One of Poisonwood’s most important themes is race. The Price family is white, and (prior to traveling to the Congo) enjoys all the conveniences of life as a white citizen in the United States. In the Congo, however, the Prices’ new community is defined by black Africans—a novelty for a white American family used to (heavily segregated) 1950s Georgia society. While a few of the Prices (especially Leah, who marries the half-Congolese Anatole Ngemba) make an effort to get to know their African neighbors, racial differences continue to remind the Prices of the broader differences between African and American life, and of the family’s perpetual “outsider” status in the Congo.
Unfortunately, many of the white characters in The Poisonwood Bible treat their black neighbors with contempt, if not outright hatred. Most of the novel is set before the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, when Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and other important African-American leaders fought for equal rights and legal protections. As a result, many of the American characters have been brought up to treat black people of all kinds—whether they’re American or Congolese—as inferior human beings. Nathan Price, the preacher who brings his family to the Congo, thinks of the Congolese as ignorant, “unenlightened” children—a disturbing example of how his Christianity acts as a mask for his racism. But interestingly, the Congolese find the Prices just as strange as the Prices find them. As far as the villagers of Kilanga are concerned, Nathan is a pathetic figure—completely ignorant of how to feed himself or navigate his way through the jungle. In this way, the novel suggests that it’s human nature to judge other people based on stereotypes and prejudices—in short, when the Prices stare at the Congolese, the Congolese stare right back. (Although, of course, the power dynamic between the oppressed Congolese and the Prices, who are inherently aligned with the imperialist oppressor, are still uneven.)
Even when the Prices make an effort to understand the Congolese people, they continue to struggle with the hard, cold facts of a history of racial divides. After Leah Price falls in love with Anatole Ngemba and marries him, she’s constantly reminded of the fact that she’s a white woman living among Africans. Because she’s white, everyone can tell immediately that she has European heritage, meaning that she’s related by blood to the people who have traditionally kept the Congo impoverished, dangerous, and hopeless. In the Congo, Leah is even more conscious of her own whiteness than her neighbors are; she hates herself for belonging to the same race that has caused her husband and his friends so much pain. And yet as she enters middle age, she takes pride in the fact that she’s loved and supported her husband for so many years—and that she’s raised a large happy family of boys, none of whom feel the kind of racism that Leah’s father Nathan once felt.
In the end, Poisonwood suggests that some of the world’s deadliest problems—starvation, poverty, civil war—stem from racism. Due to their racial differences, people make no effort to befriend each other or cooperate with one another, and in the end, these differences add up to the huge gap between the First World and the Third World. One way to fight the effects of racism, represented by Leah Price, is with interpersonal love and friendship. Leah and Anatole’s relationship certainly doesn’t solve the problems of racism that Kingsolver poses in her novel, but it does suggest that one can begin to reverse the effects of racism by starting in the same place where racism begins—two unlike people getting to know one another.
Race, Racism, and Culture ThemeTracker
Race, Racism, and Culture Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible
God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah’s three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drowneded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham, and Japheth got on the boat so they were A-okay. Ham was the youngest one, like me, and he was bad. Sometimes I am bad, too.
Father said, “An election. Frank, I’m embarrassed for you. You’re quaking in your boots over a fairy tale. Why, open your eyes, man. These people can’t even read a simple slogan: Vote for Me! Down with Shapoopie! An election! Who out here would even know it happened?”
And so it came to pass that the normal, happy event of dividing food after a hunt became a war of insults and rage and starving bellies. There should have been more than enough for every family. But as we circled to receive our share of providence, the fat flanks of the magnificent beasts we’d stalked on the hill shrank to parched sinew, the gristle of drought-starved carcasses. Abundance disappeared before our eyes. Where there was plenty, we suddenly saw not enough. Even little children slapped their friends and stole caterpillars from each other’s baskets. Sons shouted at their fathers. Women declared elections and voted against their husbands. The elderly men whose voices hardly rose above a whisper, because they were so used to being listened to, were silenced completely in the ruckus. Tata Kuvudundu looked bedraggled and angry. His white robe was utterly blackened with ash. He raised his hands and once again swore his prophecy that the animals and all of nature were rising up against us.
Until that moment I’d always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened. The misery, the hunt, the ants, the embarrassments of all we saw and endured—those were just stories I would tell someday with a laugh and a toss of my hair, when Africa was faraway and make-believe like the people in history books. The tragedies that happened to Africans were not mine. We were different, not just because we were white and had our vaccinations, but because we were simply a much, much luckier kind of person. I would get back home to Bethlehem, Georgia, and be exactly the same Rachel as before.
Neto is about Anatole’s age, also educated by missionaries. He’d already gone abroad to study medicine and returned home to open a clinic, where his own people could get decent care, but it didn’t work out. A gang of white policemen dragged him out of his clinic one day, beat him half to death, and carted him off to prison. The crowds that turned up to demand his release got cut down like trees by machine-gun fire. Not only that, but the Portuguese army went out burning villages to the ground, to put a damper on Neto’s popularity. Yet, the minute he got out of prison, he started attracting droves of people to an opposition party in Angola.