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I was reading a review of Color out of Space at Ars Technica and some of the commenters were really up in arms about Lovecraft's racism.

Now, I don't doubt the man was racist and that above the average for his contemporaries, which was itself a depressingly high bar to match. He had a high output of letters and his racism is not in dispute – I have heard of it for a long time, nor am I defending it.

But, specifically when it comes to African-Americans, how much of that made it into his stories? One caveat there: it isn't really sufficient to point to an instance where an African-American character is "just" routinely belittled or disparaged, because there are many, many, cases where Lovecraft talks up imbecility or inbreeding when referring a character's ethnic group or community and a lot of that concerns Caucasians, and not necessarily only those who get too frisky with fish.

But, yes, granted that Lovecraft was a bigot and a racist, which of his published stories gives a good unequivocal example of it? His equivalent of the Merchant of Venice, if you will.

Wikipedia barely mentions it and really only refers to an article about award statuettes, which in turn mentions a poem. One could argue that, whatever his literary merits and contributions, this aspect might be covered a bit more there.

Edit: I am not trying to witchhunt or boycott HPL. I have enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, his writings. Still, an important consideration, if you are really interested in him, is the aspect of his racism and I posted this because I was curious to see what we knew about it. The man had a some other mental issues, such as an extreme phobia of the sea, IIRC. An interesting author, certainly with feet of clay.

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  • @Randal'Thor yes, yes, the Merchant of Venice can be interpreted many different ways, but at a surface level it is still a pretty darn antisemitic story, before you dig into analyzing what's down to Shakespeare's views vs. the larger antisemitism prevalent in those times (I tend to go along with the accepted answer in your link). – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 25 at 19:03
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    Lovecraft's story "The Rats in the Walls" features a cat called Nigger-Man, but this is not in itself strong evidence of Lovecraft's own racism, since his family had a cat of the same name when he was a child. See also. – Rand al'Thor Jan 25 at 19:32
  • You asked about poor portrayals of blacks, but does antisemitism count as well? There's one story in particular that I think displays that very clearly. – nick012000 Jan 26 at 5:33
  • @nick012000 in for a penny, in for a pound. go ahead. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 26 at 17:05
94

This is a poem and not exactly a short story, but it's still a work of literature written and published by Lovecraft in 1912: "On the Creation of Niggers". Content warning: this is probably the most openly, shockingly, racist thing I've ever read:

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

If you're specifically looking for short stories rather than poems, I'll delete this answer. But it certainly shows that Lovecraft's racism was expressed not only in essays and letters to friends, but in his published creative writing too.

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    no, I am good with the poem too, though I did indicate preference for stories. I believe that's the poem that was referred to in the wikipedia link. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 25 at 19:31
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    @Italian Site policy on using NSFW words in posts is that gratuitous use of such words is not acceptable, but they can be used if it's necessary for the post. Maybe I'll spoilertag the quote though, since it's so bad. – Rand al'Thor Jan 25 at 19:43
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    Spoiler-tagging merely a part of it gives undue weight to that part & breaks the flow of the intended writing - no matter what that intent was. Spoiler-tagging the whole thing means 'you were warned, don't now vent about it'. I prefer the current status, all spoiler-tagged, caveat emptor. – Tetsujin Jan 26 at 18:01
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    I am going to go with this. The other quotes certainly do show gratuitously demeaning racism towards African-Americans, however any number of books in that period (and later) will show similar language. I was thinking of Robert E. Howard for example when I asked this question, as his writings include similar passages. Denigrating and stereotypical depictions of minorities was common and continued far beyond HPL's time. This poem however is a willful, conscious, expression of deep and absolute racism and by no means "merely" a product of his times. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 28 at 1:06
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica E.R. Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom) is another prime example. Although he is usually quite subtle about it. He often portraits a "noble wild man" in such a way that it is an very unusual exception from the norm. – Tonny Jan 28 at 14:18
57

Leaving aside his poetry and his collaborative works, here are some other examples of racism in Lovecraft stories.

"The Rats in the Walls" features a cat named "N----- Man"

"The Horror at Red Hook" refers to a villain as "an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth"

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: "the wife [had] a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood."

Herbert West: Reanimator contains a particularly problematic bit of description:

The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.

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    Great finds, but there are caveats to the first one. – Rand al'Thor Jan 25 at 20:18
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    Good point. It's probably not a good place to start if you're looking for evidence of Lovecraft's conscious and deliberate racism. (For that, I gather his letters and personal correspondence are the real motherlode. I wouldn't know; I've only read his fiction.) – Kenny Jan 25 at 20:25
  • @Kenny Yeah, you'll find a particularly blatant and repulsive example in his correspondence if you google something like "lovecraft gust of cyanogen". – Geoffrey Brent Jan 28 at 0:34
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The story that comes to my mind is “Medusa’s Coil” by Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. It’s a typical Lovecraft story in many ways, and at the end the ultimate horror is revealed: Marceline is black!

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist's skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe's most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.

This story is technically a collaboration, but Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi writes in the introduction to The Horror in the Museum, according to Lovecraft the story is nearly entirely his work.

All three stories revised for Zealia Biship--"The Curse of Yig," "The Mound," and "Medusa's Coil"--were, as Lovecraft notes, based on the scantiest of plot-germs and are accordingly close to original works by Lovecraft.

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  • I've edited to the full quote (removing the [...] part) since that's even more clearly racist. – Rand al'Thor Jan 25 at 18:56
  • was that an HPL original or a clone attributed to HPL? – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 25 at 19:00
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    @Italian It seems that Lovecraft was ghostwriting for Bishop in this case, so I guess it is fair to attribute it to Lovecraft? – Rand al'Thor Jan 25 at 19:12
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    I added a clarification. According to Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi, the story was a "collaboration" with Zealia Bishop but is nearly entirely written by Lovecraft. It was written in 1930 but not published until after Lovecraft's death. – Kenny Jan 25 at 19:13
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    @F1Krazy Marceline Isn't quite "black". She is the daughter of a black woman and a demon. Her father has the same blue-ish skin she shows as a kid. While she certainly has black heritage, she was never show in the show as having black skin. In fact, the episode "Vamps About" explicitly shows her before her vampirism as having whiteish pale skin. (That's the episode that shows her becoming a vampire!) – T. Sar Jan 27 at 11:12
23

From "The Call of Cthulhu"

Duty came first; and although there must have been nearly a hundred mongrel celebrants in the throng, the police relied on their firearms and plunged determinedly into the nauseous rout.

...

Examined at headquarters after a trip of intense strain and weariness, the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a coloring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetishism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with surprizing consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.

...

...but had come in his dreams upon at least three of the precise words of the formula uttered alike by Eskimo diabolists and mongrel Louisianans?

...

One thing which I began to suspect, and which I now fear I know, is that my uncle’s death was far from natural. He fell on a narrow hill street leading up from an ancient waterfront swarming with foreign mongrels, after a careless push from a negro sailor.

The only thing Lovecraft hated worse than people of African descent (followed by other non Anglo-Saxons to varying degrees) was mixed-race people. Truly a special kind of racist ass.

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    I don't want to excuse Lovecraft's racism, but hatred of "mixing of the races" is pretty common with racist people. Interracial marriage was illegal in seven US states until the late 1960s. From Wikipedia: "Mildred Loving, a woman of color, and her white husband Richard Loving [...] in 1958 were sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other." – PM 2Ring Jan 26 at 11:04
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    Also, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… says there were 16 states in 1967 that still had various anti-miscegenation laws. "In many states, anti-miscegenation laws also criminalized cohabitation and sex between whites and non-whites." And "As at September 9, 2019, eight states required couples to declare their racial background when applying for a marriage license, without which they cannot marry." – PM 2Ring Jan 26 at 11:16
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    Good examples of his racism, but as others say, these don’t show him a “special kind of racist ass” at all, but rather as a very widespread and common kind of racist ass. – PLL Jan 26 at 22:24
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    @PLL which is, admittedly, even more depressing – user3399 Jan 27 at 10:50
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    It blows my mind that this type of thinking was just casually accepted by so many, really not that long ago. – JMac Jan 27 at 14:26
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It's perhaps a bit more subtle than some other examples, but the theme of "miscegenation" is strong in Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family (a.k.a. The White Ape). The basis of the story is a man travelling to the Congo, discovering a thitherto unknown species of hominids and there mating with such a "white ape". The narrator then discovers to his horror that he is a descendant of this race of "white apes", and commits suicide in a dramatic fashion after elaborating on the peculiarities/illnesses within his family history.

While of course on the surface these "white apes are non-human creatures, it is perhaps easy to read this as a thinly-disguised allegory of racial degeneration and miscegenation that could equally well be applied to unions of whites with black Africans, in Lovecraft's mind. After all, this theme is visited several times throughout his works, e.g., in The Lurking Fear (more about miscegenation with lower social castes and inbreeding) among others.

So, perhaps this is an unkind interpretation, but it's certainly a believable one taken in the context of Lovecraft's works and the social climate in the US at the time.

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    but HPL's work has a legitimate interest in human-nonhuman crossbreeding, for example in Shadow over Innsmouth. I think hunting for allegories here is a stretch, and unnecessary as HPL seems to have no qualms denigrating people of mixed race directly. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jan 26 at 17:36
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I think that while it's not clear-cut, the theme of miscegenation is strong throughout his works, and I have no doubt even works like these are products of his theories about human miscegenation between races, and the general atmosphere of the time. – Noldorin Jan 26 at 23:04
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica while I think you're right that not every croosbreeding exanple is a veiled reference to mixed-races, every example I can think of of cross-breeding or monster cult involve some non-white race or inbreeding or de-evolution. Even in innsmouth, the dagon worship comes from philipino (if memory serves) and the characters seem to find it horrible that the old mariner wedded a philipino (that last woman may have been a fish, I would need to check) – 3C273 Jan 27 at 2:28
  • Also, all the times I read the jermyn story, I personally can't picture the ape-creatures as anything other than black people. Maybe it's because we're talking about Africans and apes, but I think there are numerous other examples in this direction – 3C273 Jan 27 at 2:30
  • There's an argument to be made that Lovecraft was talking about a city of albino or light-skinned Africans, which would move the anti-miscegenation subtext straight into the category of text. – Adamant Jan 28 at 0:53
8

The short story "Winged Death" is about doctors in South Africa who breed poisonous flies and experiment on local members the native population. Lovecraft uses very negative language when describing the protagonist's attitudes toward various African people. Below are some excerpts.

"It was the half-belief of the four men, fostered by lives spent close to the black, settled secrets of brooding Africa, which made them shiver so violently in spite of the searing January heat."

"Am feeding them all on tainted crocodile meat, and after infectivity develops will try them on some of the blacks—apparently, of course, by accident."

"No question but that Trypanosoma gambiense is feeding on him—but he holds out better than the n******s around here."

"If any black had seen it, he’d have laid it at once to the absorption of the poor devil’s soul."

"A human intellect—did not that take one back to the most primitive legends of the Uganda blacks?"

"Is this a portent of some sort? I am getting as superstitious as the blacks."

"Winged Death" was co-authored by Hazel Heald, however HPL claims to have written most of it.

The narrator is supposed to seem unsympathetic and inhumane, so there's arguably some degree of separation between the author and character. Then again, HPL was the one who devised the story's premise and put these words on paper. Given what we know about him today, it probably wasn't a stretch for HPL to write as a character with racist attitudes.

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While it doesn't display racism against blacks, "The Street" does display antisemitic racism quite clearly.

The plot of the story can be summed up as "a street in New England has an animistic intelligence, notes a gradual degradation of its conditions, and after WW1 a bunch of what were most probably Jews move there and the communists among them begin planning a revolution that is thwarted after the spirit of the street causes the street to implode and kill them all."

All in all, the story's probably one of the blatant displays of prejudice that HP Lovecraft ever wrote.

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    Sounds more anti-communist than racist to me. – EldritchWarlord Jan 27 at 16:58
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    @EldritchWarlord - "Swarthy and sinister were most of the strangers, yet among them one might find a few faces like those who fashioned The Street and moulded its spirit. Like and yet unlike, for there was in the eyes of all a weird, unhealthy glitter as of greed, ambition, vindictiveness, or misguided zeal." - swarthy faces and greed? I think you're undergoing some contortions to avoid seeing antisemitisim. – gomad Jan 27 at 21:01
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    @gomad There is of course no contortion required to not see material not presented in the answer. The plot summary provided shows the street destroying itself to prevent the communist revolution. It does not show the author having any opinion of the "probably Jews" living in it (the "degradation of its conditions" is not connected to the inhabitants in this plot summary). This answer doesn't show the story to be explicitly racist, so it is either in need of improvement or is incorrect. – EldritchWarlord Jan 27 at 21:29
  • @EldritchWarlord I didn't want to quote the segments in question, but gomad's quoted one of them. There's a few others that make me think he's talking about (antisemitic stereotype) Jews as well. – nick012000 Jan 28 at 0:05
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    To be clear, Lovecraft consistently describes these evil people as "swart" (dark-complexioned), so even were he not referring to Jews he's expressing bigotry against some group here. But to anyone familiar with the association between Jews and Bolshevism at that time, it's easy enough to see what group is bringing the menace of communism, in much the same way that if a modern American author spoke of a sinister dark-skinned immigrants coming and plotting to institute religious laws, we wouldn't have to guess whom they meant. – Adamant Jan 28 at 0:43

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