Stranger in the Village is James Baldwin’s final essay in his collection Notes of a Native Son published in 1955 when he was 31. The essay details his time in a small Swiss village around four hours from Milan. It soon became clear that many, if not all, the white villagers had never met a black man before. Their reactions ranged from fascination to suspicion and he describes how some of the children would try to touch his skin and hair. He found the behaviour shocking and writes that while “there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.” Unlike his experiences of racism in the US that sought to dehumanise him through violence and debasement, the racism of the Swiss villagers dehumanised him through ignorance.
Their ignorance stemmed from their ability to live their lives totally unaware of black people as real people and of the legacies of European colonialism. Yet it was precisely from Europe that colonialists and empire builders went forth, inflicting genocide, slavery and conquest over so many of the world’s countries. Baldwin notes that inherent to this colonisation was the idea of white supremacy, “that white men are the creators of civilisations…and are therefore civilisation’s guardians and defenders.” Crucial to Baldwin’s essay is the reminder (or lesson) that white supremacy is a European idea.
I was never taught this lesson, in fact, I was schooled in white supremacy. I grew up in an almost exclusively white village, went to almost exclusively white private schools and studied at a predominantly white university (Oxford). Throughout my life I have been taught racism: in the colonial propaganda that passed as history, the privilege to never have to think of the colour of my skin and the prejudice I was encouraged to show towards people with darker skin. I was told the world was my oyster. As Baldwin wrote of the Swiss villagers, “these people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it.” I have never been made to feel like a stranger because I am a child of empire. I have inherited white supremacy and, as I re-educate myself, so I learn of the history of European colonialism, upon which so much of the ‘modern’ world was founded. Whether we learn our lessons or not is one of the crucial questions facing white people. Whether we choose to defend the legacies of oppression and its statues, or whether we stand with Black people and make space for the healing of traumas inflicted by white supremacy. Fortunately, as statues fall, syllabi are changed, police are defunded, we know that change is possible. Here’s to a world in which no one is a stranger.
This post only deals with a fraction of Baldwin’s essay and I recommend you read it for yourself along with his other great works.