The “Visceral Feelings” of Racism in Frank Yerby’s “Griffin’s Way”

Throughout his career, Frank Yerby confronted whiteness and white supremacy in his novels. He looked at the ways that racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and oppression affected the oppressor as well as the oppressed. This is what Lillian Smith does throughout her work. It’s what Harper Lee attempts to do in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s what Toni Morrison says we should do in Playing in the Dark. Yerby does this from the outset of his novel-writing career with Stephen Fox, showing the ways that Stephen’s ideas and perceptions on race change. He shows the transmission of racist thought through Stephen’s son Etienne, a characters that buys wholeheartedly into the myth of his own superiority.

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The Mythologized South in Frank Yerby’s “Griffin’s Way”

I have to admit, when I started reading Frank Yerby’s Griffin’s Way (1962) I was not impressed. Having written 33 novels over the course of his career, I knew I wouldn’t like all of them, but Griffin’s Way struck me, from the beginning, as odd. I didn’t really like the organization of Candace Trevor’s section. It seemed really disjointed and not at all what I had grown accustomed to from Yerby. This style, though, changed as the novel went along. It became more like a historical narrative when the focal point shifts to Paris Griffin in the second section.

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“The Plantation System in Southern Life” and Plantation Tourism

In his documentary, Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence, Hal Jacobs uses numerous historical clips. One that stood out to me, though, was a clip, which he showed three sections of, from a ten minute Coronet film entitled “The Plantation System in Southern Life” from 1950. The film presents the South as an idyllic destination, one full of nostalgia and agrarianism, a soothing balm against the trappings of modern society. Throughout, the film paints chattel slavery as some benign class system where the wealthy enslavers had more money and opportunities than the enslaved, basically saying that the enslaved had opportunities but they were poor. There is no discussion of poor whites, free people of color, Native Americans, or others. It’s merely a binary of enslavers and enslaved.

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