28 pages 56 minutes read

James Baldwin

Stranger in the Village

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Stranger in the Village”

James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village,” examines the author’s experiences in a Swiss village in order to shed light on racism in the United States. Baldwin (1924-1987) was an influential African American essayist, novelist, and short story writer. He was raised in Harlem—the city which appears as a contrasting backdrop in “Stranger in the Village”—and became an intellectual leader in the United States during the civil rights movement, though he spent much of his adult life abroad in Europe.

First published in the October 1953 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Stranger in the Village” also concludes Baldwin’s first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955). This guide refers to the first edition printing of Notes of a Native Son from Beacon Press, which can be found online or in Baldwin’s Collected Essays, published by the Library of America in 1998.

Content Warning: This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word. The source material contains instances of racism.

Baldwin begins the text by establishing the profoundly different way he is treated because of his race when he arrives at a small Swiss village. He paints the scene of the village—without a movie theater, bank, or library—whose claim to fame is a hot spring. The children in the village chant “Neger! Neger!” at Baldwin as he walks along, and Baldwin finds this so shocking he doesn’t at first know how to respond. Although he thinks they mean no harm, the effect is his sense that the villagers treat him as a wonder rather than as a human.

The village church has a custom “of ‘buying’ African natives for the purpose of converting them to Christianity” (120). Baldwin thinks of his father, whose conversion to Christianity heavily influenced his childhood. He imagines the first time white people are seen in an African village, and contrasts it with being the first Black man seen by white people. The two imagined scenarios are inherently unequal because white people presume their superiority when they enter Africa, with their mission of conquering and converting.

Baldwin explores how the villagers treat him in order to emphasize, by contrast, the more complex relationship between white and Black Americans. These villagers know nothing of America, yet they are innately part of Western civilization, which endows them with authority and privilege, however unconscious. They can never understand the rage felt by the oppressed, which Baldwin says is both useless and inevitable. This rage stems from white people’s refusal to recognize Black people’s humanity. Baldwin emphasizes the fact that white people’s ignorance in this matter is willful. They find it easier to remain ignorant than face the crimes committed by their ancestors, neighbors, and selves. White people don’t want to be hated, but they also don’t want to lose their privilege. In response to their conflicting desires, white people have created myths about the character and inhumanity of Black people. They see Black people as beyond salvation, Baldwin argues, in an attempt to remove these moral contradictions from their conscious awareness.

Baldwin returns his focus to the Swiss village, qualifying an earlier claim that he remains as much a stranger in the village in the narrative present as he was when he first arrived. He describes how the villagers have shifted in their approaches to him. They are less interested in superficial features like his hair and are more concerned with him as a person. There exists a gulf, Baldwin contends, between the Swiss children calling him “Neger!” and the American children in New York City calling him the n-word. In the Swiss village, some children now make overtures of friendship toward him, but others scream when he approaches because they’ve been taught the devil is a Black man. Some women are friendly, but others avoid him. Some men are kind, but others accuse him of thievery. Baldwin sees paranoia and malevolence in the eyes of those accusers, akin to what he sometimes sees in the eyes of white American men.

The difference between Baldwin’s treatment in the village and in the US revolves around history. In the village, the presence of Black people is new. In the US, by contrast, the history of Black people’s presence and status has created a war within the American soul (124). The conflict in the American soul is integral to American culture, and it began, Baldwin says, with “the promptness with which [white people] decided that these [enslaved] black men were not really men but cattle” (124). This idea, first formed in Europe, was bolstered in the US as a necessity for justifying slavery. The institution of slavery in the US differs from any other in history for two reasons. Enslaved people in the US had to reason to believe they could ever wrest power from their enslavers, and having been separated from their homeland, they had no connection to their former lives, in which would their identity would be maintained.

In Europe, Baldwin expounds, the colonies and slavery remained a distant thought; in the US they were a present reality. Even though much of white American culture and thought is derived from European culture and thought, Europe did not face the “problem” of Black people’s humanity in the way that the US did. White supremacy, Baldwin writes, comes from the belief that white men created civilization and therefore must be the guardians of civilization. To deny Black people their humanity, white supremacy must construct pathological rationalizations as part of an untenable irrationality.

The problem for white people, as Baldwin frames it, is finding a way to live with Black people and with their own moral hypocrisy. Baldwin mentions several strategies implemented in the US up to the 1950s, including “lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession” (127). These strategies were the result of white people trying to avoid or get around the issue of acknowledging Black humanity.

Where white people are attempting to defend their identities, Baldwin explains, Black people are in the position of trying to create an identity. Baldwin proclaims victory on this front, despite the many setbacks, disturbances, and attacks on Black Americans. Black Americans aren’t visitors to the West, but American citizens; they belong to the US as much as white people do. Black people bring a unique and invaluable perspective to the Western world. For instance, Baldwin analyzes how he feels when he stands before the cathedral at Chartres: The cathedral “says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them” (128). By acknowledging the myths that white people have produced about Black people, Baldwin argues, it becomes possible to alter what the myths say.

While the Black American identity was shaped by a complete estrangement from its past, Baldwin continues, many white Americans wish to return to a state from their history in which Black people weren’t a part of their conscious awareness. Baldwin calls this idea of “recovering the European innocence” an illusion (129). This impossible, Baldwin claims. Trying to retain innocence in this way changes one into a monster. Both Black and white people have been fundamentally changed by their relationship in the US. No American can look at Black people as strangers the way the Swiss villagers look at Baldwin, he insists. The US is not white but mixed-race, Baldwin concludes, and its inhabitants must recognize this fact in order to move forward.

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