In fiction written by African Americans, racial violence has been a persistent and conspicuous theme. From whippings, lynchings, and episodes of police brutality to slave rebellions, race riots, and other forms of retaliatory action, black writers have documented the effects of racial violence on the African American community.
Victims and Heroes is the first book to focus exclusively on this topic. Discussing eighty-three novels by sixty-four writers, Jerry H. Bryant proceeds chronologically from the antebellum novels of William Wells Brown and Martin Delany to the contemporary fiction of John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison. He explores how changes in the social and political climate have helped to shape various authors' attitudes toward violence, and he charts the profound moral issues that these writers have faced.
Although the viciousness of white violence against blacks would seem to make heroes of those who retaliate in kind, many writers have viewed such actions with ambivalence. If violence is wrong when whites visit it upon blacks, some would argue it cannot be right for blacks to use it against whites, no matter what the provocation. Yet others would respond that to reject retaliation and self-defense is to surrender self-respect. This is the moral quandary at the heart of Victims and Heroes.