This is a Rerun: How Colonial History, Racism, and Cultural Traditions Shape the Immigrant Experience in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, several main characters struggle with their cultural identity as immigrants in contemporary London. During the mid twentieth century, economic opportunities in Great Britain attracted many immigrants from former British colonies. The influx of racially diverse immigrants from ex-colonies caused a backlash of xenophobic sentiments and a resurgence of ever-present racism. Throughout the novel, Smith alludes to the immigrants’ internal conflict between the desire to assimilate and the determination to maintain their traditional culture. In Chapter VII of the novel, two distinct but interwoven journeys occur: Samad travels to meet his mistress, Poppy Burt-Jones, and Samad’s children, Magid and Millat, meet up with their friend Irie, the daughter of Samad’s English friend Archie Jones and his Jamaican wife, Clara Bowden, to bring Harvest Festival donations to J.P. Hamilton, an old British man. Both journeys involve immigrants from former colonies, such as Jamaica and Bangladesh, traveling to see British citizens. The two journeys that occur in Chapter VII represent the immigrant plight in twentieth century London and demonstrate the effects of colonial history, racism, and cultural tradition on the process of assimilating into British society.
The two journeys in Chapter VII mirror the history between the British Empire and its former colonies, specifically Bangladesh and Jamaica, to emphasize the effect of colonial history on immigrant communities in twentieth century London. The narrator introduces the two journeys in the chapter by stating, “unbeknownst to all involved, ancient ley-lines run underneath these two journeys—or, to put it in modern parlance, this is a rerun…we have been here before. This is like watching TV in Bombay or Kingston or Dhaka, watching the same old British sitcoms spewed out to the old colonies in one tedious, eternal loop” (Smith 135). The narrator compares the two journeys to a rerun and hints at the connections between the modern journeys and the British Empire’s colonial past. By mentioning ancient ley-lines, the narrator alludes to not only the metaphorical predetermined path of the journeys but also the tangible ley-lines constructed in many British colonial cities. The three cities that the narrator discusses, Bombay, Kingston, and Dhaka, represent former commercial hubs of the British Empire. Bombay, India, the first city mentioned, was called Mumbai until the British gained control of India and renamed the city. Similarly, Kingston, Jamaica was named by the British as a condensed version of King’s town to honor the British Empire’s monarchical ruler. The mention of the two British-named cities hints at the colonial history of the two nations and the presence of British-built grid systems that involved ley-lines. However, the British never renamed the third city mentioned, the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh. The mention of Dhaka, a Bangladeshi city that signifies Samad’s ancestry, and Kingston, representing Clara Bowden’s Jamaican heritage, also suggests that the journeys symbolize a rerun of the immigrants’ initial journey to England. In addition, the depiction of former colonial subjects traveling to visit white Englishmen and Englishwomen symbolizes the initial move from the newly independent colonies to the imperial country. The narrator details the repetitive nature of immigrants by explaining, “they can’t help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign” (Smith 136). The narrator explains the habitual repetition of immigrants. The description matches Samad’s journey to see Poppy; Samad, an old Bangladeshi man, visits Poppy, a pale, freckled Englishwoman. Samad’s journey reflects his initial immigration from Bangladesh, a former colony, to England, the imperial sovereign. The two journeys demonstrate the effect of colonial history on the repetitive nature of immigrants in British society.
In both journeys, the travelers encounter characters that embody madness and racism, which highlights the immigrants’ struggle to assimilate into modern British society due to their own resentment of British colonial rule and the ubiquitous presence of racism in British society. While Samad, a Bangladeshi man, and Poppy, an Englishwoman, walk through Harlesden, Samad warns Poppy about a woman called Mad Mary by saying, “She is Mad Mary. And she is not remotely funny. She is dangerous…And she doesn’t like white people” (Smith 147). Samad describes Mad Mary, a black voodoo woman who roams the streets of North London, and mentions that she dislikes white people. Samad’s description and word choice, including the name “Mad Mary,” show that Mad Mary proudly displays both her insanity and her racism. As an immigrant, Mad Mary’s racism represents the immigrant community’s hostility towards British society. After Samad’s warning, Mad Mary accosts the interracial couple and shouts at Samad, “What ‘as dem [British people] ever done for us body bot kill us and enslave us?…What’s de solution?” (Smith 148). Mad Mary demands that Samad tell her the solution to oppression. She refers to the historical mistreatment of colonial peoples by the British and emphasizes the enslavement and widespread violence towards the African, Caribbean, and Indo-Chinese colonies. Mad Mary exemplifies the immigrants’ aversion to British society and resentment over the nation’s imperial past. The character Mad Mary demonstrates how the former colonial peoples’ hatred of British society hinders assimilation. During the chapter’s second journey, Magid, Millat, and Irie bring donated food to an old Englishman named J.P. Hamilton. After the three kids convince Hamilton that they do not want to sell him things or rob him, he tells the children historical tales with added racial slurs, “I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the n****r was by the whiteness of his teeth…Horrid business. Dark as buggery” and he continues with, “There were certainly no wogs as I remember…No Pakistanis…No Pakistanis. The Pakistanis would have been in the Pakistani army, you see, whatever that was” (Smith 144). Hamilton recounts his time in Congo and recalls that Pakistanis did not fight in the British army during World War II. He uses multiple racially charged insults in his stories such as “n****r” and “wog” that clearly express his racist tendencies. Hamilton’s racism represents the widespread, covert racism present among many British citizens. The two mad characters that the travelers encounter display different forms of virulent racism and, similarly, they exhibit different types of insanity. J.P. Hamilton employs the carefully concealed racism of British society and constitutes hidden insanity whereas Mad Mary exudes unconcealed racism and clearly evident insanity. The two journeys involve insane, racist characters to depict the presence of racism in the immigrant experience in British society.
Both journeys demonstrate the fundamental role that cultural traditions play in the immigrants’ assimilation into British society. The first two sentences of the chapter highlight the inescapable nature of cultural tradition by saying, “and the sins of the Eastern father shall be visited upon the Western sons. Often taking their time, stored up in the genes like baldness or testicular carcinoma” (Smith 135). The narrator believes that the cultural traditions, and sins, of the East transcend the physical distance and follow the immigrants’ children to the West because of a gene-like inheritance. Throughout the novel, the second generation immigrants try to escape their cultural heritage by conforming to Western fashion, changing their appearance, and adopting Western names, which illustrates the pressure to assimilate. However, the children cannot avoid their cultural heritage and the involuntary traits of their culture inhibit their assimilation into British society. While Samad’s children grapple with their cultural identity, Samad struggles to balance his proud Bangladeshi heritage with the new influences of Western society. When Samad walks with Poppy Burt-Jones after their encounter with Mad Mary, the narrator says, “Samad, increasingly given to visions, saw that great-grandfather of his, Mangal Pande, flailing with a musket; fighting against the new, holding on to tradition” (Smith 150). Samad struggles to simultaneously express his Bangladeshi heritage and remain involvement in British society. He becomes prone to visions related to cultural traditions and the corrupting influence of Western society, which highlights the conflict between the modern Western culture and ancient cultural traditions. The two journeys that occur in the chapter highlight the immigrants’ battle between maintaining their own cultural heritage and absorbing the cultural influences of British society.
The two journeys in Chapter VII symbolize the immigrants’ initial journey to England and the difficult task of adjusting to British society. The historical context included in the journeys alludes to the colonial history of the immigrants and the negative effect of imperialism on the immigrant experience. In addition, both of the mentally deranged characters that Samad and his children encounter epitomize the multi-faceted racism present in twentieth century Britain. The journeys also focus on the conflict between modern beliefs and cultural traditions to demonstrate the difficulties associated with assimilation and the generational gap between immigrants and their children. Both journeys recreate the immigrants’ original crossing to England and lay the foundation for understanding the structure of British society.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.
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In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, several main characters struggle with their cultural identity as immigrants in contemporary London. During the mid twentieth century, economic opportunities in Great Britain attracted […]