Novels that blazed a trail for Obama
Other novels to consider
In case it has slipped anyone's attention, the world's most powerful man is a man of colour. What would Harriet Beecher Stowe say? One hundred and seven years ago, Uncle Tom's Cabin challenged the status quo by highlighting the injustice of slavery and that novel moved people to action. Did Uncle Tom's Cabin and its successors help prepare the way for Barack Obama's victory on 4 November 2008? Perhaps it played a part.
Almost every decade since the conclusion of the American Civil War has seen the publication of a major novel tackling racial inequality and we're not just talking about America - writers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and many other countries have explored and exposed racial divides and injustices.
If ignorance is the main cause of racism then creative writing has been one of the leaders in the crusade for all men and women to be treated equally. The hatred, the crimes, the misunderstandings, the clashes of culture - they are all there on the printed page. Imagine a relay race of novelists, each one taking on an aspect of racial discrimination and then passing the baton to the next. It's not so crazy to believe that generations of writers helped guide Obama into the Oval Office.
We have compiled a list of 20 novels, including a play, featuring race and racial issues. Some are famous, many have been criticised, many have been banned and challenged, but all are important in some way. Non-fiction, the likes of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, is not included - that's a debate for another day.
Othello by William Shakespeare
Published: Around 1600
Impact: Still taught in schools and performed on stage and screen today. The English Renaissance period was not one of racial tolerance, religious tolerance or any sort of tolerance. However, Shakespeare wasn't afraid to make the Moor of Venice one of his great tragic heroes (yet stage directors were reluctant to cast black actors as Othello until recent times). Was Shakespeare ahead of his time? He could have used Othello as the villain and his Elizabethan audiences would have lapped it up. Shakespeare's text fails to identify Othello's exact race but it hardly matters. Yes, the play uses racial stereotypes but it was written in a time when witches were still burnt at the stake, so let's give the Bard a break. In reality, Iago is the dominant character and the play is more a study of evil than race.
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Impact: Huge. The second bestselling book of the 19th century after the bible, Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the driving forces behind the start of the American Civil War. Thousands of soldiers died in a brutal conflict and slavery was abolished. The book has been criticised for helping to create enduring racial stereotypes such as the mammy figure, the lazy, carefree black and pickaninny children. The Black Power movement slammed the novel as a betrayal of black culture. Being labeled an Uncle Tom is still a deeply offensive insult for any black person accused of faithfully serving white people. The novel also sparked a flurry of books defending slavery, including The Sword and the Distaff by William Gilmore Simms, Aunt Phillis's Cabin by Mary Henderson Eastman, and The Planter's Northern Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. Aside from the bible and the Koran, very few books have helped send troops to war. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a landmark in race relations.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Impact: One of America's 'great novels' and many of us read it as a child. Huck and runaway slave Jim drift down the Mississippi and into many adventures. In the 1880s, people thought the language was coarse but didn't blink at the use of the word 'nigger' but today people are upset by the frequent use of the N-word. Twain's story is essentially a search for freedom but racism, violence and grifters are all encountered on the river journey. People still try to ban this book. Critics don't always like the ending and the portrayal of Jim, but it would be hard not to have Huck Finn on this list.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Impact: An extremely influential piece of high-brow literature but hardly moved forward the civil rights agenda. Not an easy read with countless themes running through its narrative. Marlow travels down a major river into Africa in order to bring back and cover up the activities of Kurtz, who is ruling like a tyrant over a native community. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now movie is based on this novel. Traditional black and white imagery is reversed - white becomes evil and black represents good. However, Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, criticised Heart of Darkness for dehumanising Africans and failing to give them a voice or culture.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
Impact: Other books had much greater social impact but this remains a fantastic read. Although it focuses on the alleged rape of an English woman by an Indian man, the novel actually asks if an Englishman and Indian can even be friends in the disaster-waiting-to-happen cauldron of colonial India. Racial tension and culture clashes are on almost every page. A great one for dissecting the British class system and its flaws, Forster also challenged the status quo with Maurice - a homosexual love story published in 1971 just after his death.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Impact: Regarded as a key piece of African-American literature, taught in many schools but often criticised. Set in Florida in the early 20th century, the book tells the life of Janie Crawford and her three marriages. Critics slammed the use of phonetic spellings for the dialect spoken at the time and said the dialogue made blacks sound ignorant. Of course, similar accusations were leveled at Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Richard Wright, who penned Black Boy, called the book a "minstrel show".
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Impact: Quite simply, this is a protest book. It tackles the system of racial segregation that later would become known as apartheid. Considering apartheid lasted until 1994, the impact of this book could be described a minimal but that's rather unfair. It was banned in South Africa but sold 15 million copies worldwide. It concerns Kumalo who travels to Johannesburg to find his son Absalom, who is accused of murdering a white activist for racial equality.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Impact: Ellison's only novel won the National Book Award in 1953. Critics have acclaimed the novel's symbolism and Ellison admits to drawing inspiration from TS Eliot's poem, The Waste Land. The book addresses the issue of African-American identity as well as black-nationalism and Booker T. Washington's policies. The unnamed narrator goes from high school to a black college in the South to New York where he encounters the Brotherhood. Among many things, the book shows how conflict within the black community has hurt their struggle for equality. Like HG Wells' Invisible Man, the narrator is never named.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Impact: The most widely read book to emerge from African literature. This novel by Nigerian writer Achebe can be found in almost every African school and has been acclaimed worldwide. A devastating critique of colonialism and Christian missionaries, this novel describes the experiences of Okonkwo and his family in a traditional Nigerian community under British rule. The novel illustrates how two different communities can completely fail to understand each other. Like Forster's A Passage to India, the arrogance of the British colonial rulers is a key theme.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Impact: Won a Pulitzer and is simply one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Harper Lee's novel challenges racial injustice by examining the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man, yet the book is also warm and funny, and describes a confusing world through the eyes of a child. The quiet, firm bravery of Atticus Finch can never be forgotten - apparently he still inspires people to enter the legal profession today. Incredibly, people still try to ban this book because of its use of racial epithets. The book has been studied and analysed endlessly - some critics have said Tom Robinson's character is under developed. The book's impact was being felt as the civil rights movement grew in momentum - three years after its release Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington.
The African by Harold Courlander
Impact: A largely forgotten book. Many people would want to see Roots by Alex Haley listed as a key piece of fiction in race relations, but without The African there wouldn't have been Roots. Roots sold millions of copies and showed a generation of African-Americans that their culture goes right back to Africa and didn't begin on the slave plantations of the South. Roots also sparked a huge interest in genealogy. In 1978, a court found Haley guilty of copying large chunks of Courlander's novel and Haley's reputation was ruined. The African details the capture of a slave in Africa, his journey to America and his entry into a devastatingly different culture.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Impact: Illustrated that a black female in 1930s rural Georgia was the lowest of the low. The Color Purple is foremost the story of Celie, a poor, barely literate Southern black woman who struggles to escape the brutality and degradation of her treatment by men. Won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is a deeply moving story. People still attempt to ban The Color Purple because of its violence. Steven Spielberg's movie version, which featured Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, received 11 Oscar nominations but didn't win any.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Impact: One of the most referenced books from the past 25 years. It showed the injustice and sheer cruelty of slavery had not been forgotten - even in a decade where America and capitalism went from strength to strength. Praised as one of America's greatest novels of the 20th century, Beloved was inspired by Margaret Garner, who killed her own daughter to prevent her from becoming a slave. The book's epigraph is: "Sixty Million and more" - the number of estimated deaths caused by the slave trade.
Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff
Impact: Made a huge impact in New Zealand and deserves to be more widely read by people in the Southern Hemisphere. The novel concerns an urban Māori family and addresses the problem of domestic violence, but it also shows a massive disconnection between Western culture, particularly New Zealand's education system, and the Māoris. New Zealand might seem a long way from Harlem and Watts, but the suffering of a suppressed culture is the same. The 1994 movie version of Once Were Warriors is also recommended.
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
Impact: Won the Whitbread Award for the best first novel and looks at the black and Asian youth culture in Britain. Whereas E.M. Forster wrote about Edwardian life (Howard's End, A Room With a View) in London's suburbs, Kureishi writes about trying to escape the 1970s versions of these suburbs. A very British book but it has been translated into 20 languages. The Buddha of Suburbia represented a new generation of books looking at being British in a multi-cultural environment.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Impact: An immediate bestseller, this novel written by a former teacher was banned in some places due to its violence and sex. However, Snow Falling on Cedars rapidly found its way on to many school curriculums. Set in America's Pacific Northwest, the plot concerns a Japanese American accused to killing a local fisherman in the middle of post-World War II hatred for the Japanese. This acclaimed book follows in the footsteps of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Impact: Won lots of awards, turned its British author into a literary star and described the complexities of life for new and second generation immigrants in the modern UK. The novel focuses on two Bangladeshi and English families. A big, thick book, White Teeth also has plenty of humor around middle class values and cultural misunderstandings. Would E.M. Forster enjoy this book if he was around today? London is a multi-cultural mixing pot and this book captures some of that mixture.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Impact: Won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writer's prize. British author Levy was born in London to Jamaican immigrant parents. Her writing explores black Britons. Small Island is set in 1948 when London's landlords put up notices that read "No Irish, no coloured, no dogs." The novel describes the shock of coming to an unwelcoming 'Mother Country.'
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
Impact: Big in Canada where it was first published. Won the 2005 Governor General's Award and the McNally Robinson Award for best aboriginal book of the year. The novel concerns the return of a Cree soldier after fighting in World War I. A Cree medicine woman, who has refused to be assimilated into white Canadian culture, attempts to heal the shell-shocked soldier by telling stories from her past.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Impact: Gave Grenville a higher profile outside Australia but this book still needs to be read by more folks around the world. A fine piece of historical fiction, the novel concerns an English thief who is transported to Australia and illustrates what happens when a race who is obsessed with ownership meets another race who has no concept of ownership at all. Ignorance and fear in the early days of Australia.
Curious to see what Barack Obama reads? Check out our list of Barack Obama's Favourite Books.