Race and Culture in African American Literature

Updated: May 20

“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” — James Baldwin

Culture is a socially constructed, historically transmitted system of symbols, meanings, premises, and rules, and race functions as a cultural code that is embedded into everyday life in ways that are implicit to those who live with race as an accepted part of their cultural ideology (Philipsen 14). Separating race from biological essentialist arguments, both Citizen and The Ways of White Folks treat race as a cultural code shared across social communities in the United States and in international communities. As a social constructionist theory, this method of analysis places weight on people’s abilities to make the world through speech and action. Artists, therefore, can be powerful changemakers and architects from a social constructionist point of view. Through an analysis of The Ways of White Folks and Citizen, this essay will provide evidence for how race functions as a cultural code, unveiling the mechanics of racialization as a social project and placing stakes in the importance of Black art as speech. The chosen texts employ symbols, premises, and rules to make opaque the transparent mechanics of race in culture. Beginning with Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks, this essay will look at the history of premises and rules about race, especially appropriate and inappropriate behaviors for people who are racialized in different ways. Then, a close reading of Rankine’s Citizen will allow the exploration of similar themes and scenarios while addressing new symbols of race in the cultural imaginary of the twenty-first century.


Beginning with Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks, Black art provides evidence for the way the cultural code of race functions in society, and how the social consequences of speech affect the lives of Black people. The Ways of White Folks provides a historical sample of speech from white and African American speech communities in the Jim Crow era of the United States. Examples from Hughes’s short stories “Slave on The Block” and “Poor Little Black Fellow” illustrate the three major components of a cultural code — symbols and meanings, premises, and rules — embedded in the system of race.



First, these short stories reveal the cultural ideology, or the system of beliefs, prejudices, and biases, of white Americans during this time period. Starting with “Slave on The Block,” the Carraway family understands race from an essentialist point of view, and the stereotypes they take for granted function as premises in a more extensive system of race as a cultural code. In this context, a premise is a generalized statement of belief or value which claims the existence of things in the world and provides standards for the evaluation or judgment of speech and behavior. As evidence, “[the Carraways] saw no use in helping a race that was already too charming and naive and lovely for words” (Hughes 19). In this example, a premise is presented that race is a thing that exists and that the racialized group is evaluated as “charming” and “naive.” The “race” referred to, Black Americans, in the premise is linked to the words charming and naive. As part of a system of racialization, this premise establishes that Black Americans were viewed as deficient, “naive.” As another example of this premise, “Certainly, the last thing [the Carraways] would do would be to interfere with the delightful simplicity of Negroes” (Hughes 28). Anne Carraway also states, “It’s so simple and natural for Negroes to make love” (Hughes 27).


Taken together, these examples reveal the pattern of white Americans (as represented by the Carraways) using premises embedded in the cultural code of race to establish status and hierarchy as they justify to themselves their social positionality. Power, especially their economic power in relation to their Black employees, is justified because they see themselves as benevolent guides to a deficient group of people. “[Michael and Anne] rallied at once. So charming and naive to ask right away for what [Luther] wanted” (Hughes 22). The Carraways view Luther as naive, but like him in spite of that perceived deficiency. Cultural codes, to the people who live with them, are implicit and make sense in the same way that claims of, “it has always been this way,” often justify norms even without solid evidence. Hughes’ stories reveal the mechanics of racism through representations of the experience of interactions between people with different cultural codes of race. It is important to note here that a cultural code, as something socially constructed, is not isolated to one group of people, and communities which interact frequently might overlap in their beliefs. In “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain,” Hughes comments on Black middle-class families who adopt “white culture” and how it affects the art produced by Black artists who wish to be white. Hughes goes on to describe the different socio-economic classes of Black Americans and how their cultures differ, including their choices of religion, entertainment, and lifestyle. So, while Mattie and Luther read some of the Carraways’ behavior as “foolery,” they also understand the assumptions underlying the Carraways’ offensive conduct are based on ideas of deficiency. Luther, while performing his duties to pose for Anne Carraway, hums “Before I’d be a slave / I’d be buried in ma grave” because he understands that Anne sees him as less than human when she paints him as a slave.


Additionally, “Slave on The Block” provides an example of a rule and a rule violation sequence within the cultural code of race during the historical moment. In this context, a rule is defined as a prescription or a proscription for how to act under specified circumstances that carries some degree of force (Philipsen). In a rule violation sequence, a rule is first violated, then a critic calls the violator to account, which is followed by a response by the violator and an acknowledgment of the response by the critic. When Luther approaches Mrs. Carraway and says, “Oh, good morning,” and asks, “How long are you gonna stay in this house?” Mrs. Carraway reacts by saying, “I never liked familiar Negroes,” beginning the rule violation sequence. Within the system of race during this historical moment, it was proscribed for a “Negro” to speak to a woman of Mrs. Carraways’ race and class first and without honorifics to show respect. As such, she calls him to account by telling him she dislikes “familiar” Negros. Luther then responds to this criticism by insulting Mrs. Carraway, and she acknowledges his response by screaming for help. The rule violation sequence reveals how “Negro” was a symbol within the system of race. Symbols are prominent, recurrent words with webs of associated meanings. Analyzing the speech of the Carraways as represented in the story, “Negro” is associated with meanings such as simple, “jungle,” natural, naive, and charming. As a symbol, Negro was used to make sense of the characters’ actions. The Carraways believe in the premise that it was typical of “Negroes” to “make love.” They fail to realize that their cultural lens does not allow them to view Mattie and Luther as people who can make choices for themselves that have nothing to do with the race they are assigned in the Carraways’ worldview.


As a result of the Carraways’ inability to see from any other perspective than that of their own speech community, they get into an argument with Mattie and Luther. The social consequences of the Carraways’ speech acts are that they establish differing statuses between the Carraways’ and their Black employees and make moves toward solidarity with Mrs. Carraway despite knowing about Mrs. Carraway’s prejudices. The Carraways, therefore, rationalize their complicity in each others’ race-based bigotry through their understanding of what it means to be “Negro” and “white” and how their culture instructs speech and behavior in interactions between the groups. This example of a rule violation sequence also reveals how the unwritten rules of race as a cultural code have steep consequences for those who violate them, (especially since this example is from the Jim Crow era). Mattie and Luther had to leave and find new employment because of the force behind a rule in a cultural code that could only be learned through historical transmission or first-hand experience.


“Poor Little Black Fellow” shares similar themes and provides further evidence of the cultural code of race as it existed during the Jim Crow era. The Pembertons describe their late servants Amanda and Arnold as “simple, true, honest, hard-working” (Hughes 134). They, therefore, make a donation of more than ten thousand dollars to a school for Negroes. The missing link between the belief that Amanda and Arnold’s qualities and the Pembertons’ decision to donate to a school for Negroes is the hidden mechanics of race as a cultural code. Their decision to make a donation makes sense when looking at “Negroes” as a symbol that Pembertons, and other white folks, use to make sense of their world. They associate “Negroes” with characteristics that they value enough to consider donating to charity to support but don’t value enough to let Arnie have the freedom to love who he chooses. “[The Pembertons] thought they saw in Amanda and Arnold the real qualities of a humble and gentle race” (Hughes 134). Phrasing the sentence with “They thought” is most likely a wink and nod at the ludicrous assumption that two people could represent a larger group of people in any capacity; the logic of the Pembertons’ assumption only makes sense through their cultural code in which Negro is a symbol that they base communicative conduct and behavior upon. Hughes in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” uses the terms “Negro” and “American” as symbols to point out the cultural code of race. He points out that “white” becomes a symbol subconsciously associated with “all virtues” to a Black, middle-class child who grows up hearing, “Look how well a white man does things.” Here too, Hughes is writing about the code of race and how it is communicated through premises and rules. He explicitly states a rule taught to Black, middle-class children: “Don’t be like niggers.”


Understanding that such a rule exists within the code of race in the historical moment in which Hughes was writing, the conclusion of “Poor Little Black Fellow” requires a competency in such rules to understand. At the end of the short story, Mr. Pemberton thinks, “in the back of his mind was the word nigger. Arnold felt it.” The gravity of the conflict between Arnold and his adopted parents can only be grappled through an understanding of the cultural code of race, and the proscriptions associated with the pejorative term. Similarly, Arnold violated the rule that proscribed romantic relationships between Black and white people. The proscription about interracial relationships is embedded in statements about how Arnold always left parties alone, and there was no one in the town for him to marry. The proscription was more than a legal rule; it held social stigma as well for those fluent in the cultural code of race — contextualizing his adopted parents’ rejection of his relationship.


While Hughes provides an example of the long history of race as a cultural code, Citizen provides a more contemporary example of the ways speech, behavior, and freedom are determined by the degree to which a person is communicatively competent within the code of race in the United States. Rankine’s Citizen utilizes a multitude of examples of when speech goes wrong, when cultural rules are violated, and the consequences of these incidents. Citizen’s ambiguous narrator seems aware of the socially constructed, historically transmitted system of symbols, meanings, premises, and rules when they share “sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.” The historical self may be another way of phrasing the shared culture one is steeped in from childhood, which becomes embedded in one’s conduct and thoughts. The invisible mechanics of social position — the historical self. For example, the unstated explanation for why the neighbor contacted the police when they saw a Black man talking on the phone outside lies in the code of race and the rules and premises that inform such behavior. Sometimes the rules are made explicit through speech; other times, they are made explicit through violence — but always survival and freedom in the United States depend on competence in the code of race. Although, as the incidents detailed in Citizen illustrate, sometimes an awareness of the limitations the system of race places on Black Americans isn’t enough to protect against the violence the system encourages.


First, consider “he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there” (Rankine). The phrase implies an underlying premise that writers of color are not great writers. It unveils the underlying beliefs and prejudices of the speaker. The interlocutor, or narrator, thinks, “maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.” The two interlocutors do not share the same cultural code. So, a phrase that seems a simple complaint is taken as wholly inappropriate to the interlocutor. The narrator does not believe writers of color are worse writers, so the phrase violates a norm for the narrator. Therefore, the narrator wonders if they had somehow communicated to the speaker that they believed the premise that underlies the speakers’ statement.


And consider, similarly, when the narrator goes to sign a form after talking to the manager on the phone and “he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black! / I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.” Realizing he had violated a norm by bringing up a premise of his cultural code (most likely that Black people sound Black over the phone), the manager backpedals by beginning the rule violation sequence with a response to the criticism he expects to follow his behavior. The narrator calls him to account anyway, saying, “Aloud.” Yet, instead of acknowledging his mistake, the manager simply says, “what?” and the critic/narrator says, “You didn’t mean to say that aloud.” The exchange does not follow the standard sequence of a rule violation, and so, the violator does not respond in a restorative way. Instead, “the transaction goes swiftly after that.” Exchanges like these illustrate the sturdiness of the cultural code of race. The code is historically transmitted, meaning no single generation of people can fully transform a culture. The code has no historical rule for addressing a social faux pas, however hurtful it may have been to the POC interlocutor, and the fragility of the relationship between the two leaves no room for open, close, or supportive communication that might close the new schism. Blackness, race, and discrimination are unmentionable, taboo topics in the contemporary cultural code of race that Citizen pulls apart through prose.


Another, “I didn’t know black women could get cancer,” rings as a premise embedded in the cultural code of race in the United States (Rankine). As does, “you smell good and have features more like a white person.” As does, “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.” These moments build into a pattern, an entire network of premises layered thick with attachments to symbols associated with Blackness. It takes a lifetime of social interactions to learn the system (historically transmitted) and sometimes another lifetime to unlearn. “Black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago,” and the network of rules, premises, and symbols that underpin the culture of White America are part of that racial calculus (Hartman 2007, 6 qtd. Sharpe). Rankine’s ability to expose the exact moments when nails rake across chalkboards —when brakes screech and conversation comes to a full stop— also allows her to show precisely the mechanics of the racial calculus Sharpe references. Citizen illustrates the power of the description, how the way people say the world is can make the world. The cultural code is an inheritance from slavery, built with the same premises that let slaveholders conclude that Black people were only Black bodies, placeholders, or capital. Now, the same system allows police brutality, inequity in healthcare and education, and mass incarceration.


So, why analyze Black art with a social constructionist lens, using a theory designed for communication studies? Because, in human interactions, there are always multiple truths —although some are truer than others. Rankine’s Citizen is a lyric, yet, it utilizes elements of realism and constructs verisimilitude with language. In other words, Citizen is true and ought to be analyzed as truth. The Ways of White Folks is also true. Both texts pull from the structure of feeling Black, the material and social conditions shared by those people inhabiting a society with a cultural code designed to exclude and harm them. The anecdotes of experiencing racism within the two texts may be fictionalized for sharing, yet they still transmit the core elements necessary for understanding how race is constructed and functions. As artists, Rankine and Hughes both act as culture creators, and their work allows the sharing of honest communication which daily interactions often miss. In each of the instances of racism, from direct violence to microaggressions, depicted in the two texts, there lies an opportunity to assess the ways speech and behavior affect people who are racialized through them. Abstract concepts like white privilege become grounded when they are magnified and explored through art. Through symbolizing the experience of racism, Black artists make it possible to see how race works and provide evidence that race is not biological but constructed through everyday interactions. Rankine’s Citizen seems to acknowledge its ability to reveal the process of racialization through cultural code: “It is the White Man who creates the Black man. But it is the Black man who creates” (Rankine). Undoubtedly, there are problems with taking art and analyzing it as data to filter through a theoretical lens meant for a social science — but even if the product of such an analysis would not hold up to scientific scrutiny, there are sometimes discoveries that need to be appreciated for their merit in contributing to understanding instead of Fact. The advantage of looking at these texts through this theoretical perspective is that it provides a new way of looking at incidents of racism and understanding how and why they occur. Knowingly only that racism exists, and what it looks like, is unsatisfactory and not particularly helpful. Knowing that race is constructed through a complicated network of symbols, premises, and rules allow one to consider how to start unweaving the system one false assumption at a time. So much of racism is built on ignorance, after all.



Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain by...” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69395/the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain.

Hughes, Langston. The Ways of White Folks. Vintage Books, 1990.

Philipsen, Gerry. Speaking Culturally: Explorations in Social Communication (SUNY Series in Human Communication Processes). State University of New York Press, 1992.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American Lyric. Penguin Books, 2015.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake on Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.



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