Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site
Since 1996 ~ Over 15,000 Web Pages in Archive
Volume 7379

Race Issues in Edgar Rice Burroughs Fiction
Understanding Context in the Tarzan Stories
Part Three
by Alan Hanson 

Race Issues in Edgar Rice Burroughs Fiction
Understanding Context in the Tarzan Stories
Part Three
by Alan Hanson
Considering the volume of fiction Edgar Rice Burroughs produced during his career, it was inevitable that racial issues would surface occasionally in his stories. While he could be sensitive to some racial groups, such as Native Americans in his Apache novels, he could also be rough on others, such as Mexicans in The Mucker, Germans in Tarzan the Untamed, and Japanese in Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”. With other racial groups, Arabs being one example, Burroughs offered a more balanced portrayal in his fiction.

However, the supposition underlying his most famous stories, the Tarzan tales, raised an ongoing series of black-on-white racial themes that Burroughs had to manage. His premise that a single white man, raised among the apes, could achieve supreme influence and authority over a section of primitive Africa and its people required the author to clarify the relationship between his white ape-man and the black native peoples. When the growing popularity of the character caused Burroughs to include in his Tarzan stories other white characters, including Americans, Englishmen, Swedes, Italians, and Russians, racial issues involving the black native peoples became more complicated.

In Parts One and Two, I’ve discussed Burroughs’ use of the term Bwana and black racial slurs. In closing this series on race issues in the Tarzan stories, two other racial topics will be considered. They are, first, Burroughs’ use of Southern black American idiom and, second, some narrative statements on racial topics included in various Tarzan stories.

Before beginning, though, it’s important to keep the following disclaimer in mind. It should not be assumed, as some critics of Burroughs at times have, that passages found in his fiction reflect what were his personal opinions about race relations. We’re dealing with fiction, after all, and what Burroughs wrote in that medium, either in dialogue or narration, has to be considered first and foremost in that context. Those whose objective is to paint Burroughs a racist author may present statements and situations from the Tarzan stories out of context to prove their case. At times in his fiction, it is possible that Burroughs did reveal his true feelings about racism, but jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions should be avoided in fairness to history in general and the author in particular.

Southern Black Idiom
Keeping that in mind, let’s start with a look at Burroughs’ use of Southern black idiom in his Tarzan stories. The term idiom has several definitions. The one we’re concerned with here is: “A language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people.”

Burroughs characters Esmeralda in Tarzan of the Apes and Robert Jones in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core speak in English, but in a style the author obviously intended to mimic of English spoken by black people in the Southern states both before and following the Civil War. Resulting from and passed through generations of black families by a lack of formal education and a rigid social system that restricted contact between the races, Southern black idiom is marked by pronunciation that often varies from traditional English. Since this black idiom was strictly a spoken language, Burroughs had to be creative in transferring it to the printed page. For example, when Esmeralda said, “For the Lord’s sake, aren’t I dead?” to help his readers hear how she said it, Burroughs wrote, “Fo’ de Lawd’s sake, ain’ Ah daid?

In Tarzan of the Apes, Esmeralda is described as, “a huge negress clothed like Solomon as to colors.” In The Return of Tarzan, Paul D’Arnot calls her, “that enormous black woman, Miss Porter’s maid.” In The Eternal Lover, she is the “black mammy” of Tarzan and Jane’s son, “Jack.” Jane Porter often displayed special affection for Esmeralda.

Esmeralda speaks only in the opening book of the Tarzan series. She plays no significant role in the storyline of Tarzan of the Apes. Rather, Burroughs used her character for comic relief. He did so by having Esmeralda use a series of malapropisms, defined as “the use of incorrect words in place of words with a similar sound.” Esmeralda first used malapropisms when she noticed the crew of the Arrow was stranding her and the rest of the Porter party on the coast of Africa.

Look at dem low down white trash out dere!” she shrilled, pointing toward the Arrow. “They-all’s a desecratin’ us, right yere on dis yere perverted islan’.”

Burroughs then highlighted Esmeralda’s unfamiliarity with the fauna of tropical Africa. First, she tried to identify the creature that carried away Jane Porter.

A great big gi’nt all covered with hair.”  … “Ah done thought it was de devil; but Ah guess it mus’ a-been one of dem gorilephants.

Malaprops continued to fly in a discussion between Esmeralda and Jane.

Gaberelle!” screamed Esmeralda, sitting up. “What am it now? A hipponocerous? Where am he, Miss Jane?

Nonsense, Esmeralda, there is nothing. Go back to sleep. You are bad enough asleep, but you are infinitely worse awake.

Yasm honey, but what’s de matter wif you-all precious? You acts sorter kinder disgranulated dis ebein’.

Oh, Esmeralda, I’m just plain ugly tonight,” said the girl. “Don’t pay any attention to me — that’s a dear.

Yasm, honey; now you-all go right to sleep Yo’ nerves am all on aidge. What wif all dese ripotamuses an’ man eaten geniuses dat Marse Philander been a tellin’ about — laws, it ain’t no wonder we all get nervous prosecution.

Still using her particular style of language, Burroughs allowed Esmeralda to express her opinion at length when Jane announced she would not leave on the French cruiser until Tarzan and D’Arnot were accounted for.

“Fo’ de Lawd’s sake honey,” cried Esmeralda. “You all doan mean to tell me dat youse a-goin’ to stay right yere in dis yere lan’ of carnivable animals when you all done got de oppahtunity to escape on dat crosiser? Doan yo’ tell me dat, honey.

Why, Esmeralda! You should be ashamed of yourself,” cried Jane Porter. “Is this any way to show your gratitude to the man who saved your life twice?”

Well Miss Jane, das all jes’ as yo’ say; but dat dere fores’ lawd never did save us to stay yere. He done save us so we all could get away from yere. Ah expec’ he be mighty peevish when he fin’ we ain’t got no mo’ sense ’n to stay right yere after he done give us de chanct to get away. Ah hoped Ah’d never have to sleep in dis yere geological garden another night and listen to all dem lonesome noises dat come out of dat jumble after dark.

Robert Jones
Burroughs next used Southern black idiom a dozen Tarzan books and 17 years later in Tarzan At the Earth’s Core. Again to provide comic relief, Burroughs made Alabama native Robert Jones the cook on the dirigible expedition to Pellucidar. Instead of using malapropisms, this time Burroughs used Jones’ language and ongoing inability to understand Pellucidar’s time dilemma to inject some occasional humor in the story. The cook’s confusion began when he looked up in the sky after the 0-220 landed in Pellucidar.

Lawd, niggah!” he exclaimed; “you all suah done overslep’ yo’self” … “ ’S funny,” he soliloquized; “day ain’t no one stirrin’—mus’ all of overslp’ demself.” He looked at the clock on the galley wall. The hour hand pointed to six. He cocked his ear and listened. “She ain’t stopped,” he muttered. Then he went to the door that opened from the galley through the ship’s side and pushed it back. Leaning far out he looked up again at the sun. Then he shook his head. “Dey’s sumpin wrong,” he said. “Ah dunno whether to cook breakfas’, dinner or supper.

Later Robert Jones discussed with other crewmembers the effectiveness in Pellucidar of a certain good luck charm.

Ah’m suttingly glad to see you all, Mas’ Jason. Ah knew sumpin was a-goin’ to happen though—Ah knew we was a-goin’ to have good luck … Ah jes had a brief conversation with mah rabbit’s foot. Dat ole boy he never fails me. We suah be out o’ luck if Ah lose him.

Oh, I’ve seen lots of rabbits around, Bob,” said Zuppner. “We can get you a bushel of them in no time.

Yes suh, Cap’n, but you cain’t get ’em in de dahk of de moon where day ain’t no dahk an’ dey ain’t no moon, an’ othe’wise dey lacks efficiency.”

Literary Black Face?
What, then, is the significance of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ use of Southern black idiom with the characters of Esmeralda and Robert Jones in his Tarzan stories? Those who see Burroughs as a racist author certainly will point to it as a false, stereotypical, and insulting portrayal of black Americans in the early decades of the 20th century. They might term it “literary black face.

Certainly, in these days of hyper racial sensitivity and social media outreach, such portrayals of blacks for comic relief by a white author in contemporary fiction would draw bitter criticism. However, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not a contemporary writer. He created Esmeralda and Robert Jones a century ago for a reading audience that was much less racially sensitive than exists today.

Additionally, it should be noted that Burroughs used Southern black idiom only twice over the course of 27 Tarzan stories published during lifetime. Also, Burroughs portrayed both Esmeralda and Robert Jones as amiable and friendly characters. Both filled respected roles, Esmeralda in the Porter and Greystoke families and Robert Jones in the crew of 0-220.

Should they point to these two endearing characters as evidence that Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist author, critics should again be reminded to consider context — both of wider significance in the story and of the customs at the time the characters were created.

Narrative Quotes
Speaking of context, another strategy of critics bent on repressing literary works of the past is to pluck passages from the text and present them as indicative of the author’s personal feelings on certain topics. Clearly, dialogue in a work of fiction clearly can’t be evidence of an author’s personal beliefs. (For example, when Burroughs had some characters voice racial slurs, that can’t be seen as him endorsing their use in public discourse.) Certain narrative passages, though, when taken out of context, can appear to be moralizing by the author, and there are a number of them in the Tarzan stories that critics might seize upon as evidence that Burroughs was a racist author.

Let’s start with a passage from Tarzan and the Ant Men that is perhaps truly indicative of something Edgar Rice Burroughs considered to be true:

The tallest of them stood about eighteen inches in height, their white skins were tanned by exposure to a shade a trifle darker than his own, yet there was no question that they were white men; their features were regular and well proportioned, so that by any standards of our race they would have been considered handsome.

The highlighted pronoun in that passage seems to indicate that Burroughs assumed the readership of his Tarzan stories was primarily white. The pulp magazine and book editors who published his stories may have had evidence to support that belief. If so, perhaps Burroughs aimed his tales of the ape-man at a white audience, or at least kept that in the back of his mind as he wrote. 

Might Burroughs have been more sensitive to racial issues in his fiction if he believed blacks made up a significant amount of his readership? But here we’re straying into “what if?” territory, which is beyond the limits of historical integrity. Let’s just stick with the words Burroughs did write.

Tarzan’s Attitude Toward Blacks
A couple of statements in the Tarzan stories seem to indicate that Tarzan did not like black people in general. Consider first the following statement Burroughs had Tarzan make to Olga de Coude in The Return of Tarzan:

It does not seem right that women should fear men,” said Tarzan, an expression of puzzlement on his face. “I am better acquainted with the jungle folk, and there it is more often the other way around, except among the black men, and they to my mind are in most ways lower in the scale than the beasts.”

Then, in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Burroughs made the following narrative statement about Tarzan’s attitude toward African natives:

The ape-man held no great love for the Gomangani as a race, but inherent in his English brain and heart was the spirit of fair play, which prompted him to spontaneous espousal of the cause of the weak.

Of course, Burroughs countered these statements time and time again with positive portrayals of African natives, particularly among the Waziri. And anyone who has read even a few of the Tarzan stories knows that the ape-man had “no great love” for his own race, civilized white people. He tended to judge people of all races as individuals, based on their specific actions.

Racial Characteristics
In Jungle Tales of Tarzan (written in 1916-17), Burroughs included several narrative statements that assigned disparaging racial characteristics to black natives living in the ape-boy’s jungle. Burroughs described the native boy Tibo as being “lithe, straight, and, for a black, handsome.” And, when Tibo saw Tarzan bring down a buck and sink his teeth in the animal’s neck, Burroughs launched into an apparent tribute to white supremacy:

Tibo had shuddered at the sight, but he had thrilled, too, and for the first time there entered his dull, Negroid mind a vague desire to emulate his savage foster parent. But Tibo, the little black boy, lacked the divine spark which had permitted Tarzan, the white boy, to benefit by his training in the ways of the fierce jungle. In imagination he was wanting, and imagination is but another name for super-intelligence.

Imagination it is which builds bridges, and cities, and empires. The beasts know it not, the blacks only a little, while to one in a hundred thousand of earth’s dominant race it is given as a gift from heaven that man may not perish from the earth.

In Tarzan the Untamed, Burroughs appeared to assign a stereotypical response to the entire Negro race:

It is a happy characteristic of the Negro race which they hold in common with little children, that their spirits seldom remain depressed for a considerable length of time after the immediate cause of depression is removed, and so it was that in half an hour Usanga’s band was again beginning to take on to some extent its former appearance of carefree light-heartedness.

Physically, though, a narrative description in 1922’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion seems to indicate that Burroughs believed not all African natives were the same. In that story, the author labeled the villainous native Luvini “a huge fellow, with low, receding forehead and prognathous jaw — a type of the lowest form of African negro.

Historical perspective is required to put these statements into context. Burroughs wrote them nearly 100 years ago. We know he never went to Africa himself, so his image of African tribes paralleled that then prevalent in popular culture, that being that the British were benevolently struggling to introduce the benefits of civilization to the savage and primitive blacks under their care in Africa.

Today it is widely believed the evils of colonialism in Africa far outweighed any advantage the native peoples received from their white occupiers. In our time, however, it’s unfair to portray Edgar Rice Burroughs as a deliberate racist author for portraying African natives the same way the popular press was portraying them in the early part of the 20th century.

Opinion of American Blacks
But what about black people in the U.S.? Surely Burroughs was in a position to observe them and form personal opinions about their status in America in the first half of the last century. The fact is that Burroughs seldom included black American characters in his Tarzan stories. As noted, Esmeralda and Robert Jones were representatives of poor, uneducated, but loveable blacks from the American South. Other than them, American black people are nearly invisible in the Tarzan stories.

In one of his final Tarzan books, Tarzan the Magnificent, written in 1936-37, Burroughs did include an interesting statement about the status of race in America at that time. It is voiced in dialogue by character Robert van Eyk to fellow American Stanley Wood. Van Eyk was trying to discourage Wood’s plan to marry Gonfola, who, though white of skin, was believed to have some negro blood.

Have you ever really stopped to think about what that would mean, Stan? What it would mean to you both in the future — in America? I’m thinking just as much of her happiness as yours, old man. I’m thinking of the Hell on earth that would be your lot — hers and yours. You know as well as I what one drop of colored blood does for a man or woman in the great democracy of the U.S.A. You’d both be ostracized by the blacks as well as the whites. I’m not speaking from any personal prejudice; I’m just stating a fact. It’s hard and cruel and terrible, but it still remains a fact.

Although its use in dialogue disqualifies this statement from being considered Burroughs’ personal belief, few would argue its accuracy in portraying a racial taboo in the United States in the late 1930s. At that time, separate-but-equal laws were in force throughout the Southern states, as well as were similar legal and de facto edicts in other sections of the country. Even if this statement does match Burroughs’ belief, it could hardly be used as evidence that he was a racist author. As van Eyk stated, “I’m just stating a fact;” neither he nor Burroughs were passing judgment on the social prohibition of inter-racial marriage in the U.S. at that time.

Positive Statements
To this point, the focus has been on what might be seen as disparaging observations of black people in the Tarzan stories. There are some constructive and favorable comments about black people to be found in the Tarzan tales as well. In The Tarzan Twins, Burroughs’ juvenile story written in 1926-1927, Doc, an America boy, came to understand “a new conception of the Negro” from fellow captives in a native African village. 

To Doc, whose experience with colored people had been limited to a few worthless specimens of the Northern States, it came as a revelation.

Even among the warriors of the cannibal Bagalla, he (Doc) encountered individuals who possessed great natural dignity, poise and evident strength of character. Bulala, a West Coast black, densely ignorant and superstitious, had, nevertheless, a heart of gold, that revealed itself in his loyalty and generosity; while little Ukundo, the pygmy, perhaps among the lowest in the social scale of all African peoples, proved a staunch friend and a good comrade. To his natural shrewdness was added an almost uncanny knowledge of the jungle and the jungle people, both beast and human; the tales he told the boys shortened many a weary hour.

Then, in 1927’s Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, James Blake gave fellow American Wilbur Stimbol a lecture on the disposition and treatment of native porters in Africa.

“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.

Racism a Factor of Power
Four years later in 1931, Burroughs included a thought-provoking statement about the source of racism and bigotry in Tarzan and the Leopard Men. Although the message is delivered by the narrator, it summarizes the observations of an American white women held captive by black natives in Africa. 

During the interview with Rebega no one had once addressed her, just as no one would have addressed a cow he was arranging to stable. She recalled the plaints of American negroes that they were not treated with equality by the whites. Now that conditions were reversed, she could not see that the blacks were more magnanimous than the whites. Evidently it all depended on which was the more powerful and had nothing whatsoever to do with innate gentleness of spirit or charity.

Again, as these represent the thoughts of a character in the story, they can’t be said with credence to be the thoughts of Edgar Rice Burroughs as well. In any event, the statement does not excuse white racism in America, but rather, in fact, in a backwards kind of way, contends that all races are the same when politics and bigotry become involved.

In the end, all that can be said against and for Edgar Rice Burroughs and the subject of race in his fiction is that he was a product of his time. Writing as he did in the decades of the 20th century leading up to the Second World War, he seemed to be of the same mind as most white Americans that the benefits of colonialism outweighed the disadvantages for native peoples in Africa.

He could not have created Tarzan/Lord Greystoke and continued writing about him without buying in to that assumption. At home he understood the nation’s strong emotional feelings about mixing the races, and generally avoided addressing them in his fiction. 

The only foolproof way of avoiding the complications of context in assessing racial issues in the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs is to read all of his stories in the order in which he wrote them. Only then can one get a feeling for how his attitudes about racial relations changed from age 36 in 1911 to age 69 in 1944.

I’ve read Burroughs’ fiction that way many times during my 60 years as an ERB fan. Along the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that, though the change was subtle at times, Burroughs made steady progress toward greater understanding and sensitivity on racial issues, in keeping with the changing attitudes of the majority of his fellow citizens.

Edgar Rice Burroughs may have started his writing career with some rough edges on race relations, but by the end of it he had learned to be more respectful of differences in people.

As evidence, I’d like to offer a passage that Burroughs included in Land of Terror, a non-Tarzan story he wrote when he was 63 years old. As I have noted several times, whatever Burroughs wrote in his works of fiction can’t be ascribed with any certainty as his personal belief. Personally, though, I choose to believe that this passage came straight from his heart. American David Innes narrates:

The men [of Ruva] are monogamous and very proud of their bloodline. Under no circumstances will they mate with a white, as they consider the white race far inferior to theirs. I could never quite accustom myself to this reversal of the status of the two races from what I had always been accustomed to, but it really was not as difficult as it might appear, for I must admit that the blacks treated us with far greater toleration here than our dark-skinned races are accorded on the outer crust. Perhaps I was getting a lesson in true democracy.


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

The Mucker
Tarzan the Untamed
Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”
Tarzan of the Apes
Tarzan at the Earth's Core
The Return of Tarzan
The Eternal Lover
Tarzan and the Ant Men
Tarzan and the Golden Lion
Jungle Tales of Tarzan
Tarzan the Magnificent
The Tarzan Twins
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Land of Terror

. .
Click for full size images

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

Visit our thousands of other sites at:
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2021 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.