Brown are far from virtuous characters as the story opens. Both are wanted by the law and have changed their names to avoid capture. Jones’ hard past was evident in his face, “pitted by small pox and scarred by knives and razors.” 

The two blacks didn’t object to Gromovich treatment of the native carriers, but when the Russian aimed his racial slurs at Jones and Wilson, a break between the white and black men immediately occurred. After an exchange of gunfire with the Hansons, Jones stopped Gromovich from beating Helen, noting, “Her an’ me both Americans.” When the enraged white man responded, “Mind your own business, you damned nigger,” Jones slapped him to the ground and stood over him with drawn pistol. “You leave dis girl alone, or you’ll get a dose of dis,” he threatened.

Later on, the Russian tried to confirm his authority over the group. “Let it be understood from now on that I am command,” he announced. “Who say so?” Jones demanded. A flushed Gromovitch screamed, “I say so, you damned — ” Stepping forward, Jones angrily declared, “You bettah not say dat word, white man.” The Russian backed down.

The significance of how Burroughs described the conflict between Jones and Gromovitch is that for the first time in the author’s Tarzan stories, a black man stood up and angrily reacted to racial slurs aimed at him by a white man. Gromovitch was certainly shocked by it, as was Jean Hanson. To her “it seemed incredible that this horrible looking Negro had defended her.” Jones assured the white woman that, despite their difference in skin color, they had something powerful in common. “You-all and we’uns is Americans, an’ we Americans has got to tick together against those lousy furriners we’s messed up with.” When Gromovitch and Bloomberg later threatened the Hansons, Jones announced, “ef you-all vote to liquidate de Hansons you-all bettah oil yo guns.” Brown added, “Dat’s right; we Americans stick together.

In his last Tarzan story, then, Burroughs clearly showed the iniquity of a white man applying slurs to blacks and demonstrated the right of a black man to react strongly, even violently, to such labels. The author was still applying black idiom to the speech of Jones and Brown in his final story, but he clearly had made a major shift toward portraying the respect that African American had a right to demand in the United States.

If supporters of Edgar Rice Burroughs want the author to have some relevance and popularity in the 21st century, they must have a strategy to defend him against charges of racial insensitivity toward blacks in both Africa and the United States. It’s unrealistic to hope such charges will fade away. In the coming years, they will resurface, especially at times when Burroughs receives notoriety though some event, such as the making of a new Tarzan movie or the publication of a trendy book based on the Tarzan theme.

In the end, it will always come back to Tarzan and the content of his character, as shaped by his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs. In his article, The Tarzan Theme, published in 1932, Burroughs revealed the responsibility he felt for making his famous ape-man a force for good in the world. “Years ago,” he noted, “when I came to a realization of the hold that Tarzan had taken upon the imaginations of many people, I was glad that I had made of him the sort of character that I had, and since then I have been careful not to permit him to let his foot slip.”

Concerning Tarzan’s legacy, Russ Manning said it best in his letter to the editor back in 1972. “Tarzan has become accepted as folklore the world over, including Africa, not by insulting people, but by being the heroic, capable person that everyone can dream of being.”

While I certainly believe that, there are still a couple of racially sensitive issues in the Tarzan stories of which Edgar Rice Burroughs advocates should to aware. Like the author’s use of racial slurs in his fiction, ERB defenders should be able to intelligently discuss his use of stereotypical black idiom in his fiction, as well as a number of direct statements Burroughs made in narration concerning race relations. Those two issues will be addressed in Part Three of  “Racial Issues in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Fiction.” 

— to be continued in Part Three —

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

Tarzan Triumphant
The Mucker
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan the Magnificent
Tarzan and the Lion Man
Tarzan Twins
Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins
Tarzan’s Quest
Tarzan and the Lost Empire
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
Tarzan: The Lost Adventure
The Son of Tarzan

"The Tarzan Theme" article by ERB

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Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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