On Seeing England For The First Time
Jamaica Kincaid’s Seeing England For The First Time; A Study On The Symbolic Use Of Clothing
In Jamaica Kincaid’s nonfiction story, On Seeing England for the First Time, it is about Jamaica’s experience in Antigua when everything was representative of England and how glorious of a place it is. However Jamaica saw the real side of England when she went and it wasn’t as grand as it was made out to be. In her story, she described that the majority of things made in England helped to prove the point of social status and if a family had wealth. She focused mainly clothing and fashion being a symbol of power. People usually view clothing to be a symbol of sex or seduction as well as a symbol of personality however in this it is symbolized to be a sign of power and wealth .
Kincaid describes England as a jewel, a jewel that only English people could wear. Kincaid’s father would wear a felt hat and clothes made from England. She describes the reason why her father wears the hat by saying, “My father must have seen and admired a picture of an Englishman wearing such a hat in England, and this picture that he saw must have been so compelling that it caused him to wear the wrong hat for a hot climate most of his long life” (Kincaid 366). In this quote it describes how her father wanted to fit in by buying this hat. By owning this hat for him it symbolized being English and acting like someone from England. Her father realized that even though this hat wasn’t suitable for what he did for work it still showed he could afford clothing from England. To Kincaid’s father this embodied wealth and she continues on to describe how that hat was always on his head as if it was his prized possession.
Before Kincaid wrote her story about England, people would view fashion as a form of trickery and seduction. An article called “Material Fictions of Desire,” talks about various authors who symbolize women’s clothing as symbols of desire or sex. In one of the sentences in the essay it mentions how English people think about clothing. It says, “For not only where elite English women viewed as agents of disguise because of their love of clothes they were also seen as essentially flawed creatures who tricked men into loving them —and worse marrying them—through dissimulation and deceit” (Emberley 471). This basically described how women would wear promiscuous clothing in order to attract a male’s eyes. Through this it seemed like clothing was the only way to get men to like them. However as time went on, clothing transitioned from being something that was seen as promiscuous to something that signified money and power. For example in Kincaid’s story, she talked about how at a store they were selling clothing with the crest of the Prince of Wales. She said “I said, my husband and I hate princes, my husband would never wear anything that had a prince’s anything on it. My friend stiffened. The salesman stiffened” (Kincaid 372). This quote displayed the importance of a prince’s crest mainly because one of the friends said that having something from the Prince showed her Englishness. By wearing something that displayed power, it made the people wearing the clothing look like they came from the upper class.
Clothing to Kincaid, while symbolizing power, also symbolized a sense of confidence and beauty. Kincaid described the women of England’s clothing as, “They were special, everything about them said so, even their clothes; their clothes rustled, swished and soothed” (Kincaid 369). She described the clothing as if the clothes made the women perfect. She related it to her dresses and said they didn’t do what the women of England’s dresses would do. She tied it in later in the story as well by saying how the women mainly used their clothes and beauty to disgrace themselves and win over the men. Kincaid seemed to feel lesser compared to these women by describing how her clothes couldn’t compare. By having cheaply made dresses, she felt lesser to the women because she felt as though they had more of the world then she did. She described it by saying the women could wear their dresses in public where as her weren’t as nicely made so she looked ratty because of the many washes her clothes had endured.
From the same article called “Materials of Desire”, the author says, “My argument rests on the assumption that a materialist history and a corporeal feminist theory of women’s oppression in the twentieth century must focus on a range of practices, knowledges, and representations that develop desire for things at the expense of a desire for social change and meaningful social relations” (Emberley 467). Overall this quote sums up the message of how people tend to oppress women based on materialistic items. This quote ties into the fashion is power because while women do try to impress people with clothes in order to get higher up on the ranking, men tend to feel they need to be oppressed because of the fashion.
The idea of fashion symbolizing power relates to Kincaid’s story in its entirety. People were influenced by the idea that clothes not made in England were worn by lesser people. Throughout the story it depicted the people who Kincaid admired for their clothing choices as well as criticized those who didn’t wear nice clothes. Overall even in today’s society, people still view clothing as a sign of wealth. By wearing high end or expensive clothing people are looked highly upon because they have wealth or show signs of wealth. Overall this story and idea of how fashion symbolizes power is current even in today’s time.
Jamaica Kincaid’s Seeing England For The First Time; Cynicism Against Britain And Imperialism
Kincaid Essay Analysis
In the satirical essay, “On Seeing England for the First Time” (1991), Jamaica Kincaid, an essayist and novelist, describes her spiteful attitude towards Britain by displaying the effects of colonialism on her island and family. She illuminates the effects colonialism by using sarcastic language to distinguish between the brainwashing of her people and her thoughts on the matter, caricatures to display her loved ones’ actions from the British, and also symbolism and metaphors to exemplify her attacking Britain. She exaggerates in order to show how England treats the people versus how they should be treated. This message is to inspire the Antiguan residents who have been “Made in England” that they need to embrace their own culture.
Kincaid depicts her people she grew up with through caricatures to inspire them to rebel against British assimilation and return to their roots. She desires Antiguans to realize how ridiculous they are by conforming to the British. She presents her father as one of the men who have sacrificed their ability to think for themselves. Pointing out the weather, which is a “hot climate,” but her father insists to wear a hat that is ‘’not [made of] proper material’’ to provide shade from the sun (55,61). Ultimately, her father wants to be an Englishman wearing a fancy hat that is the “the last thing” that he will take off (64). Failing to realize the logical use of such a hat. Kincaid’s portrayal of her father reveals the destructive nature of British culture and her hunger to rebel. She likewise reinforces her desire to resist the British by recounting how her Mother enforced British manners at mealtimes. Kincaid discloses how she enjoyed her food more with her bare hands, but that her mother took pride in the times she ate the British way. (91-96). Kincaid’s ridicule of her mother’s religious adherence to British manners develops her feelings of disgust and desire to incite rebellion.
Kincaid utilizes metaphors and allusions to attack Britain’s vile effects of colonialism on not only her people, but anyone who has been under colonialism. Growing up on Antigua, Kincaid further claims that only natural born British area “special jewel”, but whereas colonists are not. Such a jewel was worn by the English as badge of honor, “in jungles, in deserts, on plains, on top of the highest mountains.” However, not so for the poor brainwashed people who were colonized. Her teacher then acts as if Britain is Jerusalem as it is a, “place you will go to when you die but only if you have been good”(23). By alluding to the crusades, Kincaid reinforces how that all the “true” English already get the “privilege” to die there. However, the colonists must earn the right to be English. Kincaid further alludes that the people don’t need the right to become British, they want to be their own people.
Kincaid has so much disgust in Britain that she even changes her British sounding name,”Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson,” to Jamaica Kincaid as another means of attacking Britain in her own personal life. She does this not only to attack the British, but to inspire the colonists who have been reared in such a condition where they can’t even embrace their culture. If a woman that grew in poverty grew up to become such a writer and influence not only in Antigua, but in the USA, anyone can rise up against the terrors of colonialism.
Kincaid’s usage of Sarcastic language, metaphors and allusions, and caricature in her essay to convey her disdain at Britain’s horrible actions towards her country, Antigua, and all of the other countries, including America, that have faced the iron grip of the “Special Jewel.” In the end, the world must move past colonialism and work with everyone equally while embracing everyone’s culture and practices.
The Theme Of Ambition Askew And Materialism In The Narrative Seeing England For The First Time And Plays Pygmalion By Shaw And Rushdie’s Ruby Slippers
The Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Ambition is a double-edged sword. One rewards the fierce determination needed to complete a daunting task, but is also wary of the greed and arrogance that can result from ambition. Ambition itself is neither a good nor bad trait, but it is a human one. Over time, the word “ambition” has taken on a much more negative connotation as in recent history, greedy imperialists, corrupt elites, and materialistic capitalists have used their ambition to feed their desire for honor, popularity, and power at the expense of the wellbeing of others. It is perhaps because of these human qualities—to desire love, honor, knowledge, and power—and similarities to modern society that the theme of ambition is prevalent in literature. Personal narratives like On Seeing England for the First Time, plays such as Pygmalion, and Rushdie’s Ruby Slippers in East, West highlight the consequences of ambition gone awry. Greed, which makes characters oblivious to human compassion and humility, results in destructive actions and consequences on personal and global levels.
Colonial British literature reflects the broad and pervasive impact of imperialistic greed on British culture. Through ideals such as the “white man’s burden” and proud exclamations that “the sun never sets on the British empire.” On the flip side, the literature of the subjugated cultures, such as Jamaica Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time, attempt to show the narrow-minded public to the horror of the imperialist machine as it seizes their economic resources, land, and cultural identity. British superiority over natives forced Kincaid to think that she “was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up” (Kincaid 374) because she was not English. In doing so, she unknowingly played into the imperialist ideology, designed to designate the colonized as “others,” and thus to ignore the reality of the colonized culture and people. Colonists saw Antigua, Kincaid’s hometown, only as economically profitable and a way to gain resources that were unavailable in Europe. Kincaid angrily describes the greed which blinded them to the hegemony and dominance they instilled over her community. The British set up restrictions that prevented the native economies from operating on their own; natives would produce the raw material for British manufacturing, but their competition with British trade was eliminated as natives were forced to only buy British goods. Kincaid’s daily can of cocoa, box of oats, her shoes, socks, and undergarments, the family’s car, and even her satin ribbons were manufactured in England. Her father buys into the Western styles of dress and behavior after being compelled to “wear the wrong hat for hot climate most of his long life” (Kincaid 366) to appear more English. The brown felt hat, which symbolizes the complete British dominance over Antiguan economy and culture, becomes so associated with the father’s character that it becomes the first thing he puts on and the last thing he takes off. This reinforced brainwashing in her personal life and in her education, in which she is told to draw a map of England one every test, creates an outsider complex where Kincaid is forced to idolize English culture but never partake in it: “England is a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it” (Kincaid 365). Her cultural identity and value is carelessly replaced in colonization. Everything in her life, including herself, is “Made in England” (Kincaid 365), with “the exceptions being the sea, the sky, and the air we breathe” (Kincaid 366). Western greed for raw material and ambition to industrialize their countries imposed culture and identity on colonies, destroying the “reality” of the place and substituting it with an idea.
Similarly, colonial ideology is also seen to have an impact on class relations, where the lower classes are internal foreigners, colonized by upper classes, who employ strategies of imperial and colonial control. By exploring the class, gender, and racial politics that influence societal conventions in Pygmalion, Shaw reveals the complexities of how ambition and power are closely linked to selfishness and material reward. Because he is upper class, wealthy, and male, Higgins displays the inherent power in class status, money, and gender, which gives his ambition to “make [Eliza] a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe” (Shaw 16) a greedy and cold edge. It is a power he yields without conscience, eventually landing Eliza in a position unfit for any role in their society. As he corrects her accent and grammar, dresses her in stunning dresses, and teaches her modern conversational behaviors, he becomes almost obsessed with creating the perfect human being: “how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being…It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul” (Shaw 43). Higgins’ goal is no longer to win a bet, to train Eliza, or to even test his own skill and intelligence. He believes he can bring together humankind, one person at a time, and in his ambition to attain social status and be a respectable man, Higgins disregard for the power game he had created and abused to strip Eliza of her independence and identity. Eliza herself is not without ambition, as she approaches Higgins to follow up on his offer to better her position in society. However, Higgins training bestows upon Eliza the power she needed to support herself, to adapt, and to find an independence without the aid of Higgins. “I don’t want no gold and no diamonds” (Shaw 19) Eliza declares, demonstrating how her ambition to retain her dignity and make a better life for herself gives her the strength to reject Higgins and firmly carve a place for herself in the new corners of society she can now explore. Eliza’s father, on the other hand, whose desire is to be indolent forces him to be just the opposite, acts as a foil to Eliza. A man content with poverty and life as a garbage collector, Alfred Doolittle extorts only enough money for a drunken spree, refusing more when it is offered because he does not want to be tempted to save and thus trap himself in middle-class responsibilities. Higgins sends a joking letter to a millionaire, who subsequently bestows Doolittle a stipend to lecture on the morality he abhors. Doolittle feels compelled to accept the remuneration, and his life is no longer impoverished, but neither is it as free and simple as it once was. Forced to become middle class, he must now embrace restrictive middle-class morality and marry his wife. Alfred Doolittle’s ironic ambition to be unambitious binds him to societal structures and conventions on how to behave, stripping him of his very beliefs and identity. Eliza is able to reshape her own identity despite remaining quite penniless while her father gains great wealth but feels as if he has destroyed his individual spirit. Shaw’s concepts of ambition and fame reflects the consequences of both too little and too much ambition: the damage of laziness and greed is an almost dystopian-like society divided not just by wealth, but by accents, mannerisms, and material goods.
Concentration on material success, while ignoring how striving for a variety of rewards beyond mere fame, like professional success and world peace can be largely beneficial, is captured in Salman Rushdie’s At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers in East, West. The narrator describes an extremely capitalist society, very similar to today’s Western society, where one bids at auctions for everything and anything, from edible underwear to the Eiffel Tower, in an ambitious reach for power, namesake, and legacy. The narrator describes a community where people “bid, the Auctioneers knock down a lot down, we pass on” (Rushdie 99), displaying how life and success has become measured by objects that are bought at the auction. He also mentions, with complete indifference, acts of total disregard for human life, such as the astronaut trapped in space due to lack of funds to return him to Earth, as if leaving a human being to die was something ordinary. This distancing from compassion and treatment of people and objects as the same is Rushdie’s harsh criticism of the culmination of European imperialism and class division and how such greed has driven society insane. The red ruby slippers, most commonly associated with the Wizard of Oz, is symbolic of home and freedom, from fiction to reality, but such freedom must be paid for in this materialistic society. This cult of apparently miraculous slippers represents how people seem to have become subordinate and susceptible to what the auctioneers, the hegemonic class, claim to be important, which is goods and their marketing values. Like in Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time and Shaw’s Pygmalion, imperialistic supremacy and distinct class conventions tears the identities of the bidders away. The auction hall is a place where everyone can arrive and be accepted, but only by the auctioneer’s approval. They have all been homogenized by the auctioneers, all visiting the same place as “Political refugees… conspirators, deposed monarchs, defeated factions, poets, [and] bandit chieftains” (Rushdie 91). A human is considered nothing more nor less than his or her money: “anyone’s cash is as good as anyone else’s” (Rushdie 93). In today’s society, human identity is no longer defined by moral action, but by what one owns. The narrator grimly accentuates this point, saying “In fiction’s grip, we may mortgage our homes, sell our children, to have whatever it is we crave” (Rushdie 102). Monetary ambition has created a society in which something is deemed worthwhile if there is the acquisition of large amounts of money, rendering human emotion, identity, and worth virtually useless.
Ultimately, it is up to individuals, whether through literature, politics, or daily life, to determine how they will use their ambition. Modern society struggles to understand how ambition can—and should—be acted upon in a world that has new means of waging warfare, merging cultures, free-market economies, and evolving forms of communication. Shaw’s Pygmalion, Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time, and Rushdie’s At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers demonstrate the dangers of unchecked ambition and how greed for power and glory can lead to ability to ruin individuals and countries. Such desires to go through extremes to achieve goals can easily produce negative effects because ambition values the individual and the elite over everyone else, spiraling into catastrophic and damaging consequences for identities, society, and human values.
A Role of Jamaica Kincaid in on Seeing England for the First Time
In the essay “On Seeing England for the First Time”, Jamaica Kincaid creates an increasingly spiteful tone describing the effect of English colonization on her home, the Caribbean island of Antigua. Kincaid displays this attitude using figurative language that reveals the prevalent and her personal opinions regarding England. Kincaid develops this escalating resentment by cataloging various items that reflects the presence of England in Antigua. The attitude finally shifts into largely resentful as a result of diction changes and parallelism.
Kincaid begins by describing the physical representation of England on her school desk as a child. She describes the map directly as “…very beautiful jewel”. However, Kincaid backs out of this seemingly favorable view using the simile “like a leg of mutton”to describe England once again. This is the first statement to shatter the reader’s perception of Kincaid’s attitude possibly being satisfactory towards England. Kincaid then declares that England’s presence is omnipresent to the point of intrusion. Kincaid employs various figurative statements to create contrast on how she was told to regard England approvingly; however she disagrees that England is akin to “Jerusalem”. This allows readers to understand that her developing attitude towards England is leaning in favor of distaste of it’s presence, describing the situation as “meaningless” towards their “own lives” in favor of the English.
Afterwards, Kincaid describes her typical English breakfast before her school day, sarcastically stating that she is”very familiar with the greatness of it”, the precedent being England. She then extensively catalogues both her school attire and her father’s outfit, with large anaphora of the phrase “made in England”. The function of the catalogues throughout the segment emphasizes the impact England leaves on Antigua and it’s citizens. Kincaid’s obvious detestment is evident as she then reveals her dislike of breakfast but continues the habit of eating in the morning despite it, for the sake that it was, once again “made in England”. Kincaid’s spiteful tone continues to evolve as she expresses that England was “almost everything else that surrounded us, the exceptions being the sea, the sky, and the air we breathed.”
Finally, Kincaid’s bitter tone is finalized. She begins this portion with parallelism in respect to the phrase “seeing England for the first time”. Afterwards, Kincaid then discusses the negative impact England has on her homeland, naming her father as a “very vain man” due to his urgency to wear the English-style hat that has no function in Antigua. She also embarks on her failure to assimilate to the English culture by describing her dismissal of silverware on the dinner table despite her mother’s approval of when she does use such tools in her company. Kincaid follows this by once again repeating the statement “Draw a map of England”, and how it represents to her “something far worse than a declaration of war”. She reiterates her opinion using diction such as “conquered” to describe the entirety of England’s attempt to erase their culture. Kincaid openly shows her resentful attitude towards England by not only her diction choice but by her creating a straightforward distaste of England in the essay that has only been hinted at upon this point through small defiance and various remarks. In addition, her statement towards her parents show this unwillingness to become a part of the English culture also leads to an overall more apparent hatred of England that Kincaid owns. Kincaid concludes with “what a blessing it was that I was unable to draw a map of England correctly.”
Escaping the Inescapable in on Seeing England for the First Time
Escaping the Inescapable
With a history nearly as long as that of the human race, the oppression of one people by another has been a major driving force in society for centuries. From imperialism and colonialism to genocide and slavery, the various forms of oppression all go beyond the natural physical domination to capture the minds of the oppressed to different extents. In some cases, the erasure of the oppressed people is temporary; that is, the oppressed can retain their identity throughout a period of oppression or regain it afterwards, but in other cases, the task of fighting for one’s identity under oppression is more difficult and obscure. There are many factors that determine the magnitude of this erasure, ranging from the length of time under oppression to the manner in which an oppressed people’s culture is devalued, but the question of the possibility of completely overcoming the mental hold of oppression remains unanswered.
Beyond the natural consequences of cultural destruction and economic exploitation, colonialism has effects with deeper roots. In Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Kincaid describes the influence English colonialism had on her while growing up in Antigua, highlighting its pervasive nature and mission to instill a sense of English superiority in the colonized people. When Kincaid first mentions England, she calls it “a special jewel” to indicate the reverence with which it ought to be treated, and later uses the same term cynically to show how widely exploitative England and its colonialist practices are: “England was a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it. The people who got to wear England were English people. They wore it well and they wore it everywhere: in jungles, in deserts, on plains, on top of the highest mountains, on all the oceans, on all the seas” (366). This biting statement is a critique of widespread English colonialism, showing how maliciously exploitative the spread of English influence and hegemony is. Kincaid uses various anecdotes to illustrate the extent to which England has dominated her mind and being, saying that she “had long ago been conquered” and that the many views of England imposed upon her “made [her] really feel like nothing” (Kincaid 368). When Kincaid finally travels to England as a grown woman, she is disgusted at the people, the weather, and everything about it, feeling a “great feeling of rage an disappointment” both from her impression of England and her inability to express it publicly (Kincaid 370).
Kincaid laments that her vehement opinions of England can only remain personal opinions: “My head full of personal opinions that could not have public, my public approval. The people I come from are powerless to do evil on a grand scale” (Kincaid 370). Kincaid admits to her own capability of having prejudice, commenting that the prejudices of the English are instituted while the prejudices of her people are muted or ignored. This is a larger structural critique of global politics, showing that the English and other major Western powers hold the same prejudices that Kincaid’s people do, but their prejudices have the power and weight to become law solely because of their self-designed superiority. Throughout the essay, the mental hold that colonialism has taken on Kincaid and her family is made explicit: she is made to sing Anglican hymns like “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” she eats a big breakfast despite her natural instinct because “this breakfast business was ‘Made in England,’” and her father wears a felt hat despite it not being the “proper material from which a hat…[is] expected to provide shade from the hot sun” just because he “must have seen and admired a picture of an Englishman wearing such a hat in England, and this picture…must have been so compelling that it caused him to wear the wrong hat for a hot climate most of his long life” (Kincaid 367). The deep infiltration of English culture into the customs and beliefs of Antiguan families like Kincaid’s displays how colonialism acts on not just the state but on the individual and on the individual’s mind itself. Kincaid reflects on how her isolation from a real exposure to England has formed a strong impression on her: “In me, the space between the idea of [England] and its reality had become filled with hatred, and so when at last I saw it I wanted to take it into my hands and tear it into little pieces” (Kincaid 370). When Kincaid visits England and sees the white cliffs of Dover, cliffs that she had praised and sung about as a schoolgirl, her hatred is intensified: “all my views of England, starting with the map before me in my classroom and ending with the trip I had just taken, should jump and die and disappear forever” (370). Kincaid’s ambiguous account of her experience, with the use of the word “should,” suggests that her mental dominion may be a permanent and inescapable condition rather than something that she may be able to free herself from after real exposure to England. She further indicates the effect that seeing the white cliffs of Dover had on her by indicating what the sight of the cliffs made her long for: “The moment I wished every sentence, everything I knew, that began with England would end with “and then it all dies, we don’t know how, it just all died” was when I saw the white cliffs of Dover” (Kincaid 370). Kincaid’s use of the word “wished” and the modal verb “would” shows that her desire to free herself from the idea of England is unable to be realized despite her cognizance of its infection on her mind.
While Kincaid’s experience implies her inability to escape the mental hold of colonialism, through her desire that her ideas of England “would end with ‘and then it all died’” and her acceptance of powerlessness “to do evil on a grand scale,” this immobilization is not necessarily universal (Kincaid 370). An excerpt from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s book Decolonising the Mind speaks of the importance of language as a carrier of culture among other functions, as well as the colonialist practice of obliterating a colonized people’s native language in order to better subjugate them. Thiong’o is clear in his assertion about the crucial function of language: “The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonizing nations [is] crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized” (339). Thiong’o also stresses the stakes of this linguistic domination, saying how children who are raised with a foreign imposed language are later exposed to their native people through the mirror of that language and its treatment of the people such that they are alienated from themselves and are inevitably subject to accepting the bias that foreign powers may hold about their native peoples. Thiong’o’s statement about “catching them young,” a phrase used to describe the forced imposition of ideas on children early on, implies that an imposition exacted early enough in one’s life can achieve permanence: “The images of his world and his place in it implanted in a child take years to eradicate, if they ever can be” (Thiong’o 340). The ensuing implication is that an early avoidance or overcoming of this imposition can reduce the difficulty of reversing cultural erasure.
Thus Thiong’o offers a solution, albeit theoretical, for what Kincaid deems insurmountable. While Kincaid uses the conditional tense and a modal verb (“I wished…[it] would end,” “all my views of England…should jump and die”) to express her unsuccessful struggle to escape colonialism’s mental hold on her, Thiong’o’s implicit argument is that either a circumvention of linguistic dominion or an early overcoming of imposed beliefs may prevent colonialism’s absolute “domination of the mental universe of the colonized,” presenting a solution to the erasure that Kincaid speaks of and proclaims inevitable (Kincaid 370). Thiong’o claims that a linguistic domination is tantamount to “dissociation of the sensibility…from [one’s] natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation” (Thiong’o 340). Granted, Kincaid grew up speaking English, as did her family, likely because of the long-standing English colonialism in Antigua, which reached back far enough to infiltrate and overpower the native language, so it is impossible for Kincaid to directly have used Thiong’o’s argument of evading linguistic domination to preserve her cultural identity. However, Kincaid’s realization of her people’s powerlessness to express opinions publicly comes only after seeing England for the first time, when Kincaid is a “grown-up woman, the mother of two children, the wife of someone” (Kincaid 369). Using Thiong’o’s concept of “catching them young,” which he borrows from the author Bob Dixon, it is clear that Kincaid was “caught young” and did not come to realize the true nature of her position until late in life, at which point the hold on her mind may indeed have become permanent.
Kincaid’s erasure by colonialism is similar to the erasure of other oppressed peoples. In the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator tells of one experience he underwent, fighting other African American boys like himself for the entertainment of whites in America. He also tells the story of his grandfather, who was meek and compliant his whole life but just before his death fiercely commanded his descendants to fight strategically against racism, abandoning his own practice of appeasement. The grandfather’s entire lifetime of employing this practice of appeasement proves unfruitful, as are his grandson’s similar efforts: that is, their status as oppressed people under the whites has not improved as a result of their actions. The end of the chapter shows the grandson’s realization of the true nature of his situation as he encounter his grandfather in a dream, who tells him to read the congratulatory letter that the boy has just received as a result of his speech to an audience of whites, a speech designed to appease them: “‘To Whom It May Concern,’ I intoned. ‘Keep This Nigger-Boy Running’” (Ellison 27). The boy’s realization of the futility of his appeasement is somewhat similar to Kincaid’s realization of the futility of her prejudice and opinions, and this alone constitutes a mental transcendence of the boy’s earlier delusion about appeasement being fruitful. Although the chapter ends there, the realization is a possible first step in freeing oneself wholly from the mental domination of oppression. The boy makes the same revelation that Kincaid does a few decades before he reaches her age, and this timely realization, when viewed through the lens of Thiong’o’s concept of “catching them young,” could mean that the mental hold on the oppressed boy may be surmountable because of his early realization.
While colonialism and institutionalized racism are two examples of direct oppression, indirect oppression is also a widespread practice. Doris Lessing delivers a speech entitled “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize” when she receives the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. Her speech examines the inequality of access to literature in the world and the status of the human condition as reflected by modern-day storytellers. Lessing draws on her experience growing up in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to illustrate the disparity she saw between the tradition of literature in the Western world and in Africa. A large impact of British colonialism in Zimbabwe is the institution of education from literature, and Lessing clearly recognizes this: “And we must remember that this respect for books comes, not from Mugabe’s regime, but from the one before it, the whites” (Lessing 535). Lessing further explains the long-term impact that colonialism had in shaping the culture of storytelling in Zimbabwe: “The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations there was the transition from stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books. What an achievement” (537).
From her speech, it is evident that Lessing considers the introduction of literature into the culture of Zimbabwe a positive influence, claiming it to be an achievement. She goes on to explain the specific importance of this reverence of and exposure to literature, stressing that reading literature is absolutely necessary in order to write literature. Ignoring the possible merits of Zimbabwe’s pre-existing oral tradition of storytelling, Lessing says “In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, with the Tradition.” (Lessing 536). Despite Lessing’s perception of this influence as positive, a closer look at the situation reveals otherwise. Thiong’o’s writing in Decolonising the Mind describes a situation eerily similar to the situation of Zimbabwe as described by Lessing, albeit from a completely different perspective. While Lessing sees the introduction of the Western tradition of literature in Zimbabwe as an achievement, Thiong’o describes a similar influence as domination. Thiong’o writes “For colonialism this [control] involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer” (Thiong’o 339). In Thiong’o’s view, the British colonial education in Zimbabwe, designed to expose the people to Western literature and foster an appreciation for books, is an act of control and an effort to achieve “domination of the mental universe of the colonized” (Thiong’o 339). This raises the question as to the ability of the oppressed (the people of Zimbabwe) to overcome this oppression, or even to realize it. Just as in “On Seeing England for the First Time,” where England is made to seem “a very special jewel” and the oppressed people of Antigua develop a blind reverence for it, the people of Zimbabwe develop a similar blind reverence for books, as exemplified by one Indian woman that Lessing speaks of, a woman who dreams of sending her children to be close to Lessing’s “great Tradition of literature,” “My children will live far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and enjoy a good life” (Lessing 542). The position of the oppressed people in Zimbabwe, or at least the Indian woman of whom Lessing speaks, is somewhat similar to the position of the narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man prior to his epiphany. Both parties are oppressed but neither are fully cognizant of the realities of the oppression and aware of how to combat it. In a way, all Kincaid, Ellison’s narrator, the Indian woman, and even Thiong’o must have all started in the same place, the place of an oppressed person unaware of their situation, but each got to a realization of the reality at different points in life, except for the Indian woman who is only discussed briefly. It is precisely the timeliness of this discovery, the discovery of one’s situation that Ellison’s narrator comes to, or Kincaid comes to upon seeing England, or Thiong’o elucidates so clearly in his writing, that determines the relative permanence of oppressions hold on the mind of the oppressed.
Through a survey of various texts, it seems that transcendence of erasure from oppression is not decidedly impossible, but that many factors may prevent it from being achievable. For example, in Thiong’o’s writing from Decolonising the Mind, it is implied that total linguistic domination from a young age may render it impossible for a victim of colonialism to reconcile his beliefs about his own people with his own people’s beliefs. In the first chapter of Ellison’s Invisible Man, one small step toward transcendence is taken, and the possibility of completing the rest of the journey is left unclear, but the fact that the narrator has achieved the realization of his situation at a relatively young age in comparison to Kincaid’s equivalent realization of powerlessness paves the way for later “eradication” of the beliefs forcibly imposed by oppression, as Thiong’o puts it (Thiong’o 340). In Lessing’s “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize,” Lessing describes how the transition from orature to literature being the common practice in British-colonized Zimbabwe took “one or two generations,” and the accounts of the people she describes, like the Indian woman, fall at the end of this one-or-two-generation span. Using the logic that “catching it young,” which now means realizing the reality of one’s oppression early on, paves the way for a complete overcoming of mental domination later on, it seems unlikely that Indian woman in Lessing’s narrative could ever achieve this overcoming, having been exposed to the same dogma for generations. Looking back at Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Kincaid’s struggle to escape her ingrained ideas of England no longer seems like a simple matter of erasing a memory. Perhaps once an idea has been ingrained and reinforced in enough ways and for a long enough time, it achieves a permanence that no level of struggling can overcome. This production of “colonial aliens,” to borrow and re-interpret Thiong’o’s term, creates a person who is forever disconnected from his very self, a person who may never see his own self or his own people from a perspective not fundamentally biased by the prejudices of the oppressors. The results could truly be disastrous.
Life in a Colony in on Seeing England for the First Time
Ever since the beginning of our existence as Homo sapiens, there has been an instinct within ourselves to conquer and hold power over what the conqueror believes to be lesser people. Colonialism is the occupation of a foreign people through the means of military, economy, or any other controlling means. The British were one of the main colonizers of the new world as well as Africa, but almost all of the Europeans countries colonized. The short story, “On Seeing England for the First Time” by Jamaica Kincaid, and the book, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, accurately show the relationship between citizen and state in a colony.
Jamaica Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time” tells us about her experiences and thoughts on the relationship between citizen and state in a colony. Kincaid grew up under the rule of the colonizers from the British Empire. The British tried to instill the idea that England was a great and all-powerful nation into the minds of young Antiguans. The colonizers in doing this would make the people feel like they were not as good as the English. Kincaid tells of her schooling in Antigua saying, “I did not know then that the statement ‘Draw a map of England’ was something far worse than a declaration of war… [for] I had long ago been conquered. I did not know that this statement was meant to make me feel in awe and small whenever I heard the word ‘England’: awe at its existence and small because I was not from it,” (Kincaid 906). This shows that the education being provided by England was less of an education and more like a brainwashing. The English also achieved this through propaganda through school and media and even making the colonized feel like they deserved what they received. “The sun shone with what sometimes seemed to be a deliberate cruelty; we must have done something to deserve that. My dress did not rustle in the evening air as I strolled to the theater,” (Kincaid 908). Through life in a post-colonial world, we know that it is wrong to make people feel like less than someone else. In the United States, we have laws against doing that. The English purposefully tried to make the Antiguans feel like the English were better so that the colonizers could more easily rule over the colonized.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart shows, through the character of Okonkwo, the relationship between citizen and state in a place being colonized. In the book, Achebe shows how little the European men cared for the people they were trying to colonize when one of the white men was killed. When one of the white men came to the tribe in Abame, the tribesmen killed the man after being told by their Oracle, whom they count on to lead them in uncertain times, that “the strange man would break their clan and bring destruction among them,” (Achebe 120). The colonizers looked for their comrade in the village and, upon seeing his “iron horse” or bike tied to a tree, left the village. During one of the great market days when the whole tribe gathers in the market, “three white men and a very large number of other men surrounded the market… And they began to shoot. Everybody was killed except the old and sick who were at home and the men and women [who did not attend the market],” (Achebe 121). Instead of asking who killed the man, the white men killed almost everyone in the village. This is a far cry from the system we have in place in a post-colonial world. The killing of the tribe was completely unjustified. There was no fair trial or belief of “innocent until proven guilty.” The men seemed to think of the tribe as below them and, in Things Fall Apart, there is more evidence of this belief. The District Commissioner is one of the leaders of the colonization of Nigeria. He also seems to think of the Nigerians of lesser people. “[The commissioner] had already chosen a name for the book… The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. One can infer, from the words used in the title, that the District Commissioner values the African people very little. By using the word pacification and primitive, he implies that the tribespeople are savage and uncivilized in nature. Living in a post-colonial world, we know that all people are equal and are equally as important as any other person. Also, we have realized that all culture should be cherished. The tribespeople had a type of government and were civilized in their own way, but since the Europeans did not understand the Africans’ way of life, most of them thought the Nigerians were lesser people than the great European.
There are many similarities between the stories of Achebe and Kincaid. Not only are there similarities, but if one put these two stories together, one would be able to see the different parts that make up colonization. The colonizers try to destroy the culture of the colonized. This culture can be religion, history, language, or any other part of culture that would help the colonizers maintain a hold on the colonized. In the case of Things Fall Apart, the Europeans sent Catholic missionaries to try to convert the Africans to Catholicism and, in part, attack the religion of the locals as fake and they often said that “All the gods that you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit that tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children,” (Achebe 126). Many people convert to the Catholic faith and this sets up the whole tribe to be oppressed because by the time they start to be oppressed, too many Africans are on the Europeans side and believe that what they do is right. In “On Seeing England for the First Time”, the colonizing British set up schools to teach the Antiguan children. These schools are another way to destroy the Antiguan culture. The culture being destroyed by the schools was mainly language and history. Jamaica Kincaid tells of how the children were taught about kings of England, “The naming of the kings, their deeds, their disappointments… was the vivid view, the forceful view,” (Kincaid 906). The kids were not taught about their own history, but the history of the British. By doing this, the British would have an easier time oppressing the later generations because they would not feel pride for Antigua, but pride for England. Living in a post-colonial world, we can see how wrong it is to use and almost brainwash children into loving the British way and believing that it is the right way and not feeling pride in their own culture.
Also, the colonizers oppress through mistreatment, a government run by colonizers, or any other type of oppression. After the church in Umofia was burned, Okonkwo and five other town leaders were taken to jail. To try to prevent the men from doing anything like this again, the men were mistreated by the guards. “They were not even given any water to drink, and they could not go out to urinate… At night the messengers came in to taunt them and to knock their shaven heads together,” (Achebe 167). Now, living in a first-world country in a post-colonial world, we see the wrongs in this treatment of the men. They were not even being tortured for information. They were just being tortured for the fun of it. This shows that the colonizers cared little for the individuals and only cared that they could hold power over the colonized.