A Student Response to Carlyle’s “The Negro Question”

Thomas Carlyle’s “The Negro Question:” A Loophole for Racists?

Often times, individuals adopt a loophole to bypass a given set of rules or regulations; in order to avoid the negative consequences of opposing a set of rules, individuals often search for a loophole so that others perceive their decisions as acceptable. In “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Thomas Carlyle attempts just that.

The Loophole

The stigma around racism intensifies as we face increasing events of bigotry and decreasing practices of inclusivity. Carlyle’s essay is without a doubt, a compelling example of an “attack on the nature of black people” (Goldberg, 2000). However, it seems as if Carlyle is arguing his statement through an appeal to inclusivity.

While Carlyle greatly exemplifies his “negrophobia,” he fleetingly covers his racism by using the nature of human beings as his loophole: “the everlasting duty of all men and women, black or white… [is] to do competent work” (Carlyle, 1849). Here, Carlyle establishes a strong statement of equality by noting that no matter your race or gender, humans are essentially born to do the same thing – labour.

The Efficiency of his Loophole

Carlyle definitely has a valid point: the human sentiment is our divine aspiration to do work. That is, humans cannot just lay around and be “lazy” (6). However, his loophole immediately turns into a facade as Carlyle progresses with his argument, unfolding his true intentions in the essay.

Carlyle mentions that all individuals are born equally, but he immediately diminishes his statement by placing black individuals as inferior to white individuals. In other words, all individuals have a desire to do work, but only black individuals should be the ones doing the work, as they are less “wise” than white individuals and “[destined by God]” to do all the labour (4). Therefore, Carlyle’s loophole ultimately does not suffice to prove his argument with his racist remarks towards black individuals.

The Source of Carlyle’s Racism              

Through its references to pumpkins in almost every other sentence, Carlyle’s essay succeeds in extracting a sense of confusion and curiosity from readers. As a result, questions arise as to what significance the pumpkins truly possess.

To guide readers into the answer, Carlyle mentions – very fleetingly, once more – many allusions to mouths, specifically the mouths of black individuals: “horse-jawed…beautifully muzzled… [just sitting there, eating pumpkins]” (4).

Carlyle’s mouth references have a similar, if not the same connection, to Freud’s theories of the psychosexual stages of personality development. Freud claims throughout his work that, in the oral stage, babies find pleasure in their mouths; babies obtain pleasure from sucking while breastfeeding. In addition, Freud states that babies have difficulty withdrawing from their mothers’ breasts, resulting in oral fixation, or a road to darker pleasures. Therefore, through a Freudian point of view, readers can connect Carlyle’s references to mouths with his inability to withdraw from his oral fixation stage.

Moreover, Carlyle states a subtle reference to “man-eating caribs”; the full answer unfolds after adding Carlyle’s oral fixation difficulties with his statement of caribs as cannibals. (6). Therefore, Carlyle reveals his latent anxiety of black individuals feeding on him. In other words, Carlyle fears the freedom of these black individuals because their freedom might allow them to eat their British white people.


Works Cited

Carlyle , Thomas. “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, 1849, pp. 1–10.

Goldberg, David Theo. “Liberalism’s Limits: Carlyle and Mill on ‘the Negro Question.’” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 22, no. 2, 2000, pp. 203–216, doi:10.1080/08905490008583508.


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