“The black people who live in the Quarters at Blue Brook Plantation believe they are far the best black people living on the whole ‘Neck’…”

“…as they call that long, narrow, rich strip of land lying between the sea on one side and the river with its swamps and deserted rice fields on the other.”

That lengthy sentence opens Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin, the 1929 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.  I’m skeptical about this one.  Maybe it’s a sensitive portrayal of a portion of the African-American experience.  Maybe it’s at least sympathetic to the plight of those enslaved.  But the fairly casual references to slaves as being bred like race-horses and clinging to old superstitions make me suspicious.  I mean, here’s the second sentence in the novel:

“They are no Guinea negroes with thick lips and wide noses and low ways; or Dinkas with squatty skulls and gray-tinged skin betraying their mean blood; they are Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense.”

Even if I put the best possible spin on this, in which I focus on the positive portrayal of the Gullahs (who are, it seems, our protagonists?) and assume that the narrator’s negative comments about Guineas and Dinkas are from the perspective of proud and biased Gullahs, it certainly didn’t set me at ease.  If this novel proves to be really viciously racist, I don’t know how well I’ll survive it.  Peterkin does have a good way with words (not really evident in the above excerpts, so I guess you’ll have to trust me for now), but style won’t make up for bigotry, if it comes to that.  We’ll see, I guess.

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