The Depiction Of Illusions In A Stranger In The Village
Despite how open, peaceful, and giving one attempts to be, people can only meet others as deeply as they have met themselves. Through the point of view of a white man and his company intruding on African way of life and the point of view of a black man’s experience in a remote Swiss village composed of people who had never seen a Black man before, we, of course, see different perspectives. James Baldwin’s “A Stranger in the Village” and “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad share common ideas about naivety and delusion which, together, encompass a clash of races. In Baldwin’s story, we see Baldwin himself feeling alienated from those around him because of his race, no matter how long he is there or how close he gets with the villagers. From the very beginning, we see that the villagers are engulfed in a European (or more generally a white) delusion that prejudice is necessary.
From the villagers, Baldwin perceives that black people are a) only from Africa b) don’t deserve the compassion and respect any other human deserves and c) finds that the villagers are ignorant of the fact that Baldwin is a person at all. Where a white person would likely find the village a close-knit, charming, and peaceful place, Baldwin feels a profound sense of judgment and isolation from those around him. He notes the cruel naivety of the village children; assuming that they couldn’t possibly know any better but at the same time, how do they know to be rude to the black man? Baldwin finds that prejudice is etched into even the most unreachable of places due to the history of injustice. Later, Baldwin mentions the differences in his physique and how mesmerizing it is for the villagers. For example, they are surprised when the color on his skin doesn’t rub off when touching him (Baldwin 2), as if his skin color is just mud that can easily come off. Reiterated, the ignorance Baldwin is surrounded by is astonishing. Baldwin chalks up the rudeness to pure ignorance and naivety but still, they don’t see him as human, thus a type of naive racism is brought up. The children who yell racial slurs at him are unaware of the more sinister past of hate and intolerance he experienced in America. Another example is the local Catholics in the village. A woman beaming with pride tells Baldwin that they donate money to ‘buy’ Africans so that missionaries can convert them into Catholics, again, nativity seeps in and she doesn’t realize the dark undertones of that practice for a man who is a descendant of slaves. Baldwin then compares what an initial interaction between the two races would look like: In this passage, Baldwin conveniently answers the question of how the two perspectives (a white man vs. a black man) differ. What he says about a white man coming into an African village seems very truthful after reading Marlow’s account in “Heart of Darkness.” Baldwin claims that the white man will come in as a god, tribute, or savior who arrives to conquer or convert, and that their inferiority is not questioned (not by themselves or those they are overtaking). As we see in Marlow’s story, Kurtz as a member of an ivory company, comes into contact with a tribe of Africans and essentially becomes their leader to cheat them out of their ivory and confidence in being equal humans.
The groundless idea of white supremacy seems like a universal concept (and another inescapable delusion) that transcends color, creed, gender, and most importantly, time. Centuries have passed and black people are still excluded, oppressed, and terrorized which Baldwin comments on in his conclusion. The white man’s primary motivation is the protection of his superiority and the spreading of that control. In contrast, the black man’s motivation is to establish his identity as an equal. Baldwin claims that the black man’s motivation has been achieved through almost infinite hardships but has been achieved nonetheless and will continue to achieve. Taking the two texts together gives us a more complete picture of a clash between ignorance, falsehoods, prejudice, and identity-seeking. In the beginning of the piece, Baldwin seems to be telling a story about his time in a Swiss village that is unfamiliar with people of his race, in reality he is using the story as a metaphor and an introduction to his ideas about race and the history of the relationship between whites and blacks in America. The final sentence of his essay, is significant because it is his final claim that the villagers’ and the Americans’ willingness to ignore their privileges and the effects of centuries of discrimination and racism is a desire to return to naive innocence where black people do not exist. Because of this desire, white Americans continue to follow past behaviors of terrorism rather than accepting black people as equals. The Americans and villagers in Baldwin’s essay, as well as the Europeans in Conrad’s story, all cling to a world that doesn’t know of the existence of the black man. Struck by delusion, insecurity, and fear of the unknown the clash of races continues. In Conrad’s story, we see a different, but mostly unified attitude towards the natives. Majority of the characters see the natives as inconveniences, inhuman, and as lesser beings. However, Kurtz’s attitude towards the black Africans is ambiguous. He can come across as a symbol of imperialism and black subjugation or he can be viewed as a symbol of salvation.
On one end, Kurtz treats the Africans more civilly and more human than any other white character (Marlow, the manager, the accountant, the harlequin, etc.). This is why Marlow sees him as the lesser of two evils. On the other hand, Kurtz takes the role as a God and tricks the Africans into believing in his “superiority” and power. Kurtz believes in the goodness of imperialism but he thinks a God-complex is required. He envisions a utopia not of equality, but of a peaceful and submissive reign of the white man over the black. To the reader, and what we know about history, Kurtz underestimates what his idea means in respect to a master/slave relationship. Marlow sees how messed up colonization really is, and he knows that the company only cares about making money and making money fast. He comes to the conclusion that the explorers aren’t heroes; they’re robbers and murderers who just want to be well off regardless of collateral damages. Despite his continuous realization, Marlow doesn’t do anything to ease or end the Africans’ suffering. He takes the role as a simple bystander.
At this moment, the reader and Marlow are introduced to the consequences of imperialism: the cruelly treated slaves. They’re treated so inhumanely that Marlow can’t see them as fully human. Marlow is affected by the delusion that what is happening is normal. Throughout the entire story, Marlow only sees the Africans as objects, ghosts, or through animalistic imagery: ‘acute angles,’ ‘phantom,’ ‘creature,’ ‘woolly head.’ Another incompatibility between the two races is their inability to communicate linguistically. The lack of communication reflects a larger disconnect between the two groups of people and builds an intolerance in majority of the white people with the exception of Marlow. Despite the fact that the natives aren’t crying comprehensible words, Marlow understands the emotion behind their cries, heartache. While language is obviously not universal, human experience, human emotion, is. Another example of this is when Marlow’s African helmsman dies on the steamer at his feet. In his dying moments, the African communicates without words, through a simple gaze. Marlow feels as if he could understand the man if he tried to speak.
Again, this understanding is achieved not with language, but with emotion. Towards the end of the story, Marlow starts to question the inhumanity of the Africans. He begins to realize that he has been naive to think that they are not just as human as he is. At night, when he hears their yells and songs (their language, essentially, their culture) he feels a sense of kinship with his fellow humans and even says that he understands their screams. There’s a change in Marlow’s mentality (but not in his actions or behavior): he is starting to doubt the traditional views of imperialists and the idea that people of a different color are less human. In these two stories, we see Baldwin as a victim and Marlow as an ignorant perpetrator. Through their two perspectives, we see the other side of the coin in respect to race relations. Baldwin comments on the relationship between European and American history, explicitly pointing out that American history encompasses the history of the black man, while European history lacks the African-American dimension. Joseph Conrad writes about a diffusion of responsibility and an individual’s unwillingness to progress the human race into a race of acceptance. Together, the two texts give us a more complete picture by showing us polar-opposite as well as “grey” perspectives about different races.
The texts share a portrayal of the white man as a naive, delusional, and power hungry presence that will rarely question itself. The black man is portrayed as a presence suffering of pain, misunderstanding, and unprecedented control. Despite how “ready” Marlow could have worked himself up to be to say that Africans are humans, it wouldn’t have genuine because as an individual, he wouldn’t be able to find it inside himself to question all he’s ever known and accept his people’s role as the cruel overtaker. And despite how peaceful the natives could be or how kind Baldwin was to the villagers, people around them would have had a problem coming to terms with befriending the different, objectively. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and James Baldwin’s.
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