Since our class discussion Tuesday, I really have been asking myself: What does it mean to be human? What is it that makes humans, humans? Since one of my classes this semester is “More Human Than Human,” I figured this blog would be a nice platform to free-write on a topic on which I’ve been considering developing an essay. Just a disclaimer: some folks might be offended by the text themselves, and perhaps by my following analysis of it.
Many twentieth and twenty-first century readers have criticized the apparent racism toward black Africans in Tarzan of the Apes. This claim is not unfounded; Burroughs seemingly disparages Africans as “of the lower orders” (102), “fiendish . . . demons” (183), and “savage cannibals” (206). In reaction to this racism, many contemporary readers have rejected the text, and editors and screenwriters have circumvented the more controversial plot elements to exploit the novel’s adventurous and romantic potential. The 1999 Disney children’s film, for example, omits all scenes featuring the Africans. But do the novel’s racist scenes serve a purpose beyond propagandizing racial Darwinism, and does their omission detract from Burroughs’s more subtle social critiques?
Indeed, Burroughs’s text is undeniably racist. From Tarzan’s first glimpse of the black warrior cavalcade, the black Africans appear more like jungle beasts than civilized humans. On their heads is not hair, but rather “kinky wool” resembling “tufts of gay feathers” (70). Cult-like tattoos consisting of concentric circles and parallel lines cover their foreheads and breasts. Just as Tarzan admired the “might lips and powerful fangs” of the apes (40), so too does he observe that the Africans’ “yellow teeth were filed to sharp points, and their great protruding lips added still further to [their] low and bestial brutishness” (70).
But is Burroughs’s text unintentionally “racist”? Throughout the novel, what he shows but does not say is that whites are less adept at surviving in primeval conditions than these “savage” blacks. Perhaps an alternative reading of Tarzan of the Apes is in order: Burroughs emphasizes the blacks’ barbaric lifestyle to prove that white American and European stock has atrophied from millennia of the evolution of civilization.
Because Burroughs leads readers to condemn the Africans’ means of survival, it is easy to forget the simple fact that they survive. Moreover, unlike the whites who do escape the jungle, the blacks survive without Tarzan’s assistance; in fact, they do so in spite of him. Tarzan’s parents are in Africa only a few days before fear drives Alice to insanity (27); little more than one year elapses before both are dead (29, 34). When another set of mutineers maroons the Arrow’s passengers, the “fierce jungle would [have made] easy prey” of Professor Porter, Mr. Philander, Clayton, Jane, and Esmerelda had not Tarzan intervened to save their lives (117). Later, nearly all the French officers die when ambushed by the Africans, who prove valiant opponents for representatives of two of the world’s most formidable forces. Even D’Arnot (“‘an officer and a gentleman—a title conferred on many, but deserved by so few’”) prepares to die before Tarzan rescues him (191).
Considering the above evidence, what was Burroughs’s intention behind the racist aspects of Tarzan of the Apes? Quite simply, it is impossible to be sure. In a 1949 issue of Open Road, Burroughs explains, “I was not writing because of any urge to write nor for any particular love of writing. I was writing because I had a wife and two babies” (263). Indeed, Burroughs may have raised no objections to Disney’s posthumous editorial adjustments to his plot; Disney’s purely romantic adventure also made money, which was also Burroughs’s initial intention. But to omit Tarzan’s racist scenes is, at the very least, to overlook one of Burroughs’s social critiques. He emphasizes the lethargy of white civilized society by strategically contrasting it to the Africans’ way of life throughout the novel. Writing just before the United States enters World War I, Burroughs suggests that even if the Africans are barbarians, they are also survivors. For American soldiers likewise to survive, they will have to revert to the same means that Burroughs leads his readers to condemn. Tarzan—the idealized man—is not realistic, but the jungle conditions which he faces more or less are. Burroughs seems to suggest that civilization is transient, and the thirst to survive is not a racial issue, but a universal one.
The nature of humanity is something that has always fascinated and continues to fascinate me. I look forward to exploring it further as I develop my essay on Tarzan.