Exploring Race and Class in Literature

Race and class have been contentious issues in the society for a long time. Authors have therefore taken it upon themselves to demystify these aspects that have led to segregation, discrimination and even hatred. Karl Marx in postulating his economic theories greatly criticized capitalism for its ability to encourage the condemnation of human beings into economic classes. Racism and placing of people into social classes is mostly seen in places where economic resources are limited. It is therefore apparent that they are just used as weapons to keep a section of people from enjoying resources. Some of the literal works that address race and class include “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, “Previous Condition” by James Baldwin, “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen and “Sonny Blues” by James Baldwin. This paper will explore how the issues of race and class have been addressed in the literal works with the aim of outlining the root causes, promoting factors, consequences and finally recommendations. Literature, just like other forms of art is a mirror that reflects a society in a manner that people are mostly shy to express.

Literature Analysis

Alice Walker in her book “Everyday Use” narrates the story of a conflicting views and perception between a mother and her two daughters in a way that is closely related to race and class. The time setting of the book is in the 1960s and 1970s. During this time most black people were at a cultural dilemma, whether to adopt the white culture from which they had only experienced pain or to conform to their African roots. Culture is an important aspect of human beings because it provides identity. The major conflict is between Mama who is practical in her allegiance to her race and ancestors and knows that such aspects should be separated from issues pertaining to nationalism on the other hand her daughter Dee depicts a woman who is willing to use each and every aspect of her culture to challenge the thought that Blacks are inferior in any way. Mama describes Dee as being determined to: “stare down any disaster in
her efforts. “ (Walker Pg 409).The white Americans segregated the black people on the basis of their race and now as seen with Dee, the blacks also want to use race to fight back and the result is cultural conflict. Race as depicted by Walker in this case using the character of mama is that is a strong aspect that should be used in a positive way and people should resist from using it as a way of getting revenge.

The same situation can be seen in James Baldwin’s book “Previous Condition”. The book tells the story of a young black actor who attempts to find identity or answers in the white world and the result is that he even becomes more confused. Perhaps the young actor due to the racist environment he grew in came to the belief that the white race is superior and somewhat wanted to identify with them. The conflict as outlined by Walker is between two people who are from the same race. On the other hand Baldwin in “Previous Condition” explains how the conflict can exist within the same person. Although the young actor in “Previous Condition” is an intellectual he still cannot figure out his identity. In the Peter, the young actor says that:

“I couldn’t move for the longest while, I just lay on my back spread-eagled.” (Baldwin, 68).

The previous hardships due to racism that the young actor had gone through would still haunt him. Apart from the actor struggling to establish an identity for himself he was also struggling with racism stigma. The two aspects were the major impediments for the young actor in achieving his dreams.

Apart from race, class is also another aspect that has brought many social ills to families living in a diverse setting. In Tillie Olsen’s “ I Stand Here Ironing” the author tells of a mother who is so much stereotypical of her own class that she is surprised to see her daughter excelling in music. The mother got her daughter at a very young age and was therefore not financial capable of managing to take care of the baby and at the same time work. Therefore the child was brought up by relatives. Furthermore the child’s father abandoned her when the child was very young. N description of her life the mother laments that:

“It took a long time to raise the money for her fare back.  Then she got chicken pox and I had to wait longer.  When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks.”

Due to the economic class that the mother and the baby lived in the baby was not able to enjoy the motherly comfort and guidance. As a result even the mother resolves to the fact that a baby brought in that kind of a condition cannot excel in life. Therefore the mother becomes surprised when her she sees her daughter perform boldly in front of a crowd. The child’s life according to the author was full of challenges. The root of all her problems was financial difficulties that the family was facing her father having abandoned them and her mother left as the breadwinner. Perhaps if she were born in an economically stable family she would have had a healthy and interesting childhood and as a result nurtured the confidence to explore all her capabilities. Olsen’s perception is that poverty in its worst forms may break the basic unit of a society which is the family. Walker also outlines how poverty may limit the perspectives of young children as is the case with Mama’s younger daughter who is without ambition and Mama describes her when she says that:

“Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some
careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who
is ignorant enough to be kind to him?” (Walker, Pg 409)

In “Sonny Blues” James Baldwin narrates the different lives of two brothers. The narrator of the story is a teacher and speaks of his brother whom he describes as being a heroin addict and at even one point was sent to prison.  Apparently the narrator looks down upon his brother because he is poor and is also a drug addict.


In Marx’s analysis of the social and economic implications of capitalism, he argued that it segregates people into classes. As a result of the economic difficulties and limited resources human beings create cultural segregations as a way of creating criteria with which people can access resources. Race is an aspect used as subconscious reaction to the reality of limited resources in a culturally diverse society. One particular race mostly the majority attempts to spread negative sentiments on the inferior race in order to establish some form of hierarchy. On the other hand class is also created as a result of economic difficulties and limited resources. The rich will make sure that only they can access some resources comfortably by ensuring that they are expensive. “Everyday Use” Brings cultural consciousness through Mama who feels that culture or race should not be used as a weapon in fighting for black power. Additionally “I Stand Here Ironing also explains how money is an important aspect in provision of a comfortable life. Literature as outlined in this essay is a way to evaluate such aspects such as race and class in a society. Class and racism are just aspect used to ensure that only a particular group of people can gain access to the limited resources.

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