Racism as Major Theme in Doris Lessing's The Grass Is Singing
Compiled by M. Zayed
NB this article is made exclusively, like the rest of the website, free of charge for your own benefit; please when you use it cite me as your reference; it took much effort and reading through through the whole novel in depth. Have a wonderful day.
Part one: Definition and Background of Racism
First of all, Racism is Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior or the belief that all members of a certain race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race as to distinguish it as superior to another race.
The term racism is a noun describing the state of being racist. Racism is a particular form of oppression. It stems from discrimination against a group of people based on the idea that some inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes them inferior to their oppressors. In one of Karl Mark’s books he says: “What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other.”
The Nineteenth century was an age of emancipation, colonialism, and imperialism--all of which contributed to the growth and intensification of ideological racism in Europe. The Darwinian emphasis on "the struggle for existence" and concern for "the survival of the fittest" was conducive to the development of a new and more credible scientific racism in an era that increasingly viewed race relations as an arena for conflict rather than as a stable hierarchy.
The climax of Western imperialism in the late nineteenth century "scramble for Africa" and parts of Asia and the Pacific represented an assertion of ethnic racism that was led by the British Empire. The one racist regime that survived the Second World War and the Cold War was the South African in 1948. Racism and colonization were interrelated. Racism was used to justify colonialism. It imposed and produced the conquest of African nations.
In the colonial imagination Africans had to move from their "primitive" existence to a modern European one. Africans were seen as primitive and backward in development due to the racist ideas of Social Darwinism. The relationship between the colonized and colonizer was mediated by race and a system of racism that disadvantaged Blacks. With the enactment of apartheid laws in 1948, racial discrimination was institutionalized.
Part Two: Racism in Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing:
(1) The White Society and Its Attitude towards Mary’s Murder:
In chapter one of the novel, we notice what I have called ‘strange attitude of white people’ towards the killing of a fellow white woman. From the first page of chapter one till the whole story of the life and death of Mary Turner is told, we are confused as to why in such a racist society would white people not feel sympathy for the murder of Mary Turner who is supposed to be a member of the white society in Black Africa.
On describing people’s reaction to Mary’s murder, Lessing says: “People all over the country… felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed…something expected.” She continues: “the murder was simply not discussed. ‘A bad business.’ Someone would remark: and the faces of the people round about would put on that reserved and guarded look.” Lessing says on Mary’s murder and white society reaction to it: “The most interesting thing about the whole affair was the silent, unconscious agreement… The Turners were disliked, though few of their neighbours had ever met them.”
“What had they got to be stuck-up about? What indeed!” The answer to that question of the first chapter is conveyed throughout the whole novel when we are told the story of Mary and Dick Turner and why people later did not sympathise with them when Mary is killed and Dick is driven into Madness and all is lost.
We are told the story of Racism, the story of Black Africa ruled by the ‘superior white people’. The environment of the novel is a mere racist one where a number of written and unwritten rules govern this society. These rules are to be obeyed by both the oppressor white and the oppressed black. A white man has the upper hand all the time while the black ‘animal’ is being victimized all the time.
This is how the story goes. We have a white family, the Turners, a poor family of Mary and Dick Turner. Like all the other white families in South Africa, they have black servants doing all their jobs for them.
Lessing says: ”one never had contact with natives, except in the master-servant relationship, one never knew them in their lives, as human beings.” The unwritten rules include that a native all the time must keep his eyes on the ground and never meet the eyes of his masters; that is known as the ‘native code of politeness not to look a superior in the face’. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be afraid of natives. A native is supposed to ‘follow his master like a scared dog’.
White society deals with natives as ‘black savages’ that ought to work like machines and never complain. ‘Whenever two or three farmers are gathered together, it is decreed that they should discuss nothing but the shortcomings and deficiencies of their natives. They talk about their natives with a persistent irritation sounding in their voices: they loathe them to the point of neurosis.” Natives are being looked at as ‘monkeys’.
“Most white people think it is ‘cheek’ if a native speaks English… The biggest grievance of the white farmer is that he is not allowed to strike his natives.” A white man has behind him the police, the courts, the jails; while a native has nothing but patience. A taken for granted saying among white people is that “you can’t trust niggers further than you can kick them.”
One of the most significant quotations that summarises how white society sees the natives is the following: “He was unimportant: he was the constant, the black man who will thieve, rape and murder, if given half a chance.” Then we are struck with the reason why White society acted in this senseless way towards Mary’s murder. Lessing says: “White civilization will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly a white woman, can have a human relationship with a black person.”
That is the red line which Mary Turner crossed. She allowed herself to indulge into a human relationship with Moses, her black servant. Hence, she broke all the written and unwritten rule that is primarily based on the color bar ruling this society. This color bar manifests itself when Lessing describes how Dick Turner deals with his native workers, she says: “He [Dick] knew how to get on with natives; dealing with them was a sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying game in which both followed certain unwritten rules.”
A native, as expected, ‘behaved as if he were an abstraction, not really there, a machine without a soul’. A native should only “be taught the dignity of labour and general usefulness to the white man’. He ‘should not be taught to read and write’.
Every white man must obey the dictate of the first law of white South Africa which is “Thou shalt not let your fellow whites sink lower than a certain point; because if you do, the nigger will see he is as good as you are”. Whenever a white woman is involved in a relation with a black man, it is taken for granted that it is the same as having a relation with an animal, in spite of his [the native] ‘progressiveness’ and that is what Tony Marston thought it be.
The following quotation gives us the clear explanation as to why white society reacted in such an indifferent, anger mixed with satisfaction way towards Mary’s murder on the hands of Moses, her native house boy. “What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being, his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip.”
That is why white society felt indifferent and senseless and even satisfied towards Mary’s murder because as a white woman, she let herself get involved in a relation with her native boy Moses. By doing that, she broke all the rules and bars abiding and keeping the white society in South Africa. As soon as the white society felt threatened by Mary’s deeds, they treated her as an outcast that deserved what befell her.
(2) Mary and the Natives & Moses in Particular
Mary had despised natives since the first moment she moved with Dick to the farm-house. And even before getting married, she was brought up, just like other white women, to the belief that the natives were nasty and might do horrible things to her.
Since the first encounter with her first house-boy Samson, this deep hatred for natives is expressed. Lessing says: “she [Mary] felt that she would like to pick up a plate and throw it in his face as to make it human and expressive, even with pain”. Then, Lessing describes Mary’s treatment with the natives, she says: “with the natives she was a virago.”
Mary had always the worst thoughts of natives, especially her houseboys. “And all the time, at the back of her mind, was the thought that the new servant was alone in the house and probably getting up to all sorts of mischief. He was certainly stealing…” She had deep hatred against all natives with no exceptions. “If she disliked the native men, she loathed the women. She hated the exposed flatness of them, their soft brown bodies and soft bashful faces that were also insolent and inquisitive….She could not bear to see them sitting on the grass… they were alien and primitive creatures with ugly desires she could not bear to think about… The children hung to their mothers’ backs like monkeys, Mary thought”. To her, they were “evil-smelling creatures”.
She never thought of the natives as human, the following is one of the significant quotations that shows Mary’s attitude towards her native house boy: “she heard the boy complain [to Dick] that he had been working since five o’clock that morning with no food at all”.
“Mary just could not get on with natives, and that was the end of it… she was made like that, and could not be altered.” When Dick got Malaria and was in poor condition, ‘she had to crush down violent repugnance to the idea of facing the farm natives herself’.
“She was so bad with natives… When one of the men paused for a moment in his work to rest or to wipe the running sweat from his eyes, she waited one minute by her watch, and then called sharply to him to begin again”.
Her first encounter with Moses was a dramatic one. Before becoming her house boy, he was then a farm boy at the farm at the time when Mary was in charge of the farm. When Moses was working on the farm, he took a rest for more than the one minute that Mary stated. He also spoke in English to her. So, “involuntarily she lifted her whip and brought it down across his face… A thick weal pushed up along the dark skin of the cheek as she looked, and from it a drop of bright blood gathered and trickled down and off his chin”.
She used to tell Dick whenever he told her to take it easy with the native workers: “If I had my way, I’d keep them in order with the whip”. She could not speak to a native without irritation in her voice. Whenever Moses was at the house, ‘she felt uneasy in his presence’. Yet she treated him differently unlike all the other house boys. “She was as impersonal as she knew how to be; so impersonal that her voice was free, for a while even of the usual undertone of irritation” for she always remembered their first dramatic encounter and how she was terrified that he would do something to her.
Yet, “she could have screamed or thrown a glass across the room to smash on the wall. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that she could give him to do”. “When she remembered the dark resentful look of that native [Moses] as he stood waiting for her to leave, she felt as if she had put her hand on a snake.”
As time passed by, Mary felt helplessly in Moses’s power. There was now a new relation between them. “Her feeling was one of a strong and irrational fear, a deep uneasiness, and even of some dark attraction”. By the end of the novel, When Mr Slatter came to visit the Turners, the human relationship between Mary and Moses clearly manifested itself. “When the native came to clear the dishes there was an incident that caused him [Mr Slatter] to grind his teeth go white with anger… it was the tone of Mary’s voice when she spoke to the native that jarred on him: she was speaking to him with exactly the same flirtatious coyness with which she had spoken to himself… the native replied, with a rough offhand rudeness…with a note of self-satisfaction”.
Then Mr Slatter said to her: “Why don’t you get rid of him? Why do you let him speak to you like that?” At this moment, the clash between White Civilisation represented in Mr Slatter and Mary began.
Also, by the end of the novel, Tony Marston, who is now the new house manager, is struck motionless by surprise when Mary was sitting in her room as Moses was helping her getting dressed. This situation gives us the explanation as to why white society felt indifferent towards Mary’s death since she broke all their rules. “She behaves simply as if she lives in a world of her own, where other people’s standards don’t count. She has forgotten what her own people are like”.
In conclusion, both the white society attitude towards Mary’s murder and Mary’s way with the natives are to confirm the theme of Racism as the major theme of the novel.
To the one who bestowed upon me the love of literature, to you dearest prof. Ghada.
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