Tarzan, from the animated Disney’s version to the most recent 2016 installment seems to cut out the racist components of the 1912 novel. With the animation editing out blacks entirely and the latest movie discarding the racism of the novel, the question remains as to whether this can be done without wiping out the existence and purported essence of Tarzan. In Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Borroughs, blacks are seen as barbaric, “savages” with the ape-reared male elevated above the natives with no basis other than because the author said so. However, Tarzan was not unique for In The Adventures of Captain Horn by Frank Stockton which was published in 1895, the Africans are also called “savage” and “half—tamed,” and planted in the narrative for comedic entertainment. Immediately, one can see a correlation between racism and entertainment with the more racist equaling the more entertaining based on the authorship. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, published in 1899 has a more serious undertone whilst still depicting blacks as subhuman and “niggers” which may have costed it it’s effectiveness. It’s important that white or non-black readers do not read over these stereotypical views and also not take them lightly. That way closer inspection reveal that these novels are not as good they could have been without the distasteful racist parts. Fiction is better when it’s grounded in reality. All three of the action and or adventure texts, Tarzan, Captain Horn and Heart of Darkness regardless of their genre, portray stereotypical views of blacks or Africans as unintelligent, barbaric, wild and subhuman, thereby eluding the common sense of these persons, their subjective perspectives and overall veritableness.
The Adventures of Captain Horn
Throughout Captain Horn the supposed Africans are viewed as the same.
When the captain was told of “strange thing,” his reaction was a generalization—“another African!” After Mrs. Cliff and her companions insist that it wasn’t a Native Indian, they said “almost in the same breath..it was an African, exactly like Maka.” The conversation exemplifies a lack of experience or familiarity and possibly an obsession when they say, “you know they’re very dark.” Africans are just like one another. What are the chances that after stumbling upon a new land that he’d find a black person that looks exactly like Maka? It’s ironic that Mrs. Cliff and her companions in the “same breath” are also similar.
The alleged “African” characters are depicted in an emasculated manner. When the author states, “Making a step toward him, the captain saw that he(Maka) had hold of another man, several feet below him, and that he could not pull him up.
“Hold on tight, Maka,” he cried, and then, taking hold of the African’s shoulders, he gave one mighty heave, lifted both men, and set them on their feet beside him.” Maka is the one that does all the manual labor for the Captain so logically he would not be the one to have the strength to lift both men.
The black characters are always depicted as frightened and scared. An example is, “The new African was sitting on the ground, as far back from the edge of the ledge as he could get, shivering and shaking, for the water was cold. He had apparently at reached the culmination and termination of his fright.” You can see that this “new African” is also authored as fearful like Maka. Keep in mind that they are socialized in two different parts of the word. Here is another example, “The shivering negro had been listening attentively, and now half rose and nodded his head violently, and then began to speak rapidly in African.” Firstly the description is ironic and not realistic for one to go from “shivering” to “nodding head violently.” With this superficial description of the character’s speech, the reader is forced to think in stereotypes. There are thousands of African languages that were and still are spoken across the continent.
The “Africans” are always placed at impending danger zones as tools for the initiation of a scene that makes Horn seem brave. It is interesting that the author describes Maka for example, has being fearful but put him the closest to danger. “Maka can sleep in the hall to keep out burglars.(17)” If he is indeed the most scared why would Captain Horn place him where he would be the first to face the onset of danger. Another instance: “then suddenly a scrambling sound of footsteps was heard, and Maka dashed through the two adjoining apartments and appeared before them. Instantly the captain was on his feet, his gun, which had been lying beside him, in his hand.” In this scene the captain is portrayed as being brave because he has a gun. That eludes the fact that anyone can sport a gun. It continues that “the captain satisfied himself with leaving Mok at his former post, with instructions to give the alarm if he heard the slightest sound, and put Maka, as before, in the outer passage.” Maka is placed in the latter passage which is the most exposed part of the vicinity.
Lines like “As soon as the negro saw him, he began to beckon wildly for him to come on,” and five black men in a state of mad excitement” are exaggerated and misinterpreted behavioral expressions of the “Africans.” “Some more Africans have turned up. Maka has gone to meet them…” This phrase assumes that Maka would automatically run towards the Africans of the land he just arrived on with Captain Horn, like long lost brothers. Once again we find Maka being put at the forefront where if Captain Horn were really the brave one he would take the initiative and “go to meet them.” The lack of sufficient interpretation of Africans is evident when, “…the other African, Mok, sat crouched on his heels, his eyes wide open. Whether he was asleep or not it would have been difficult to determine, but if anyone had appeared in the great cleft on the other side of the lake, he would have sprung to his feet with a yell—his fear of the Rackbirds was always awake.” It’s not clear why it would be difficult to know whether Mok is sleeping or not. It implies that the author is lacking in skills of interpreting or observing behavior. Again we see assumptions of fear.
Statements to describe black characters in the novel are geared towards “exclusion” or “differentiation.” Take for example this statement by Captain Horn. “Now we can take it easy to-day, and rest our bones. The order of the day is to keep close…Keep those four niggers up in the pigeonhole.” The use of the word, “those” imply that they are seen as “the other” —differentiated and excluded despite being used for manual labor. Horn continues, “We will do our own cooking to-day, for we can’t afford to run after any more of them. Lucky the fellow who got away can’t speak English, for he can’t tell anything about us, any more than if he was an ape.” Needless to state, the racism—someone doesn’t speak English they are inferior and the comparison to an ape. We already know that the Captain must’ve had incompetency for learning the languages of the African. For he sees no problem that Maka would know his language but he not know Maka’s at all. When Horn said, “You are a good fellow, Maka,” that quite frankly is a racist statement. The reason is that there is an implication that all blacks are “bad” for him to be making statements such as, “Apart from his being such an abject coward, he seems to be a good, quiet fellow, willing to do what he is told…(83)” The white characters would also say things like “ those black fellows(72)”and “those colored people(73)” after they brought all the food and provisions to them. They are viewed as “the other” and different even though they take care of them. There is a lot of name calling of blacks such as “coal-black heathen(93)”
Blacks wanting to find “good white people” to “take care of them” lacks plausibility as there is no textual evidence of this want. Examine: “The Africans went to a spot..and there they hid themselves, and watched as long as it was daylight…But they saw nothing, and being very anxious to find good white people who would take care of them, they started out before dawn that morning to look for the shipwrecked party…whom they hoped to find their companion Mok.” Maka does the physical work for the crew so it is he that takes care of the captain and the crew. In essence it is the white people that seek blacks to “take care of them,” constantly throughout the novel. When the captain and his crew were soon going to be without food, Maka proposed that he and the rest of the “black fellows” bring some supplies.(60)” Upon return, “The negroes were heavily loaded with bags and packages, and they were glad to deposit their burdens on the ground.(60)” This show us that it’s blacks that are taking care of the whites.
Voices added to the African characters are inauthentic, similar to Captain Horn. For example, “Yes,” replied the African. “One day before, three went out to look for Mok, and they found his track and more track, and they waited in the black darkness.” It is unlikely that an African would say this statement because growing up in The Caribbean or South American climate, the natives would be accustomed to the black darkness at night which is apart of their environment. The African is speaking about the darkness of the night as if it is strange or new and he fears it. These inauthentic voices do not reflect the cultural-environment. In Europe it snows and the atmosphere becomes brighter outside at night when it snows, so the night is shorter and looks like day. Tropical climates have not only longer nights but darker nights all year round with apparently no snow.
The strength of Mok and Maka are underestimated despite the manual labor Stockton depicts them doing throughout the novel. “Maka, that is a fine lot of fire-wood you have brought. It will last us a long time,” said Horn. Maka who seems to have carried a bunch of firewood should imply his strength but earlier on he was not able to lift two men. It’s more likely that Captain Horn would not be able to have the strength to do the latter as throughout the book he only lifts a gun. This is portrayed as if it takes the same strength to lift a weapon as to lift firewood.
Mok and Maka are also given similar sounding names and that eludes to the fact that the author strives to make them all the more alike. Mok is pronounced the same as Muck whose googled definition is “dirt, rubbish, waste manner.” Clearly, even the names of the characters are of a underlying, racist origin.
In Tarzan, there are exaggerated and clearly stereotypically racist descriptions of the appearance of “Africans.” Case in point, “Their yellow teeth were filed to sharp points, and their great protruding lips added…to the low and bestial brutishness of their appearance.” It assumes that appearance has anything to do with behavior when he states “bestial brutishness.” It edges the reader to accept that physical appearance are of any intrinsic value in determining a person’s character. The author adds judgements to physical appearances as if there are any basic correlation between the two. He also assumes that appearances of the natives has anything to do with the observer.
Tarzan behavior towards the Natives shows but an insult of their intelligence, despite the fact that apes raised him, according to the novel’s premise. “Without haste he wrapped them securely, and then, ere he turned to leave, the devil of capriciousness entered his heart. He looked about for some hint of a wild prank to play upon these strange, grotesque creatures that they might be again aware of his presence among them.(111)” So when Tarzan is around Africans a devil enters his heart. It’s interesting that the author makes Tarzan first experience with an African be when his ape mother is murdered with a bow and arrow. He could have easily been exposed to the natives before that tragedy. The existence of Tarzan rests partly if not solely on racism. It would be more likely that the natives would have found him—”aware of his presence” and brought him up in human culture.
Like Captain Horn, blacks in Tarzan are depicted as fearful and also emasculated. When the natives found out that their arrows were missing—“thoroughly awed and frightened group of savages”(105). When the village found out that Mbonga died, “They stood in little groups, talking in low tones, and ever casting affrighted glances behind them from their great rolling eyes.”(105)” Anyone with common sense would know that if a prominent person has been murdered in a village then that would be the last reaction. There would be sadness, revenge, an investigation etc. Fearfulness is then taken to a new level— without logical reason. “He was moving carelessly along a winding jungle trail…, when suddenly he came face to face with a black warrior. The look of surprise on the savage face was almost com- ical, and before Tarzan could unsling his bow the fellow had turned and ed down the path crying out in alarm as though to others before him. (133)” While we know that Tarzan is fiction this particular scene is like a macho fantasy one because there is no reason one would fear Tarzan. It is unlikely that they’d be afraid of a naked white man running around in their environment. Now notice the phrase, “unsling his bow” which is ironic because we know that this bow was stolen from the Africans. Also, why would this black warrior not have a bow and arrow himself? Even if Tarzan practiced with the bow and arrow he would not be as skilled as the natives. They not only engineered them but have a society and culture that would contribute to them mastering shooting a bow from an arrow through socialization and education. That apparently contributes to the whole racism which includes the insulting of people’s intelligence.
Scenes in Tarzan are remindful of southern lynching in the 19th and 20th century during which time the novel was published. “The blacks, their eyes protruding in horror, watched spellbound. Once beneath the trees, the body rose straight into the air, and as it disappeared into the foliage above, the terrified negroes, screaming with fright, broke into a mad race for the village gate. (248)” It is apparent that lynching was done in hopes of instilling fear of the latter description in maintaining white supremacy as exemplified in Tarzan even in the “African jungle.” By now we see numerous scenes of fearful Africans both in Tarzan and Captain Horn being repeated over and over again in hopes that this continuous repetition would make it true or real, for the obvious reasons that it is not true or actual.
Esmeralda in Tarzan of the Apes
Like the African Natives, Esmeralda is also depicted as fearful “like a frightened child(148).” Her character identity is posited as African American. We know this because she arrived from “America” as Jane’s maiden. Esmeralda wanted to leave the “African jungles.” She said, “You all don’t mean to tell ME that you’re going to stay right here in this here land of carnivable animals…Don’t you tell me THAT, honey.(280)” Not only is this voice clearly stereotypical, she is depicted as having absolutely no interest in the African continent much less in remaining there. Nor in her African roots because we already know that as an African American she would be of African descent. The only way she would have no interest her African ancestral home, is if she had been brainwashed, denied or stripped of her history by the influence or behavior of oppressor/s during some type of servitude.
Esmeralda, like other “black” characters is there for entertainment—albeit a racist. It’s akin to the minstrel shows used to entertain the white masses. In this period these shows had to be racist to be deemed entertaining by white audiences. I will go as far as saying that Esmeralda is “blackface”— a non-black character with theatrical makeup to represent a black person. Even though Esmeralda is not one of the African native, she is still portrayed as fearful as much as the African characters in the “jungle” where Tarzan also resides. Whether they are black Americans or Africans in the Congo, they are all depicted as the same: fearful. None of the black characters are portrayed in a suitable manner from the beginning.
Heart of Darkness
Conrad also depicted Africans in his novel in a stereotypical, superficial, and distasteful manner. Here is a descriptions of the natives, “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth in all attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair they were nothing earthly now….One of these creatures rose to his hands and knees and went off on all fours towards the river to drink. (Conrad 25)” The natives are portrayed as shapes and moving forms with no characteristics so as to distinguish one from the other. They are described as animalistic, moving “on all fours,” and in a superstitious manner as in “nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation.(25)” Alluding to Captain Horn, they are Mok and Maka, very similar as if they are one body and not separate individuals.
Like Tarzan and Captain Horn, the Natives are described in sweeping generalizations and has literally one body. We know that the author did in fact go to this area of the African continent. However, he must have left with the same stereotypes he came with of Africans and did not discover a full truth exemplified in his racist descriptions of Africans as sub-human.
Similarly, the two previously mentioned novels, blacks aren’t given authentic voices. Marlowe chose to describe the voice of the Africans as a “growing murmur of voices” and a “violent babble of uncouth sounds(15).”
Solely based on authorship, one can tell that Borrough, Stockton, and Conrad do not know or have little to no familiarity with blacks making their stance superstitious. Examine the phrase, “Then Mbonga emerged, a look of mingled wrath and superstitious fear writ upon his hideous countenance.” European or white characters are not depicted as fearful, atleast not as much as melanated characters. Logically speaking it would more be the European that would be afraid not being familiar with the surroundings.
Apart from the authors being racist, one can argue that racism is superstition. The definition of superstition in the Webster’s dictionary is: 1. any belief, based on fear or ignorance, that is inconsistent with the known laws of science or with what is considered as true and rational. 2. any action or practice based on such a belief. Meanwhile dictionary.com defines superstition as “irrational belief usually founded on ignorance or fear and characterized by obsessive reverence…a notion, act or ritual that derives from such belief. 2. any irrational belief[racism], esp with regard to the unknown[blacks].” Evidently, it is ironic that the natives or blacks are repeatedly shown to be superstitious when it’s really Stockton reflected in Captain Horn and his crew, Borroughs, and Conrad that would likely be afraid and superstitious. They carry superstitious beliefs of blacks.
Colonialism in the texts
In both Tarzan and Captain Horn Europeans have been shipwrecked on another land in one way for another. In Tarzan and Heart of Darkness, however short, there have been colonialism. When Lord Greystroke was sent to “[investigate] conditions in a British West Coast African Colony. The English men stated that the Africans were held in slavery. Even after their enlistment ended they were taken advantage of and kept in servitude for several more years. This is very similar to Heart of Darkness where the Africans are overworked as the earlier quote above describes their conditions and then left to die. In Tarzan there is also scenes that can arguably be symbolic of colonialism. When Tarzan steals the Native’s bows and arrows on numerous occasions, it is symbolic of Europeans exploitation of African resources. And when Tarzan was using the arrow against the Native it’s using the very resources they’ve gained from the oppressed against the oppressed. When “the devil of capriciousness entered [Tarzan’s] heart,” it can also be symbolic of the behavior of colonists because of the subjugation of people and echoes the title of Conrad’s novel—Heart of Darkness. Conrad and Borrough would say Europeans shouldn’t be in Africa looting and exploiting. All three authors would agree more or less that material things are the root of all evil.
As a black person reading Captain Horn, for example when I laugh, I always stop abruptly in my tracks to remember that I am laughing at the author’s ignorance. This novel could’ve been hilarious without racism and would make a great movie if my aforementioned discussion is considered. While reading Conrad’s description of blacks, I couldn’t help but think that he was mentally ill. If, Heart of Darkness’ goal was to show the evils of colonization then what better way to show this than through the eyes of oppressors? That Conrad had no empathy towards blacks, making his work less effective if it’s goal was to educate Europeans on the horrors of colonialism so that it may be eradicated. To actively fight colonialism and the oppression, blacks would have had to be an integral part of the solution. We know this because they are the ones oppressed and also because Europeans are on an African land. As for Tarzan, Borrough seems to admit something near closer to the truth with this line near the end of the novel, “But one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week, or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white.(302)” So when it’s said and done Borrough is admitting that in reality it is actually whites that are the cowards and that cowardice is only projected unto black characters in Tarzan and Captain Horn.