Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness

August 11, 2022

     This astonishing novel remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as ever, like its subject-matter: I studied it, along with Conrad’s other works, at university, I taught it to sixth form students, and I’ve come back to it after many years for my book group. Conrad is not much read or studied now, sadly I feel, because he has so much to say. And this particular text I have often seen referred to as racist, colonialist, offensive… and I don’t buy these interpretations.

Heart of Darkness is very short. My American paperback edition has fewer than seventy pages. And yet so much is densely packed into that brief space: there are the carefully layered levels of the narrative; the settings of Victorian London and deepest central Africa, contrasted and yet also likened to each other; the density of Conrad’s descriptive language. And that’s before we engage with the subject-matter: a steamboat journey to nowhere in search of a man who has become a myth. All the time we are wrapped in the question of understanding and not understanding, which for me is the kernel of the entire work: just how much can a white man, a westerner, comprehend of the so utterly different world of the natives whose world he invades? And what on earth do those Africans make of the strangers, the invaders, their weird machinery and brutal actions?

Conrad pushes the situation to extremes because he is questioning the crazed rush for colonies, plunder and profit that the ‘civilised’ European powers were engaged in at that time, but the question is also a more universal one: at what level, to what extent is anyone capable of understanding someone from a different nature or a different culture? Can we ever really know or share? Kurtz, the man/myth at the heart of the novella, has been driven insane – in my understanding – by the powers he has managed to acquire over the native population, and Marlow, the narrator, has fallen deeply under his spell, but is in some slight way capable of understanding Kurtz and his power.

Ar some level, I suppose the question of whether and how much we can understand of ‘the other’ is also rather meaningless, for we are what we are and have to make the best of that, although we should surely respect other cultures and traditions rather than strive to pillage and exploit them. But once again, Conrad brings me to reflect on my own particular situation. I’m half Polish. I know a fair amount of that nation’s history and my father’s family and past, I’ve visited the country a number of times. There are aspects of the country and its people I love, others I loathe, and yet I do wonder how much I really know or understand. If I had moved to live there as a student – I was offered the opportunity but didn’t take it up – would I ever have become fully Polish? Similarly, although I have lived my entire life (apart from a year) in England, I feel I can never be one hundred percent English: there are things about this island I do not like or understand. And yet I know I could not live anywhere else, and my life’s work has been centred on the study and teaching of this country’s literature, which I do feel I understand pretty well.

Conrad is enigmatic, as I said. He makes his readers think, think hard. To me it’s pretty evident that, although he may not be able to understand Africa and its people, to him what the westerners are doing there is evil, and in some ways actually insane. And I have to respect a man who is a giant of English literature, even though English was his third language.

Nella Larsen: Passing

July 11, 2022

     I find this rather a difficult book to write about, given that it comes from a culture I don’t have many ways to approach. Passing is a novella written in the US about a century ago now, by a black woman, and it’s about the concept of ‘passing’ in the sense of a black person passing themselves off as a white person and living undiscovered in white society. There are evidently attractions and manifold perils in the practice; I imagine it was a phenomenon of its time…

At the start we see the world through the eyes of Irene, the narrator; fairly early on a relatively unsubtle incident reveals or confirms to us that she is a black woman; before, it was not possible to be certain. I think Larsen intends this. Culturally, it was very difficult for me to understand some of the nuances of black and white society in the US of the time, but it is clear that Irene’s ‘friend’ Clare successfully passes as white and has a successful marriage to a white businessman, and a child. One of the perils of ‘passing’ was children: genetics means that a child might be very obviously one race or the other; contraception was pretty basic in those days, too…

I was shocked by the brutality of white racism, in terms of language and attitudes, and uneasy at its being presented by a black writer, too. Larsen creates the dangerous edginess of conversations very powerfully and effectively in a number of potentially risky situations which Clare engineers, as we gradually discover that she has very mixed feelings about the ‘passing’ she has been successful in. She yearns for her past, although her growing torment at her situation is not that convincingly presented, I felt: we are just told by the narrator. And yet, in such a short work, a whole raft of moral dilemmas for various members of the community is revealed. Irene’s reluctant fascination with Clare and her life is convincingly done.

I found myself wondering whether the whole work might not have been more successful if developed as a proper full-length novel, although I also had to admit that then, I’d probably not have read it. Irene’s husband Brian’s wish to leave the US and remove to South America, obviously a source of much tension in their marriage, is never clearly explained, and we never find out who the mystery man is who brought Clare to Irene’s table in the hotel at the start of the story. The denouement – Clare setting her sights on Irene’s husband – was rather too obvious and also not really prepared for, and I found the predictable ending rather too open and unsatisfactory as well.

I’m glad I read it: it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable a number of times, and it has me thinking about the question of how much we ever can get to know or understand a culture that is very different from our own. That does not mean that we shouldn’t try, of course.

On racism, and fear of ‘the other’…

June 13, 2020

I have been aware of the anger in the US, and more widely, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, though I will admit that I have not been following all the events in close detail. However, as a white male, I have been made to think again about various issues. I’m old enough to remember the US riots of 1968, which are the nearest comparison I can come up with at the moment.

I could say, ‘I’m not a racist.’ But I’m not really a fit person to be a judge of that. I can say that in my teaching career I always sought to challenge what I perceived to be racist comments by any student or colleague, but I can’t say I challenged them all, because again, how can I judge clearly what constitutes a racist comment or statement?

When I start to think about racism, I find myself contemplating it as originating in the fear of what, or who is different in some way from ourselves, because we cannot understand or share their experience. When I travel, I feel more comfortable in lands where I am able to communicate with the people, even in a rudimentary way, and understand and be understood; I feel less secure if I cannot operate in the language. There are cultures that I experience as being so different from the one in which I grew up and have lived in, that, try as I might, I cannot really get beyond what feels like a very superficial knowledge and appreciation. China. India. Japan. For example. And at this point I have always felt that there are two possible reactions: I can fear and reject what I do not understand, or I can be curious and seek to know more. This latter is harder, and one does not always succeed. And I wonder what makes one person fear and then reject, and another curious, and seek to find out more…

I think that I provided places and times for the exploration and discussion of the subject of race at various points in my teaching. Racism in the context of the Nazi extermination of the Jews came up particularly through a novel called Friedrich, by Hans Peter Richter, which I always read with my year 8 classes. The story was more of a diary, year by year, of two boys growing up as neighbours and friends in a Germany which was gradually taken over by the Nazis, and how their stories and lives diverged. Particularly shocking to students was the final section, a historical chronology of all the steps taken by the Nazis against the Jewish population of the country. There was much discussion and much learning; the story was on a human scale, and ended with the boys at roughly the age the students themselves were.

But that text is a sideline, in terms of the issue I’m reflecting on here, which is racism towards people of colour, specifically in the US. Here, three books stand out for me: Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

81oPMLy71QL._AC_UY218_     To Kill A Mockingbird was a GCSE text much loved by teachers and students alike until Michael Gove in his wisdom decided that texts written by non-Brits didn’t count as suitable ‘English’ Literature. A more dim-witted, idiotic decision I cannot recall. I know that the novel is nowadays somewhat looked down upon for a rather patronising portrayal of a black man as victim. I feel that is a simplistic judgement, and one from an adult perspective, and reject it completely when considering the novel as a powerful text through which teenagers – the developing adults of the future – can be brought to explore and consider closely and carefully how racism is both ingrained and institutionalised, and how basically unfair and unjust it is: they are truly shocked by how the story develops, and its tragic outcome. And they also see young white children pushed to confront their own internalised racism. No, it’s not perfect but it is powerful and effective, and I don’t know of a better opening for such a thorny topic to be brought into the classroom.

511vJG6H5DL._AC_UY218_     Mark Twain’s two novels are rather different. Tom Sawyer is a story of nineteenth century boys’ fantasy fulfilment more than anything else: running away from home, skiving, pulling a fast one on teachers, seeing a murder and finding hidden treasure. But the ‘servant’ boy Jim is introduced: he doesn’t have that hard a life in a children’s storybook, but in the 1840s Missouri where the story is set, he’s obviously a slave, owned and exploited by white people. It’s in the next novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Jim comes into his own, for he becomes a runaway slave. That is a very serious matter, as is the fact that he’s aided and abetted by Huck, the town outcast who becomes his friend, and yet who, in the context of the times, wrestles with his conscience because he realises he’s committing a crime in helping Jim escape, thus ‘stealing’ another (white) man’s property. He also takes time to come to terms with the obvious fact that Jim is a human being on the same level as himself, rather than the inferior being and chattel that society considers him to be. Because Huck is a decent fellow, uncorrupted by ‘civilisation’, and in some ways a vision of the ideal American frontiersman, he does the ‘right thing’ and helps Jim escape from the slave states to freedom.

It’s a heartening tale, and one it’s today fashionable to dislike, condemn and even ban from schools and libraries, particularly in the US. It’s a book of its time – something we should not forget – and that means, among other things, that the infamous n-word is freely and liberally used. How on earth to deal with that in the classroom? In my experience, by full and frank discussion of that word, of offensive language and labels more generally, and what such language can do to people and ultimately lead to. Huck and Jim’s adventures together and their mental and moral struggles speak for themselves, and again open up a world of discussion, debate and awareness-raising, topics not to be shied away from in the classroom. In many ways, it is nowadays a very awkward and challenging read, as well as a very good story. My line always was, ‘if you can discuss it as sensibly and as maturely as you are able, then we will discuss it.’ And almost always, students rose to that challenge, and I respected them for that. I know I would say it, wouldn’t I, but in my experience literature provides many different openings for bringing the next generation of citizens to reflect on the world that they live in, as well as to appreciate the power of great literature.

Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative

February 12, 2014

9780142437162When I think about racism, I find myself mostly wondering about its origins: somewhere it seems to be rooted in a deep-seated fear of what is different, and the potential threat that might present; understandable, perhaps, in a less secure past, but less so nowadays. And yet who cannot, at some time, have felt anxious, uncertain, when faced with something, someone different, who we cannot immediately understand, and fit into the ways we make sense of the world?

Olaudah Equiano was an African, free man, captured and sold into slavery in the late eighteenth century, and he tells his story in this book. His account of his childhood and younger days in an African village, of their customs and habits, is fascinating, and full of a sense of innocence, naivete even: their lives are simple and in tune with nature; they do not want for anything.

After his enslavement, his is an adventurous life at sea. His condition is not as straightened and cruel as we are used to read about in accounts of slavery, but he is nevertheless clearly owned, and controlled by a master, and subject to his every whim; masters change as he is bought and sold, and their consideration and cruelty vary. Equiano paints a clear picture of the actual experience of slavery, the conditions, the treatment, the circumscribed relations with other people, and their attitudes to people of another race who they believe to be less than human. Slaves enjoy a limbo status and are fair game for exploitation, cheating and general underhand behaviour.

Equiano succeeds, through his skills as a seaman and the trust he inspires in his owners, in eventually saving the money to purchase his freedom, though this is not the end of his travails: as a free black man, he is still unequal in the eyes of the law and fair game for cheating whites who know what they can get away with. His story unfolds against the growing agitation in Britain for an end to the slave trade, and when he acquires his freedom, he devotes his energies to this cause, although he dies before it is achieved.

The least satisfactory aspect to his making his way in the world of the white man is his acquisition of religion: his discovery of the doctrines of predestination and the fears this caused him, saddened me. And overall, throughout the book, is his sense of inferiority, and his need to be grateful to white men for whatever he has managed to achieve; truly here is a picture of the most evil aspects of racism.

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