The Dramatic Society had given an historical play in which Christopher Columbus was depicted among the aborigines of America. Christopher Columbus interested William not at all. Christopher Columbus was white, and looked exactly as the postman or William’s own father might look. But the aborigines! William could not take his eyes from them. Browned from head to foot… a lovely walnut brown. It made their eyes look queer and their teeth look queer. It must feel ripping. William decided then and there that his life’s happiness would never be complete till he had browned himself like that.
- Number: 3.8
- Published: 1923 (1922 in magazine form)
- Book: William Again
- Synopsis: The village is expecting a visit from a Borneon child it has supported, on the very day that William decides to black up.
We’re definitely veering towards slightly dodge territory with this one.
The Reverend Habbakuk Jones, a missionary with links to the village, is in the neighbourhood with a boy from Borneo who has been supported financially by the villagers for many years.
William, having been enthralled by the sight of Jones Major, Pinchin Major and Goggles blacked up in a school play, decides to follow suit.
The inevitable happens, as it often seems to in William’s village, and the darkened William is welcomed into the vicarage to tell stories of his upbringing in Borneo.
“William, what are you doing?” called Mrs Brown.
“I’m jus’ sittin’ in the garden an’ thinking, mother,” lied William, in a voice of honeyed wistfulness.
Mrs Brown, deeply touched, sought out her husband. “You know dear,” she said, “there’s something awfully sweet about William sometimes.”
But, dubious racial tropes aside, William does, accidentally, expose the villagers for the patronising orientalists that they are. Even the missionary proudly refers to him as a “child of the sun”.
Confidently addressing them in ‘foreign’ (“Blinkely men ong. Clemmeny fal tog”), he is met with sighs of appreciation and even feigned undertstanding:
“It’s certainly Hindustani,” said the Vicar’s wife. “It all comes back to me. My father was in India several years. Oh, the mystery of these dark-skinned races! The beautiful, inscrutable faces of them. The knowledge, the wisdom they seem to hold.”
She even begins ‘translating’ his utterances to the rest of the audience.
Only an innocent little girl present at the gathering sees through the whole thing, declaring straight away, “It’s William Brown!” – only to be silenced by her parent’s chiding, “How would you like to go to a strange far-away country and then have people say you were William Brown?”
He is eventually found out, of course, when his racial identity begins to shed itself with sweat. And then the real native protégé turns up and they fight.
I’m marking this one William comes out on top because even though he gets caught, he enjoys the tea, the fight and the whole experience – and exposes the grown-up world, not for the first time, as ignorant and hypocritical.