Racism and bigotism in old literature

Understandably most of the material on LingQ is in the public domain, since it would otherwise require special permission from the author(s) - and most literature in the public domain is old, since copyright expires long after the author´s death. This means the views of the times when a lot of this material was written were very different from modern views.

In some cases this means coming across some gross racism for example and some language which would not be used today. I do not think any old literature like that should be banned or anything and I think most people today will simply understand how views were often quite primitive in the times it was written, but I think it´s worth discussing. The most extreme case I´ve come across so far is “Les Enfants du capitaine Grant” (The children of captain Grant) by Jules Verne, especially the part where they meet native Australians. I´ll let you see for yourself if you care to read it but it´s quite eye opening to how views have changed since these times.

I have been experiencing this a bit as well when reading material in Icelandic which I intend to add once Icelandic becomes available in LingQ. There was a short story by and Icelandic author, which is now the public domain and the text included a short summary of the author´s work, which I read as well. Turns out the author was credited with illustrating a book with a pretty inappropriate name, to the point where I felt I had to add an explanation of how one does not use that kind of language in our times.

Have other people here had similar experiences adding material and/or had similar thoughts?

(I mean bigotry in the title)


Agree that this is nearly unavoidable with older books and also agree that they should not be banned. As a former book dealer, I was often shocked by the content of some books that are not really that old. Agatha Christie wrote one of the most successful mystery novels in 1939. It now goes by a different name, but take a look at the original title and illustration:


Yes, that´s obviously about as racist as it gets. The book I mentioned with this inappropriate name was coincidentally named “Ten little negro boys”, so very similar to Agatha Christie´s title, even if it´s not completely as bad. That book, which is a children´s book also of course has very outdated, stereotyped and caricatured depictions of Africans, which I think were more born out of plain embarrassing ignorance than anything else.

If I come across racist / hateful terms in texts on LingQ where there is no translation for them in the languages I am learning and I know what they mean, I generally add the translation, but make a note in parenthesis behind it how it´s a hateful and/or racist term. Terms like that can of course easily pop up in imported articles, for example if it is from people who are talking about having experienced racism or other sorts of hate.


Furthermore, I am from a nation which has been very homogenous for most of it´s history, with one language, almost no dialects and everyone literally being somewhat related to everyone else. It means Icelanders have only fairly recently started to learn more what is and isn´t appropriate or simply true or false regarding a lot of inter cultural and ethnic matters. That means some material from even the fairly recent past can be quite cringeworthy.


Yours is a very useful corrective on reading some texts, often quite revered. Yes, vital to recognise the often very different historical context. And hopefully a recognition that civilised people have moved on from the mindless racism of the past.
Yesterday when a rabbi was attacked with a knife in Vienna, fortunately the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz responded immediately by fiercely condemning this outrage and declared that ‘Europe without Jews is no longer Europe’. But it so happened that I have been reading the original version of the Grimm Märchen and was horrified at the appalling antisemitism of several stories. Some commentators have tried to explain that away by suggesting that the Brothers were merely reflecting the sentiments of the age, but it is unfortunately clear that Wilhelm Grimm in a later edition especially for children actually amplified the vile nature of this bigotry.
A book by Louis Snyder on ‘The Roots of German Nationalism’ (1974) also makes it clear that Nazi propagandists latched on to the Grimm fairytales and exploited them for their own purposes, and indeed used some of the tropes for their own ‘educational’ indoctrination of schoolchildren.
It is understandable that the ‘Hollywood versions’ of these Grimm fairytales undergo a lot of re-writing! With extensive scenarios of appalling prejudices, terror, violence, mutilation, incest, murder, cannibalism and random deaths the original unexpurgated stories would not make for happy bedtime reading for young children…
However, for adult language learners there would be other dangers with any censorship of these texts, not least of which would be a failure for us to be able to analyse historical progression in what is and what is not acceptable in a tolerant, humane and educated society. Without the knowledge of the bigotry of the past there is always the potential for slipping back unthinkingly into the cesspit of historical prejudice if we are not alert to the perils.
As with hazards in food, chemicals and dangerous substances generally there is often a ‘Government Health Warning’, now also echoed in some social media with conspiracy theories.
Your excellent warnings are in the same vein and are useful to ponder when reading the literature of a bygone age.


The Icelandic book is inspired by an (unfortunately) influential “minstrel” song, which is also the origin of the initial title of Christie’s novel:

I’ve not read that work by Verne, but “Cinques semaines en ballon” and the racism was shocking. Saying there’s little difference between monkeys and blacks etc. Robinson Crusoe was also pretty bad. In Verne’s case, I didn’t expect it, because “In 80 Days Around the World” had a completely different feel to it.


Which led to the German version “Ten little negro kids”, too.

Yes I had read “In 80 days around the world” and “200.000 leagues under the sea”, which didn´t seem that racist, at least given the time they were written in, but The children of captain Grant had pretty much exactly the same thing you mentioned, where the protagonists of the story have an argument about whether native Australians they meet are humans or apes/monkeys and although the story has the more educated / sophisticated characters arguing the former, there is a note by the author himself saying the arguments of the other camp are quite reasonable, given how a certain French explorer grouped the Australians among “half-ape-men” (or some similarly racist term). This is not the only racist thing in the story, but it´s certainly the worst.

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That is interesting to know.

For example you can find articles in old newspapers that simply say something like a black man visited Ísafjörður. Why would that even be newsworthy? It was considered news simply because Iceland was fairly isolated and had no or almost no black population and most people here had never seen a black person in their life. That also mean they were pretty clueless about a lot of ethnic groups and cultures and wouldn´t necessarily know what was a racists or caricature depiction of them.

How is it any different than their views on the divine right of kings, or papal infallibility? Or their views of a heliocentric universe, creationism or any other point of view that’s based on a limited scientific understanding, or simply just a shift in values? There have been many ways to place oneself at the centre of the universe and others on the fringes in ways other than just what modern people would call “bigotry”.

Why would a bigoted description of a people by someone who probably never saw them be any worse than the beliefs that lead to other dehumanizing practices? And when do you allow a casual racist comment to o overpower the point of the story?

I read in Casanova’s memoirs of an encounter he had with a slave girl in a port near Venice. She was a Greek teenage girl, and retained by an Ottomon as a slave. This was mentioned casually, as if it was normal for the time (Italian ports were Ottomon slave trading posts). But it was quite a romantic story and mentioning her slave-status was only to serve as an obstacle for the romantic encounter. If you read this with an air of disgust at how widespread slavery was at the time you miss the point of the writing.


There is nothing wrong with seeing the context, but also noting how bad some views were at the time and discussing it. Some of it is obvious, such as claims about non-white people being apes etc. but some is more subtle and worth pointing out, like female characters often having no purpose other than for male characters to save them or fight about them, or consistent references to female characters cooking and cleaning, when there are plenty of references to male characters reading, educating themselves etc. Like I said, I do not want to ban any of these works, but there is nothing wrong with discussing the negative aspects of the world views they are born in.

One thing I thought was worth a thought, as I mentioned, was to make notes on translations how some words are not good language today. I do not necessarily mean this as some authoritative language policing, so let me put it like this: If someone were learning English from scratch and were reading some very old literature where black people are called “negroes” or even “n***ers”, they might think these words would be ok to use in modern times. This would obviously not do them any favors. They´d want to know which terms were racist, offensive, hateful etc. in modern day culture. Therefore I think it is good to make notes on how some terms are indeed hateful or vulgar.


There are many different kinds of objectionable content in literature and other media, both old and new, and that consumers will find objectionable for different reasons. I agree that this older literature should not be banned. I disagree that translators, publishers, and editors should update, censor, or add warning labels to it. Who will censor the censors? And who is to say that the censor’s modern view won’t itself be viewed with disdain by the next generation? Teach people to read and think ethically. Teach them critical thinking skills. Teach them objectivity rather than easily offended emotionalism. What is objectionable and/or unethical in literature and media will be easily recognizable and will become an opportunity for constructive critique, rather than offense.


I used to read aloud to my children every evening from when they were toddlers until they were 12 or 13. (The sophistication of the literature increased with their age – how many people can say that they have read Kon-Tiki out loud? :slight_smile: My wife had her collection of all the Oz books which I must have read aloud three times, as the kid’s ages are spread out. Nothing terribly objectionable there as far as I can recall. However, I was unprepared for Dr. Doolittle. Oh my goodness! I had to bowdlerize on the fly for the little ones’ sake, and mine as well.


I remeber reading that the spy who loved me has references to women wanting to be raped.

I sure there is lots of objectable stuff in Bond books in todays society


I also recall the friendship between Quarrel and Bond in Doctor No having racial overtones.


" How is it any different than their views on the divine right of kings, or papal infallibility? Or their views of a heliocentric universe, creationism or any other point of view that’s based on a limited scientific understanding, …" - isn´t it ironic how many of those views still even persist today though, even in the “first world”? About 40% or so of Americans are creationists even today for example and the idea the earth is flat incredibly seems to be making a bit of a comeback :frowning:


“Teach them critical thinking skills.”
Yes, I agree. This includes the examination of the following topics:

  • How do different media (esp. language, mass media and WWW / social media) operate?
  • How do propaganda mechanisms, ideologies and prejudiced / stereotyped discourses work?
  • How do discrimination, stigmatization, the construction of friends and enemies etc. occur? And which main distinctions are used in these cases? For example: we vs. them, inside vs. outside, Inferior vs. superior, and so forth.
  • Which cognitive distortions (confirmation bias, etc.) are the most important ones in human information processing?
  • How can statistics/mathematics and graphics, e.g. diagrams, be easily manipulated?
  • How do advertising and persuasion work, esp. in the context of new digital media formats?
    This goes far beyond blatant racism (old school or new school), because you have to become an “ethnologist of your own culture” (Michel Foucault)!

I’d say such critical media and communication competence is, of course, important now, but it will become even more central in the (near) future because of the rise of AI (inicluding its biases!), the re-emergence of authoritarian regimes worldwide and the immense deception potential related to new digital media formats (troll factories, bots, all kinds of conspiracy stories, etc.).
Acquiring such critical media and communicaiton competence should start at school. And this is usually the case at “Gymnasiums” in Germany, but I’m not so sure about German “Realschulen” and “Hauptschulen / Werksrealschulen”

However, I agree with @rokkvi that a public discussion about such issues is also necessary because it can raise public awareness!


Well, ironically enough, as we´ve been discussing racism in literature from a century or two ago and some have pointed out how you don´t always have to go that far back in literature or art to come across some bad examples of racism or sexism, I ran across this old video from pro-wrestling in the US. The racism in the promo (interview) is very extreme and this is the early 80s, not far back in time at all. David Schulz, who is giving the interview is playing a persona and he´s supposed to be a villain, but even so, it´s extreme, blatant racism and you´d never see something like this today. Dr. D David Schultz gets too personal with cheap heat - YouTube

Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the current equivocation with regard to terms like “racism” and the anachronistic applications of that term even in discussions like this one. That’s another reason perceived racism in earlier forms of media needs to be left intact and readers allowed to judge them on their merits in context.