Even if we accept Heyward’s rendition of black speech as authentic, there are those unnerving moments where his language turns patronising. Women are referred to as “negresses”, Crown is a “buck nigger”, and blacks grow “wool” on their heads. Porgy would in the afternoons “experience a pleasant atavistic calm, and would doze lightly under the terrific heat, as only a full-blooded Negro can.” (Part One) This sounds like the white Southerner’s stereotype of the cheerful, lazy black man, just a mite away from Stepin Fetchit.Share
And of course the novel’s blacks are credulous and superstitious. After burying the murdered Robbins in the graveyard, the superstitious mourners (including the presiding clergyman) have a race to get out of the graveyard, as they believe the last to leave will be the next to die. Porgy gets a “conjer’ woman” to cast a spell to make Bess well. When a buzzard lands on the roof after Crown is killed, Porgy thinks it’s the soul of Crown coming back to haunt him.
Which brings me to what I think is the most unpalatable aspect of the novel for modern readers. It is clear that DuBose Heyward sees black life in Charleston as quaint and colourful partly because blacks are unsophisticated and “uncorrupted” by education or the influence of Northerners. There is the clear implication that it is better for blacks to live their “simple” lives rather than become part of a complex modern city or civilisation. In short, Heyward really thinks that they should “know their place”. The novel caricatures the one black who has some advanced formal education - the “lawyer” Frasier, who offers cheap (and non-legal) divorces. (Read more.)