These novels have characters enduring or perpetrating racist, discriminatory, or prejudicial speech or behavior. It could be obvious or subtle.
For novels that deal with apartheid see South African
See also The Holocaust
See also Slavery
Subject: Racism, Discrimination, or Prejudice
Light in August | William Faulkner
Lena is looking for Lucas, the man who impregnated her. She ends up at a mill where she meets Byron, a man who falls in love with her and who has some information about Lucas. Gail is a disgraced minister, making his living in sales. Joe was having a relationship with Joanna, a woman considered an outsider as a Yankee and for her support of the black community. When her house burns down, Joe is implicated in the crime.
Juneteenth | Ralph Ellison
Reverend Hickman leads some of his followers to see Senator Sunraider, a known racist. He is giving a speech with some racist rhetoric when he is shot by a black man. Hickman is distraught; although they oppose each other now, they have a history.
Summer of My German Soldier | Bette Greene
A group of German POWs on their way to a prison camp are brought into the store of Patty’s parents to buy hats. One prisoner, Anton, buys on behalf of everyone because he speaks English. Later, news spreads that a prisoner has escaped. Patty finds Anton lurking outside one night and offers to hide him.
To Kill a Mockingbird | Harper Lee
Scout and Jem Finch are growing up in small-town Alabama. They have a reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, who is the subject of rumor and speculation in the town. Their father, a lawyer named Atticus, agrees to represent a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman.
“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
Obasan | Joy Kogawa
Naomi Nakane narrates her childhood during and after World War II in rural Alberta, Canada, as well as her present. She remembers the persecution of Japanese Canadians, and the abuse she suffered from a neighbour.
A Lesson Before Dying | Ernest J. Gaines
Jefferson is out riding with some friends when they stop to rob a liquor store; a shootout ensues, leaving everyone but Jefferson dead. He takes some money and flees. He is put on trial and found guilty of robbery and murder, and sentenced to die. His lawyer presented him as a man too stupid to be executed, saying it would be like sending a hog to the electric chair. This upsets his godmother, who raised him, so she visits Grant, a schoolteacher, to ask that he educate Jefferson in the little time he has left.
them | Joyce Carol Oates
This novel follows the lives of Loretta Wendall, her daughter, Maureen, and Jules, her son. It’s Detroit in 1937 with Loretta living in poverty. Her life is narrated from the Depression until thirty years later.
House Made of Dawn | N. Scott Momaday
It is 1945 when Abel’s grandfather picks him up at the bus station. He has just returned from World War II. He remembers frightening things from his early life on the reservation and his wartime experiences. He does a little work for a white woman who lives nearby, and they develop a relationship.
The Fixer | Bernard Malamud
Yakov Bok goes to Kiev looking for a better life. He hides his Jewish identity so he can get work. The quality of his work impresses his employer, Lebedev, and he convinces Yakov to take a supervisory position at a brick factory. The workers are upset by this, and Yakov’s secret endangers his employment. When a young boy is found murdered, Yakov is arrested due to rampant anti-Jewish feelings.
Cane | Jean Toomer
This novel doesn’t have a continuous plot. It’s divided into three sections made up of sketches, short stories and poems, and finishing with a novella about a mixed-race teacher who is disgusted by the way blacks are treated. He has to deal with the way the educated, prominent members of society view black people.
Hatter Fox | Marilyn Harris
Hatter is a seventeen-year-old Navajo girl in a reformatory. She comes to the attention of Teague, a doctor from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When he starts checking up on her, he finds she is violent and unmanageable. She is harshly punished and mistreated at the reformatory. Teague tries to make some kind of connection with Hatter in the hope of improving her life.
Sula | Toni Morrison
Sula and Nel are friends who grow up in “The Bottom”, the African-American part of a town in Ohio. Sula is wild and feels unloved and guilty over an accident in her childhood. Nel was raised in a strict household, and finds some excitement in Sula’s company. There is a lot of drama in the lives of Sula, her mother, and her grandmother.
A Gathering of Old Men | Ernest J. Gaines
Beau, a white man, is shot and his body is in the yard of Mathu, a black man. Eighteen old men gather at his home, each of them claiming to be the killer. They await the arrival of Mapes, the white sheriff, a bully who doesn’t respect black people.
Snow Falling on Cedars | David Guterson
When the body of a fisherman is found, Kabuo, a Japanese man, is charged with the murder. It is 1954 in Puget Sound, Washington, and there is still suspicion of Japanese people from World War II. Witnesses are called to testify, and we are given insight into their lives. The trial is covered by a reporter, Ishmael, who loved a Japanese girl long ago, now the wife of the accused.
Cry, the Beloved Country | Alan Paton
In Book I, Stephen Kumalo, a priest from a small South African community, gets a letter saying his sister is ill. He sets off for Johannesburg to help, and also to look for his son, Absalom. Book II presents some of the same events from the perspective of James Jarvis, a man who receives sad news and then heads for Johannesburg. Book III is told from the point of view of Kumalo and Jarvis.
Ceremony | Leslie Marmon Silko
Tayo, a mixed-blood Native American, has psychological problems from his time in World War II and, to a lesser extent, his troubled childhood. He wants to reconnect with his traditions and spirituality.
Ship of Fools | Katherine Anne Porter
A group of travelers set out on a sea voyage from Mexico to Europe. They are made up of a few different nationalities, and everyone reacts badly to everyone else. They get frustrated with each other and quarrel. Two of the passengers, Dr. Schumann and La Condesa, develop feelings for each other.
Betsy Brown | Ntozake Shange
Betsy is a thirteen-year-old black girl in St. Louis living in a house with her extended family. Her grandmother is upset with integration. Against a backdrop of identity and racial concerns, she deals with many of the parts of growing up: a boyfriend, interacting with friends, having to change schools, and family problems.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter | Carson McCullers
It’s the 1930s in a small Southern town. John Singer, a deaf mute, is an important presence in the life of the other main characters. Biff runs a cafe, has a distant relationship with his wife, and says that he like freaks. Jake is educated and a fighter for equality, but he is drunk a lot, which undermines his credibility. Mick is a twelve-year-old girl who looks after her brothers and loves music. Dr. Copeland is a black man educated in the North, isolated and keenly aware of the racism around him. Their lives intertwine for a while, but mostly in a superficial way.
Invisible Man | Ralph Ellison
An unnamed narrator tells the story of his life from segregation in the 1920’s American South to living in Harlem many years later. He feels invisible in the world, believing people refuse to see him.
“I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God | Zora Neale Hurston
Janie’s nanny encourages her to marry Logan even though she doesn’t find him attractive. They get married but she leaves him for Joe, a man who plans on becoming an important figure in an all-black community. Their relationship deteriorates and becomes hostile.
Heart of Darkness | Joseph Conrad
Marlow is a riverboat captain working for a company that trades in the Congo. On his journey to meet with Kurtz, a chief in the company’s Inner Station, he finds the company’s practices are inefficient and brutal. Kurtz is a successful ivory dealer, and feelings about him are mixed. Kurtz’s isolation has had a profound effect on him.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Maya Angelou
Three-year-old Marguerite and her brother Bailey, a year older, arrive at their grandmother’s to live. Their grandmother owns a general store, a hub in the black community. One day, their father arrives and takes the children back to their mother and her boyfriend Mr. Freeman. Marguerite has a traumatic experience that makes her stop speaking for years.
Ellen Foster | Kaye Gibbons
Ellen remembers her past with her abusive, alcoholic father and overwhelmed mother. She also describes some scenes with her present foster family. Her living arrangements changed several times in a few years.
When the Emperor Was Divine | Julie Otsuka
It is spring 1942 in California where a Japanese American woman is preparing to leave her home by government order. She packs what she can, tells the children they’ll be leaving the next day, and releases or kills the family’s animals. Her husband was arrested months ago. After staying at a temporary encampment for a while, the authorities ship them off to an internment camp in the Utah desert. The family adjusts to their new home.
The Help | Kathryn Stockett
It is 1962 in Mississippi. Abileen, an African-American, works as a maid for a white family, the Leefolts. Another maid, Minny, is Abileen’s best friend. She is more outspoken, which has affected her employment. Skeeter,more liberal than her friends, graduated from college and is unmarried; she is looking for a job at a newspaper. At a weekly bridge game, Skeeter’s friend Hilly talks about her initiative – she wants all white homes to have separate bathrooms for the hired help.
The Street | Ann Petry
Lutie Johnson lives with her son Bub in 1940s Harlem. While away working as a live-in maid, her husband starts seeing another woman. She leaves him and spends years working and studying, eventually getting work as a file clerk. She takes a suite in a run-down apartment with an unsettling superintendent. She encounters a lot of racism in her daily life. She is determined to keep herself and son out of the seedier side of their environment.
Pudd’nhead Wilson | Mark Twain
Percy Driscoll’s son is born on the same day as the son of Roxana, a slave in his household. When Roxana is accused of stealing, she fears for her son’s life, as Percy has threatened to send slaves “down the river”, to harsher treatment on a southern plantation. Roxane’s son is only one thirty-second black and thus very light – she decides to switch her son with Percy’s.
The Glory Field | Walter Dean Myers
The episodes in The Glory Field tell the story of several generations of the Lewis family. It begins with Muhammad Bilal who is captured by slave traders and brought to America in 1753. He ends up on the Live Oaks plantation owned by the Lewis family. There are episodes from the Lewis history from the plantation, after the Civil War, 1930s Chicago, 1960s South Carolina, and 1990s Harlem.
Montana 1948 | Larry Watson
David Hayden, in his fifties, relates the shocking events that took place in his family when he was twelve. David’s father, Wesley, was the sheriff of their town, Bentrock. His uncle Frank was a war hero and doctor. When a Native American woman, Marie, who looks after David sometimes comes down with a sickness, David’s mother suggests calling Frank. Marie has a strong reaction, and makes accusations about Frank.
The Tortilla Curtain | T.C. Boyle
Delaney Mossbacher runs into an older Mexican man with his car. Delaney is initially concerned about his car and insurance costs. The man is badly injured. He doesn’t speak English. Delaney settles the matter with twenty dollars, but soon feels bad about the man’s limited options. The injured man, Candido Rincon, is too hurt to work. Along with others, he is living in a nearby canyon. His wife is looking for a job. The narrative continues with each family’s vastly different American experience.
Intruder in the Dust | William Faulkner
Lucas Beauchamp, a black man in Yoknapatawpha County, is accused of murdering a white man, Vinson Gowrie. Beauchamp was found near the corpse with a gun. He speaks to a lawyer, Gavin Stevens, who agrees to help save his life with a legal maneuver, but isn’t interested in proving Beauchamp’s innocence. Gavin’s nephew, Chick, speaks to Beauchamp and agrees to carry out a task for him.
Picture Bride | Yoshiko Uchida
In 1917 Hana, a Japanese woman, is headed to the United States to meet Taro, the man she will marry. Disappointment soon sets in – Taro looks older than his picture indicated, and his business isn’t as prosperous as she had heard. She tries to adapt to her new life. She meets Kiyoshi, a friend of her husband’s and a man close to her age. They feel an attraction.
Number the Stars | Lois Lowry
It is Denmark in the 1940s under German occupation. Electricity and other daily items are rationed. Jewish shops are being closed, and lists of names are being compiled for arrest. The Johansen family takes in Ellen, a young Jewish girl who is a friend of their daughter, Annemarie.
Jazz | Toni Morrison
In 1926 New York, Joe Trace, married to Violet, shoots his girlfriend, Dorcas. Violet looks into the woman’s background. The narrative goes back to tell us how Joe and Violet met, and some of their life together. We hear about Joe’s early life and how he met Dorcas.
To Sir, With Love | E.R. Braithwaite
Ricky Braithwaite, a black man, has encountered prejudice while looking for work, although he is highly qualified. He accepts a teaching position at Greenslade Secondary School, known for its problem students. His class initially resists his teaching with silence, noise, and foul language. After an indecent incident in the classroom, he reacts more strongly and institutes a set of standards for everyone.
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