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Shannon Chelette

October 20, 2011

Professor Magie


African Americans:

Strangers in America; the Place that They Call Home

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York in 1924 and developed his interest in writing as a

young teenager. He wrote his book Notes of a Native Son in 1955; the same book from which his essay

“Stranger in the Village” comes from. In 1953, Baldwin traveled to a small Swiss village, where he was

seen as a stranger in the eyes of the villagers. Coming from America, where he was seen as an unwanted

outsider by most of the white population, Baldwin expected to be seen the same way in that small

village as he was back home in America. In his “Stranger in the Village” essay, author James Baldwin

argues that all African Americans are seen as strangers in the eyes of most fair-skinned races; whether

they are in America, surrounded by the idea of white supremacy, or in a tiny Swiss village where a black

man was unheard of, they were still seen as strangers. But these strangers have worked their way up to

equality, and on their way, they have created a more colorful America and have forced white men to

accept them as equals.

Taking his first steps onto the foreign Swiss soil, Baldwin knew what type of a reaction

he would get from the villagers: surprise. The first summer that he visited the village, the villagers

seemed fascinated by his appearance. Could his wiry hair be turned into a coat? Would the color of his

skin rub off on theirs? Although their actions were not intended to be unkind, the villagers wonderment

made Baldwin feel like he “was simply a living wonder” (Baldwin 4) and not a regular human being.

When the Swiss children called him Neger, Baldwin couldn’t help but feel the pain that that one simple
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word brought upon him. Although the word is a connotation of the one that he was used to hearing on

the streets of New York, it was still hard for Baldwin to grasp the idea that the children meant no harm

by his new nickname, unlike the New Yorkers did. That first summer in Switzerland, Baldwin stayed for

two weeks and didn’t imagine that he would ever come back. However, he returned the following

winter, still as much of a stranger as he was when he first stepped foot onto the foreign land. Yes, they

may have known his name, although they rarely used it; but the villagers seemed to have stamped a

black mask onto Baldwin’s face; a mask that showed only the darkness of his skin, and hid the fact that

he was just like an average human.

Buying African natives in order to convert them to Christianity was a custom in the Swiss

village where Baldwin stayed. There was a box in the church where villagers donated spare francs, and a

local carnival where little Swiss boys, with their faces painted black, solicited around the village with a

donation box, collecting money to help the village pay for the African natives. It was hard for Baldwin to

think about the price that these kinsmen had to pay. In his essay, Baldwin talks about the difference

between a white man arriving in an African village, and a black man arriving in a white village. Walking

through an African village, white men felt powerful over the Africans, and had intentions of conquering

and converting them as well. But on the other hand, when Baldwin arrived in the Swiss village, he

couldn’t help but feel that their culture was controlling him, and in a way, enraged him as well. In his

essay, Baldwin says that “the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison” (Baldwin

para. 7) his heart. In the village, Baldwin tried to maintain a friendly façade, but he couldn’t help but feel

controlled by the European culture around him. Although the villagers may not realize it, they were

never considered strangers anywhere throughout the entire world, unlike African Americans were. Like

Baldwin says in his essay, “Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory-but I am in Africa,

watching the conquerors arrive” (Baldwin para. 9). The ancestors of the Swiss villagers had never been

faced with the underdog status that Baldwin’s ancestors had been faced with. Baldwin’s relatives had
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always been seen as strangers while the villager’s relatives had not.

Almost all black men have an internal rage that is aimed towards the majority of the

white population. This rage is so strong that it cannot be hidden; only dissembled. The rage that they

have is caused from the white men’s heavy burden that they have placed in the lives of African

Americans; the same burden that has caused black men to have a feeling of hatred towards white men.

The white men do not want to be hated, nor do they want to recognize African Americans as human

beings instead of “exotic rarities” (Baldwin para. 11). When looking at African Americans, white men see

a black mask. But beneath each black mask lies a human being. What kind of human being? White men

wouldn’t be able to answer that question, due to the fact that they try to keep black men at a certain

distance, hoping to avoid any type of interaction. Sure, they may wonder what kind of human being is

beneath the black mask, but due to their unwillingness to change their beliefs about black men, their

wonders are to remain mysteries.

Going back to the village after his first visit, Baldwin’s invisible nametag

still said the same thing: stranger. Sure, he went out with some of the men in the village, and had

pleasant conversations with some of the women, but there were still many villagers who refused to

greet him, children who screamed in anguish as he walked by, and men who accused him of stealing. He

wasn’t necessarily an intruder, but he didn’t exactly fit in. In Europe, black men had never posed as a

problem. However, in America, the American Negro “was an inescapable part of the general social fabric

and no American could escape having an attitude toward him” (Baldwin para. 18). Americans beliefs are

based on European ones, whether Americans like to admit it or not, and since Europe had never had a

problem with black men, it is obvious that the Americans created the social drama with blacks all by

themselves. The social drama that they created was based on one idea: white supremacy; an idea that

went against the heritage of the West. What exactly is white supremacy? It is the idea that “white men

are the creators of civilization and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders” (Baldwin para.
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21). If white men began to see African Americans as Americans, they feared that it would jeopardize

their status as typical white men. The white men have yet come to the realization that African

Americans are, in fact, American citizens, just like them. White Americans have fought long and hard to

keep black men from developing identities in America. Unfortunately for them, they have long ago lost

their battle against black men.

The strangers of America have slowly peeled their nametags off, forcing white

men to see them as equal men, just of a different color. While the villagers in the small Swiss village can

look at Baldwin and consider him a stranger, Americans can no longer have the luxury of doing that.

Americans have been more involved in the lives of African Americans than any other group of people,

and vice versa. They were stubborn against the idea of blending together as a country, and giving

African Americans an identity besides being called strangers. The white men put up a tough front and

created the idea of white supremacy, but the American Negro was stronger, and he was able to break

down that barrier, and achieved his identity in America. Baldwin says it best when he says that “This

world is white no longer, and it will never be white again” (Baldwin para. 25).
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Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Stranger in the Village.” Beacon Press, 1955. Web 12 Oct 2011.


“James Baldwin About the Author.” American Masters., 29/11/2006. Web. 21 Oct 2011.