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Race in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Set in the African Congo during the late 1950s through the 1980s, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, tells the story of the struggles of the Price family and the high price of independence for the African nation itself. Center to the story and the conflict between the characters is the idea of race. The Prices, a white Baptist family from the American South, come from a country that preached freedom and equality but still allowed segregation and hatred in its own racial interactions.

In Kilanga, the Prices are forced to confront not only their own racism but to think beyond what they know of race and culture to formulate new ideas. While the father, Nathan Price, remains just a character in the women’s narratives, each of the sisters reveal how in confronting Africa they are forced to see their own country’s hypocritical race relations. In particular, as Leah and Rachel grow into women with their lives taking them in different directions, they each come to represent a different way of looking at race.

Ruth May, dead in the jungle from a fatal snake bite, also illustrates how the impressions of the world become ingrained on the minds of the young, even as their own actions and beliefs of race are still unformed. In this essay, I will examine how Kingsolver uses the experiences of these three Price sisters in Kilanga to illustrate how ideas of race are formed, challenged, and either abandoned or strengthened by the world around us. Ruth May, the youngest of the Price sisters and the one who never leaves Kilanga, is impressionable but too young yet to have the convictions of the racism of the Southern society she leaves behind.

She absorbs the words of her father and has a basic understanding of the separation between the races in America. In her first impressions of the villagers of Kilanga Ruth May most clearly expresses the beliefs of the society she’s left behind, “Back home in Georgia they have their own school so they won’t go strutting into Rachel’s and Leah and Adah’s school” (20). She knows the rules of racial segregation from the lessons she’s been taught in church and in the examples of Jim Crow laws she observes, “The man in church said they’re different from us and needs ought to keep to their own.

Jimmy Crow says that, and he makes the laws. They don’t come in the White Castle restaurant where mama takes us to get Cokes either, or the Zoo. Their day for the Zoo is Thursday. That’s in the Bible” (20). Though Ruth May knows the rules of segregation, when it comes to describing the reasoning behind it, she becomes a parrot instead of a believer. The idea of Africans and African Americans being the descendants of Ham as a reason for their being enslaved and oppressed is just an idea to Ruth May.

Ruth May is the first of the Price family to make inroads with the villagers, playing “mother-may-I” with the village children. Even though she understands the separations that define Georgia’s race relations, she doesn’t see any inconsistencies with her friendship with the African children of Kilanga and the lessons she’s been taught back home. In fact, more than anyone, Ruth May seems to understand that those rules are suspended in this new place, “Anything that ever was white is not white here. That is not a color you see” (50).

Even though she is talking about the shoes of a village girl, Ruth May could be talking about the suspended idea of her family’s superiority in this new place where they struggle with even the most basic of tasks such as farming or collecting water. Kilanga is not the world she left behind. The Prices may be white but that does not guarantee their survival and after Independence it becomes a liability. The same rules of race no longer apply. In the African jungle, the whiteness of the Prices is an oddity, “They all stare at us” (52).

She sees that her family does not belong but still carves the biggest niche in the hearts of the villagers. Ruth May’s naive understanding of the humanity of the villagers is the reason why, when she dies, she is mourned by the village and its children. Leah Price comes to the jungles of the Congo as a tomboy, devoted to her father and his perspectives of the world. Unlike Ruth May she is old enough to understand the inconsistencies of what she has been told but like Ruth May has seemed to accept it as the way of the world.

Only fifteen when she arrives, Leah grows into womanhood in the arduous year that begins with a lackluster reception from the people of Kilanga and ends with her family’s “exodus” (Kingsolver 383) out of the jungle. In that time, she moves from having absolute faith in her father, her God, and her country to doubting and questioning them all. While Leah does not express the same level of race consciousness, or self-consciousness, of Rachel or the naive parroting of racist ideology expressed by Ruth May, Leah is still aware of the differences of race between herself and the villagers of Kilanga.

However, this awareness doesn’t really become a dominant idea until later and for a while she stubbornly clings to the ideals of Christianity she’s been taught by her father. After Anatole has dinner with the Prices and tells them of his life, Leah speculates on the reality of the stories he told of the rubber plantations, “I read in a book that they cut off the workers’ hands if they hadn’t collected enough rubber by the end of the day. The Belgian foreman would bring baskets full of brown hands back to the boss, piled up like a mess of fish. Could this be true of civilized white Christians” (144).

It isn’t until later that Leah finally confronts the hypocrisy of the idea of civilization. The sight and sounds of Patrice Lumumba’s inauguration, as well as seeing Leopoldville after the perspective of Kilanga. Listening to Lumumba talk against the poverty of the blacks of the Congo and the wealth of the Belgians and other white groups, Leah sees the truth in what he says to the crowd, “Leopoldville is a nice little town of dandy houses with porches and flowery yards on nice paved streets for the whites, and surrounding it, for miles, and miles, nothing but dusty run-down shacks for the Congolese.

They make their homes out of sticks or tin or anything else they can find. Father said that is the Belgians’ doing and Americans would never stand for this kind of unequal treatment” (183). Later, as her friendship with Anatole is developing, Leah realizes the problems with her father’s reasoning, “Maybe I was foolish to believe him. There were shanties just as poor in Georgia, on the edge of Atlanta, where black and white divided, and that was smack in the middle of America” (232).

Understanding this, Leah has a signifigant racial awakening. Her experiences in Kilanga have disproved all she’s been taught about race and America. Without the innocence of Ruth May, Leah’s life and personality are changed by this realization. She can’t go back to ignorance, pretending that race has ever been anything but a tool of oppression, and she never goes back to Georgia. While she lives with the guilt of having white skin, she cannot leave this new understanding and world behind.

Rachel Price, the oldest of the Price sisters, has no qualms with leaving her experiences in Kilanga behind. Rachel always sees the Congo through the eyes of the girl she was back in Georgia. When they first arrive, Rachel mistakes the mismatched clothes of the villagers as a sign of bad taste rather than the harsh poverty it really was, “Children dressed up in the ragbags of Baptist charity or nothing at all. Color coordination is not a strong point. Grown men and women seem to think a red plaid and a pink floral print a complimentary patterns” (43).

At sixteen, Rachel is more snob than racist but she has the willful ignorance of racism. She chooses to ignore it and the Jim Crow system, noting only briefly throughout the first part of the book about the race relations in Georgia. Unlike Ruth May and Leah, who immediately grasp that being white makes them the minority, Rachel sees the initial interest of the villagers in her unusual hair as jealousy, “they are so envious of mine they frequently walk up boldly and give it a yank” (48).

Later she comes to understand that the villagers do not think her hair is real but rather than trying to understand the cultural and differences of racial identity of the villagers compared to herself, Rachel becomes resentful. Throughout her stay in Kilanga, Rachel doesn’t waiver from her feelings of superiority. While when she is a teenager, these are never expressed as a feelings on race, Rachel comes to rely on the racist system of colonialism to construct her life. Later when she lives in South Africa with Axelroot, the apartheid system suits her needs perfectly.

In the end, rather than reexamining her ideas on race, like Leah, or just accepting the new world around her as it is, like Ruth May, Rachel builds a wall around herself and chooses to remain ignorant of the race question all together. When the Price girls leave Kilanga, with the exception of Ruth May, they each carry their new experiences and awareness of race on their shoulders. For Leah, this awareness gives her a freedom to love Anatole but also the guilt of her own racial associations. Rachel has used the tragedies of her family to build a higher wall of resistance to change.

She is glad to belong to any civilization, without conscience, as long as she can preserve herself. Her experiences have turned Rachel’s once easy acceptance into a willed blindness. Ruth May, left behind to be buried in the jungle, is bothered by neither. In her character there is the closest thing to an easy transition from racial ignorance to enlightenment. Whether changed for the better or the worst, in the end, like the Congo itself, none of the Price girls leave Kilanga untouched. Works Cited Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

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