When accusations of Howard being a racist are trotted out, this story is often one of the ones that’s given prominent display to back up those claims. And there are definitely aspects to the story that will be offensive to many modern readers, as well they should be.
But is that reason not to read the story? The answer to that question is going to vary from one reader to another. I can only answer it for myself.
Here’s the basic plot. Sometime after the Civil War, but no later than the late 1920s/early 1930s, probably not that recently, Kirby Buckner is summoned from New Orleans back to his home in the region known as Canaan. It’s an isolated region, surrounded by river and swamp. He’s attacked on the way there by a black woman he’s never seen before and three black men who are unknown to him. He manages to fight them off. Coming upon some of his friends, he is informed that a man named Saul Stark has taken up residence in an old cabin. Since he came the blacks in the swamp have been stirred up and the ones who live in town have fled. The whites fear an uprising.
This story is long enough that I won’t try to summarize all the details. It turns out that Stark is a conjure man. The voodoo he does is powerful, and he intends to use it to set up his own kingdom in Canaan. The woman who led the attack on Buckner places him under a spell that will draw him to his doom. There are people who’ve been turned into aquatic swamp monsters. There’s a dancing skull.
There’s also the frequent use of a certain racial slur that begins with the letter “N”. Buckner uses it, as do most of the whites who have speaking parts in the story. But Buckner seems to be of a more noble character than his companions. When some of the men catch a black man spying on the town and he refuses to answer their questions, they are going for the bull whip when Buckner intervenes. The man had worked for Buckner’s family, and Buckner reminds him they’ve always treated him fairly and assures him they’ll protect him from Saul Stark.
Howard was a product of his time, and that time included attitudes that are considered racist today. Furthermore, he was writing about a time and place in this story in which the attitudes were certainly racist by any reasonable standards. Howard always strove to give his stories a sense of authenticity, regardless of whether they were set in historical times or times that never were. To write about race relations in the deep South and not include the racist attitudes present would go against everything he strove to be as a writer.
The key to interpreting the racial aspect of this story, at least for me, is to look carefully at the attitudes of Buckner. While he would be called a racist today, he appears to respect and sympathize with the blacks in the story. He certainly treats them more nobly than the other whites. I realize this won’t matter to some who only see race through the lens of the twenty-first century. That’s their choice. I prefer to try to put myself in the mindset of the author as much as I can, even when I don’t always share the same views as the author. I found the use of a certain racial epithet disturbing, and much of my family is from the South, so it’s not like I didn’t grow up hearing it.
“Black Canaan” isn’t going to be for everyone. If you can put up with the racial attitudes some of the characters express, then give it a try. If you don’t think you can, then this is one you’ll probably want to pass on.