While reading A Friend of Kafka (1970), a book of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a few passages struck me as odd, especially concering race (and the use of the word "Negro" in translations; I'm not sure what word was used in the original Yiddish).

Here are some samples:

Schloimele opened his briefcase on my rickety table; papers and photographs fell out. When I bent down to pick them up, more escaped - actors, dancers, men with wild expressions, half-naked girls, white and Negro.
"Schloimele", part 1

I was introdued to girls - blondes, brunettes, redheads - to bushy-haired young men in open shirts of every colour, in shorts, with sandalled feet. There were a few Negroes as well.
"Schloimele", part 2

The little streets of the Village confused me and it took some time to reach the subway. The passenegers were chewing gum and reading the morning papers. Kneeling among strewn newspapers and peanut shells, a Negro boy shined shoes.
"Schloimele", part 2 (translated by Alma Singer and Elaine Gottlieb)

We had a chimney sweep in town, nicknamed Black Yash. All chimney sweeps are black - what else can they be? - but Yash looked as though he had been born black. His hair was spiky and black as pitch. His eyes were black, and his skin could never be free of soot. Only his teeth were white.
"The Chimney Sweep" (translated by Mirra Ginsburg)

You were right when you wrote that modern Jews are suicidal. The modern Jew can't live without anti-Semitism. If it's not there, he's driven to create it. He has to bleed for humanity - battle the reactionaries, worry about the Chinese, the Manchurians, the Russians, the untouchables in India, the Negroes in America. He preaches revolution and at the same time wants all the privileges of capitalism for himself.
"The Mentor", part 2 (translated by the author and Evelyn Torton Beck)

(These are just the ones I marked down in my notes to look back at; there may be more that I missed.)

I'm not quite sure how to approach interpreting this. Was this normal language for the time? Am I reading too much into the insensitivity of that passage in "The Chimney Sweep"? I didn't find anything searching Google Scholar for Isaac Bashevis Singer's treatment of race in his works.

How can we approach analyzing Singer's treatment of race in his works?

  • 2
    The use of "Negro" should probably only date the book - meaning, in American English, it was the most common way to describe Black people until the late sixties or early seventies. A movement began in the 1960s to replace "Negro" with "Black", "African American" or "Afro-American". This movement prevailed, and post-1970s uses of "Negro" can often be inferred to be racist. But for a story translated in, or before 1970, it should probably just be read as "Black."
    – Juhasz
    Mar 7, 2022 at 19:28
  • HI @Juhasz. If you could expand your comment with a few sources or other evidence, you could perhaps turn it into an answer?
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 25, 2022 at 11:18


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