In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut vows to “clear [his] head of all the junk,” and race and racism are at the top of his list of “junk” to be cleared. The result is a descriptive and forward, and often offensive, portrayal of race and racism in American society. “Color was everything,” Vonnegut writes. Indeed, color is everything in Breakfast of Champions, and Vonnegut introduces nearly all characters in relation to color. Race determines where characters live, the jobs they work, and whether they will be inmates at the Adult Correctional Institution in town. While Vonnegut’s representation of race and racism can be difficult to read, it clearly underscores the systemic and institutionalized racism present in American society, which is often just as offensive and forward. In this way, Vonnegut lays bare the ugliness of racism in America, and in doing so, advocates for social equality regardless of skin color.
People of color are frequently exploited in Breakfast of Champions, which highlights their exploitation in American society as well. The novel takes place in America and draws a clear connection between fiction and reality. This is apparent with the Sacred Miracle Cave, a tourist attraction owned by Dwayne Hoover and his twin stepbrothers, Kyle and Lyle, that boasts an old cave that was once used by runaway slaves after escaping the South. The story about the slaves, however, is fake. In fact, the Cave wasn’t discovered until 1937, but Dwayne and his stepbrothers continue to tell the story to increase business and make money. In telling this fabricated story, the stepbrothers exploit people of color and capitalize on their painful history.
While Dwayne and his stepbrothers sell a fake story, an actual historical site depicting the true tragedy of human slavery is ignored and forgotten. When Dwayne happens across a “tremendous earth-moving machine” digging a massive hole in Midland City, he asks the “white workman” how many horsepower the machine has. The construction worker calls it “The Hundred-Nigger Machine,” a reference, Vonnegut writes, “to a time when black men had done most of the heavy digging in Midland City.” The workman callously uses a racial slur to describe the machine, which dehumanizes black people by conflating slaves with machinery. In this case, what the workman says both implicitly and explicitly highlights how pervasive racism is in America.
Furthermore, after Bonnie MacMahon, a waitress in the lounge of Dwayne’s Holiday Inn, loses all her money when her husband opens up a car wash in nearby Shepherdstown, Vonnegut explains that the carwash fails because “car washes need cheap and plentiful labor, which means black labor—and there are no Niggers in Shepherdstown.” This obvious reflection of racism implies that white people in Midland City want black people as laborers but not neighbors, and this once again denies their humanity. Furthermore, even Vonnegut himself uses a racial slur here that is not simply dialogue between characters. While this is offensive and shocking, that is exactly what he intends—to hold a mirror up to America and force Americans to confront their ugly reflection. Even though Vonnegut’s characters are fictional and exist only in the world of the novel, these racist characters speak to the ugly reality of racism in America outside the confines of the novel as well.
Blatant racism runs rampant in Vonnegut’s novel, and this too highlights the obvious racism present in American society. After Dwayne’s stepfather is hit by a car, he is given a farm formerly owned by a freed slave in an out-of-court settlement. The farm’s mortgage had recently been foreclosed by the local bank, and Dwayne’s stepfather “contemptuously” refers to the place as a “God damn Nigger farm.” Dwayne’s stepfather doesn’t even bother to hide his prejudice—one of the many examples Vonnegut uses to show how racism in America, though sometimes more underhanded and passive, is often glaring and unmistakable. When Dwayne’s stepparents first come to Midland City from West Virginia, they change their last name from Hoobler to Hoover, on account of the large population of black people named Hoobler living in Midland City. “It is embarrassing,” Dwayne’s stepfather says. “Everybody up here naturally assumes Hoobler is a Nigger name.” Aside from using an offensive racial slur, which squarely positions him as a racist, Dwayne’s stepfather also displays overt racism by going so far as to change the family name so that neither he, nor any of his descendants, will have to be associated with black people.
Furthermore, when Francine Pelfko, Dwayne’s secretary, suggests opening a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise near the Adult Correctional Facility, she does so because most of the inmates are black, and she assumes that their families would love to eat some fried chicken when they come to visit. “So you want me to open a Nigger joint?” Dwayne asks. Along with Dwayne’s obvious racism, this reflects Francine’s racism as well, in the form of her reference to stereotypes about black people and fried chicken. Again, the racism in Breakfast in Champions underscores the reality of racism in American society. It is impossible to ignore or gloss over racism in Vonnegut’s novel, which, by extension, he argues is impossible to ignore in reality too.
Vonnegut says there is “nothing sacred” about anyone; “we are all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.” Vonnegut, a white man, does not believe himself to be superior for any reason. This opinion is reflected in the character of Wayne Hoobler, a black ex-convict and direct descendant of the Hooblers who previously owned Dwayne’s family farm. “Our names are so close,” Wayne says to Dwayne, “it’s the good Lord telling us both what to do.” Wayne’s comment suggest that he has more in common with Dwayne than just their names. Dwayne and Wayne come from the same city—practically from the same farm—their only difference is how society views them. Ultimately, Dwayne realizes that “white robots are just like black robots, essentially, in that they are programmed to be whatever they are, to do whatever they do,” and by extension, Vonnegut argues that American society is similarly programmed. By “throwing out” the injustice of racism in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut encourages others to do the same.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism Quotes in Breakfast of Champions
I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there—the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes—there is a picture in this book of underpants. I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows.
I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.
I suspect that this is something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans, should do. The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.
The motto of Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s nation was this, which meant in a language nobody spoke anymore, Out of Many, One: “E pluribus unum.”
The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
The teachers told the children that  was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.
Here was another piece of evil nonsense which children were taught: that the sea pirates eventually created a government which became a beacon of freedom to human beings everywhere else.
The young man went back to burnishing the automobile. His life was not worth living. He had a feeble will to survive. He thought the planet was terrible, that he never should have been sent there. Some mistake had been made. He had no friends or relatives. He was put in cages all the time.
“Our names are so close,” said the young man, “it’s the good Lord telling us both what to do.”
Dwayne Hoover didn’t ask him what his name was, but the young man told him anyway, radiantly: “My name, sir, is Wayne Hoobler.”
All around Midland City, Hoobler was a common Nigger name.
It didn’t matter much what Dwayne said. It hadn’t mattered much for years. It didn’t matter much what most people in Midland City said out loud, except when they were talking about money or structures or travel or machinery—or other measurable things. Every person had a clearly defined part to play—as a black person, a female high school drop-out, a Pontiac dealer, a gynecologist, a gas-conversion burner installer. If a person stopped living up to expectations, because of bad chemicals or one thing or another, everybody went on imagining that the person was living up to expectations anyway.