Colonialism Isn’t Just a River in Egypt, You Know: “A Fan’s Notes”

Colonialism Isn’t Just a River in Egypt, You Know: “A Fan’s Notes” April 12, 2014

on white supremacy as a form of “I like thinking about it” addictive denial. All the racial stuff in this book is really fascinating. IMO this specific passage gains power from the cartoonishness of the black characters–they’re fantasy figures dancing through the sickened imaginations of the (also cartoony) white man–although at least one of the black characters in AFN is only as cartoonish as the whites. Anyway there’s so much in this passage about the nature of white racial fantasy, addiction, imagination generally; about despair and how easily it turns outward, about self-aggrandizement and how easily it interlaces with self-hatred; I love the layers of dreaming (“reality” just means the topmost layer of fantasy) and the sense of being righteously yet pointlessly set apart.

For fifteen years I carried a recurring vision of myself. I was somewhere in Africa (Rhodesia?), sitting in a rocking chair on the screened verandah of an imposing, two-storied clapboard building of brilliant white, an English colonialists’ club. My hair was neatly trimmed, my face tanned and clean-shaven. Wearing a Palm Beach suit so snowy it glistened, I also had on a pale-blue shirt, a regimental necktie of maroon and gold, and immaculate white patent-leather Oxfords. In my right hand I held a tall iced drink whose cloudy, perspiring, and thinly cylindrical glass I brought infrequently and abstractedly to my lips, to take there the most absurdly delicate sips. My expression was ironical. In it there was a suggestion of amusement, directed, it seemed, as much against myself as against anything or anyone about me, as though I were taking myself not quite seriously, cum grano salis.

Nobody at the club knew who I was. Or where I came from. Or for that matter even the sound of my voice. There was a time when English voices had invited me to sit at bridge or to exchange my name for theirs; but to these discreet overtures I had neither responded nor looked up from my interminably rocking chair. After a time everyone ceased to bother with me and I became a human fixture on the screened verandah, rocking, silent, sipping, enigmatic. In the expansive, cool rooms behind me I heard the bidding of bridge–two hearts, pass, three spades; heard the talk of cricket; heard the khaki-shorted, mustachioed gentry ordering their scotch and sodas. Over the wide lawns, to my left, the young folks, their sturdy legs glistening in the sun, played at tennis and swam in a great blue-green pool, shouting gaily to one another. The timbre of their voices was euphorically English, so soothing and civilized. From in front of me, indeed from all about me–from out there in that vast and harshly beautiful land–came still another sound, one compounded of suffering and rage and humiliation. The latter was, of course, the sound of Black Africa; and my irony, my amusement, my infuriating smugness were caused in no small measure by the knowledge that I was apparently the only one who heard this other sound. It was as if those others were deaf. Or dead. They played at bridge and tennis, they talked cricket and sipped at scotch and sodas; and a young girl, ready to dive, stood poised on a board above the blue pool, her thighs in the sun so lovely that one wanted to transform the vision to find one’s head resting in her maidenly lap. Constantly one yearned to dispel the reality in favor of the idyllic. But then that other sound would come, that wail.

For the life of me I could never fathom why I did not get up and walk away before it was too late. The augurs were unmistakable. Occasionally the din grew to an almost clanging howl (I peeped about to see if anyone was hearing: alas!), a great anguished wail signaling the world’s modification, regroupings, new beginnings. Still I remained glued to my chair.

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