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Out of Africa, inside colonial thinking

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Karen Blixen seems never to have met a native who didn't remind her of an animal.  In Out of Africa, she wears out the animal kingdom in her comparisons, metaphors, analogies, or descriptors for black Kenyans.  Some examples:

What I learned from the game of the country, was useful to me in my dealings with the Native People.  p. 15-16.

[I]f you frightened [the Natives] they could withdraw into a world of their own, in a second, like the wild animals which at an abrupt movement from you are gone, -- simply not there.  p. 17

When we really did break into the Natives' existence, they behaved like ants, when you poke a stick into their anthill; they wiped out the damage with unwearied energy, swiftly and silently, - as if obliterating an unseemly action.  p. 18

Like the spurfowl
, the Natives might be mimicking a fear of us because of some other deeper dread the nature of which we could not guess. . . . It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. p. 18-19

[Kamante's] intelligence sometimes failed him, and he came and offered me a Kikuyu delicacy, - a roasted sweet potato or a lump of sheep's fat, - as even a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you, as a present.  p. 37

[The stork] followed Kamante about between the houses, and it was impossible not to believe that [the stork] was deliberately imitating Kamante's stiff measured walk.  Their legs were about the same thickness.  p. 60

[The mother and father of the deceased girl] sat down and waited outside my house.  They were poor people, small and underfed; they looked like a pair of badgers on my lawn.  p. 98-99

I was prepared for the appearance, a few days later, before my house, of the Nyeri people, who belonged to a low class of Kikuyu, and had all the look of three dirty and shaggy old Hyenas that had slunk one hundred and fifty miles upon Wamai's blood-track. . . . The three strangers sat on the stones with no more manifestation of life than three ticks upon a sheep.  p. 112

Kaninu also came round to my house late in the evening, like an old badger out reconnoitring, to sound me out about the child.  p. 125

[The Masai] were fighters who had been stopped fighting, a dying lion with his claws clipped, a castrated nation.  p. 126

[The Masai's] weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.  p. 129

[Giving Kinanjui alcohol] was like having shot an Elephant: by an act of yours a mighty and majestic creature, which has walked the earth, and held his own opinions of everything, is walking no more.  p. 138

[The Somalis'] relation to the Natives was nearly exactly that of the sheepdog to the sheep.  They watched [the Natives] untiringly, their sharp teeth bared.  p. 143

The juvenile Masai soldier-girls, very lively and pretty, came into my tent . . . . [and] always ask[ed] me for the loan of my hand-mirror, and, when they held it up to one another, they bared their two rows of shining teeth to the mirror, like angry young carnivora.  p. 259

Karomeny was very dar, with fine moist black eyes and thick eyelashes; . . . altogether much of the look of a small black Native bull-calf.  p. 295

Kanuthia . . . a slim young Kikuyu with the watchful eyes of a monkey, now . . . sat by the house like a sad and chilly monkey in a cage.  p. 342-343

It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take.  It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. . . . This applies in a higher degree to the primitive people than to the civilized, and animals again will wander back a long way, and go through danger and sufferings, to recover their lost identity, in the surroundings that they know.  p. 359-360

The old dark clear-eyed Native of Africa, and the old dark clear-eyed Elephant, - they are alike; you see them standing on the ground, weighty with such impressions of the world around them as have been slowly gathered and heaped up in their dim minds; they are themselves features of the land.  p. 362

When we met [the old Kikuyu woman] stood dead still, barring the path to me, staring at me in the exact manner of a Giraffe in a herd, that you will meet on the open plain, and which lives and feels and thinks in a manner unknowable to us.  p. 369

The consistency of her equating of black people with animals raises questions.  Was she racist?  Was she simply a cliched and unimaginative writer?  Was her thinking merely a function of the times?  Was her use of animals as parallels for black people - in her opinion - a compliment?  Did she see honor and value in one's existence evoking the animal world?  If so, why didn't she describe her colonist friends, like Berkley Cole or Denys Finch-Hatton, as animals?  (Others seem to have.  Llewelyn Powys, in Black Laughter, described a stand-in for Denys as "a sinuous-limbed dog-puma indolently sunning himself under the swaying palm-trees." p. 168.)

My own sense is that comparisons to animals, in and of themselves, are not necessarily invidious.  A black woman I know - in her poise, beauty and carriage - reminds me of a gazelle, and I think of the description as a compliment (perhaps because Song of Songs praises women thus); but, to be honest, most of the black women I know don't remind me of animals.  Tough business women, sweet grandmas; gorgeous, enthusiastic, boisterous and gentle friends; adorable, Puck-ish toddlers - these categories encompass most of the black women and girls I know.  

And this consistency in Karen Blixen's descriptions of black people is what gives me pause.  Every native - however much she likes or dislikes them, depends on them or finds them a burden - is like an animal; colonists she likes are not (her chapter on Berkley Cole is called "The Noble Pioneer," not "The Hawkish Pioneer" or "The Vulture Pioneer").  This divide suggests a pattern of organization in her thinking: natives and animals were categorized together - or closely - while white people were categorized in nearer proximity to classical music, painting, opera, ballet, and literature.  Nature for blacks; culture for whites.  

This structure to her perceptions isn't necessarily racism; indeed, it corresponds to her reality: black people lived in less developed environs in which wilderness was either predominant or ever threatening to dominate; white people were bringing gramophones, easels, brushes, paints and books into the same landscape.  

But not all white people were cultured - indeed, Karen Blixen's letters overflow with her distaste for the British "middle class" colonist; and this same variety no doubt existed among the black people with whom she interacted.  Her failure to see some blacks as "noble" - as Beryl Markham, for example, sees Arab Ruta, her closest servant - or to recognize the individual outstandingness of certain of her black cohorts - as Elspeth Huxley recognizes in Mbugwa ("a rarity in any country, and in any age," Forks and Hope, p. 171) - suggests a limitation in her capacity to appreciate black people as individual humans.  (Yes, she sees Farah as aristocratic, but she also refers to him as a "sheepdog"; yes, she says that Kamante is a "genius" in the kitchen, but she also - repeatedly - emphasizes that he was "never quite right in the head" p. 30).

In Out of Africa, Blixen's reliance on animals to parallel blacks betrays sentiments she made explicit in her letters:

I have come to realize that one of the greatest passions of my life is the relationship with my "black brother."  I also know that there are no representatives of this race that I personally could not do without, without the relationship being radically changed . . . .
Letter to Mary Bess Westenholz, 20 November 1928, Letters from Africa, p. 390.  To Karen Blixen, black people were - on a level that is unacceptable to us in our day and age - an undifferentiated mass.  "They" needed her and saw her as powerful, which she appreciated to such an extent that she made "them" the object of her passion; but "they" didn't include any individuals whose presence or absence could change this dynamic.  "They" were just like the game in the wildnerness; without "them," the landscape isn't as fascinating, but if you were to replace one impala with another, the switch wouldn't impair Karen Blixen's enjoyment of the scenery.  

Karen Blixen's honesty about her perspectives grants us - from the distance of a century - a valuable insight into colonial thinking in that era.  It also, by comparison to her contemporaries (Markham, Huxley, and others), reveals Karen Blixen's serious limitations as a human, surrounded by many others - white and black - who were able to transcend the narrow, constrained thinking that passed for received wisdom in the era.

Adventuress absolute

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Beryl Markham & Percival Gull.jpgWest with the Night is not as compelling as the persona it depicts of its author.  The book has no plot, and I'm a reader who loves plot.  It meanders non-chronologically through a series of testosterone-laden topics: flying, hunting, race horses . . . and then more on hunting and flying.  There's an entire chapter ("Royal Exile") written (mistakenly, in my perspective) from the point of view of a horse.  There's no mention of men she's loved, sex she's had, women friends who were important to her.  She doesn't mention her mother.  As Martha Gellhorn observes in her introduction, West with the Night leaves many questions unanswered (p. ix).

But whatever the failings of the book, I wanted to keep reading it because Beryl Markham comes through the text as so palpably fascinating a person.  I felt like I was having coffee with a person who, regardless of whether I liked her, transfixed me.  Not that Markham seems unlikable in the book . . . just remote.  Unknown.  Unbelievable.  She'd lived through a number of confrontations with lions, had been thrown from horses, trained champion thoroughbred racers, pioneered the use of planes in safaris, flew across the Atlantic by herself, wrote an elusive and fluid memoir -- how could a person of her many and varied talents, courage and insight exist?

West with the Night
is all voice.  Whether fact or fiction, her voice is so compelling that I wanted to keep listening.  Time after time in the course of reading, I was jolted by a frisson of recognition, identification or empathy:

"Oxygen to a sick miner.  But this flight is not heroic.  It is not even romantic.  It is a job of work, a job to be done at an uncomfortable hour with sleep in my eyes and half a grumble on my lips."  (p. 13.)

"It is really this that makes death so hard -- curiosity unsatisfied."  (p. 25.)

"He remained a man of mystery, without age or youth, but burdened with experience, like the wandering Jew."  (p. 61.)

"If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work."  (p. 153.)

"I have had responsibilities and work, dangers and pleasure, good friends, and a world without walls to live in."  (p. 239.)

"There is no hell like uncertainty."  (p. 255.)

"The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all."  (p. 283.)

Given how strongly Markham speaks to me, I am cautiously pessimistic about her fate: three times married and divorced, chronically impoverished, called a "high-grade bitch" by Ernest Hemingway, a man who fraternized with her friends; always distinct and apart.  I have no doubt that Beryl Markham had no regrets, but my own sake I wish her example was less severe.

(Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery)

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