As an English major, my professors and peers generally occupy the left end of the American political spectrum – meaning that they will vote for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, along with a few Green Party hopefuls.
With that being said, when my British Literature professor had my 8:30a.m. class read a work of post-colonial literature to finish off the semester, I was really excited. She had us commemorate activist and author Wole Soyinka’s thirty-year anniversary of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature by reading his play, Death and the King's Horseman. Unsurprisingly, the play polarised my class just as today’s politics polarises the general public.
The play deals with death and ritual suicide, but a colonial factor pervasively enters the forefront of any reader's mind. Soyinka warns against reading the play as solely a clash of cultures, but in a way, this is not possible because of the white British characters strategically placed in the narrative.
When discussing the play in class, my professor turned our attention to a scene in Act Four because of a singular conversation between a white, ethnocentric woman, Jane, and a British-educated Yoruban man, Olunde. Olunde's father, Elesin (literally meaning the king's horseman), must perform ritual suicide because in their Yoruban spirituality, Elesin must guide his king into the afterlife to maintain the cosmos and fulfill the duty contained in his namesake.
Olunde, during the conversation, defends his father, but Jane denounces this ritual suicide as a “barbaric custom.” Olunde tries to convince Jane otherwise, saying that his father’s death fulfills a divine obligation, but Jane will not, and cannot understand, saying that Olunde is “just savage like all the rest.”
Opening the class conversation was a white man in his twenties seated far across from me on the other side of the room. He sided with Jane. He thought Olunde verbally abused her, that she was correct to “call out how-do-you-say-his-name, Olunde” on his beliefs.
Now, as a female feminist, I’m all for girl power, for women’s rights, and eliminating the second-sex factor, but I could not see his viewpoint as valid. The text did not suggest anything of the sort. Olunde stood his ground because Jane called him a “savage” and his beliefs “barbaric.”
I fired back at him under the slim covering of academic jargon. I basically said I could not stand for Jane’s obvious Eurocentric ethnocentrism, nor the championing of it by a white man of privilege. He, like Jane did not respect what he did not understand.
I too am guilty of not thinking of the other interpretations, but surely, as anthropologists have said time and time again, there is no such thing as a “savage” or “barbaric” custom or way of life.
And of course, all of this has bearing on the politics of America. Ted Cruz and John Kasich just dropped out of the presidential race because of Donald Trump. Trump leads the giant wresting match taking place in my country because people do not take the time to think. My culture does not value those who devote time to bettering their internal selves. Americans value those who run marathons, have material wealth, produce “stuff” because their “success” can be seen and evaluated. Often those who read, meditate, or educate themselves cannot outwardly communicate how they’ve grown as individuals, so their progress cannot be measured or appreciated, going unnoticed.
If we are not presented with new information, with knowledge that challenges our own beliefs, then we become radicalised. We become the guy on the other side of the room who can’t see his own white privilege and ethnocentrism. We become Donald Trump running on basal fears and racism. But, most importantly, we become ignorant. Humans have a propensity to gravitate towards their own predilections, a tendency psychologists call confirmation bias. In both our classrooms and our national elections, we would do better to work against it.