The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

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Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Poisonwood Bible, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon

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.

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Race, Racism, and Culture ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race, Racism, and Culture appears in each chapter of The Poisonwood Bible. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race, Racism, and Culture Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible

Below you will find the important quotes in The Poisonwood Bible related to the theme of Race, Racism, and Culture.
Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ruth May Price (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Ruth May Price, the youngest of the Price children, describes the attitude of her father, Nathaniel Price, toward Africans. Nathan has decided to bring his family with him to the Congo, where he plans to do Christian missionary work. In spite of his devotion to Christian evangelism, Nathan seems to have little respect for the African people he hopes to “save”—indeed, he says that inferiority and sin are in their blood. The Biblical story of Ham, which Ruth May summarizes here, says that Ham—the youngest of Noah’s sons—was a disobedient, dark-skinned boy. To punish Ham for his disobedience, God cursed Ham’s descendants. Over the centuries, Ham’s curse has been regularly cited as a justification for slavery and imperialism—people have argued that black people “deserve” their subjugation because God wants them to be punished.

Although Ruth May never explicitly says so, it’s clear that Nathan’s beliefs are bigoted and absurd. Ruth May doesn’t quite realize it, but she interprets the story of Ham in such a way that she seems to identify with Ham: she thinks of herself as a bad child. In other words, Ruth May takes a story that’s supposed to justify racism and cruelty to black people and interprets it as a story about identification and sympathy. 


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Book 2, Chapter 20 Quotes

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?”

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Rachel Price (speaker), Reverend Frank Underdown
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Nathan clashes with Frank Underdown, his sponsor and (often reluctant) supporter. Underdown tells Nathan and the rest of the Prices that there will be some sudden, potentially dangerous changes in the Congo: the Belgians are pulling out of the country altogether, and there may well be democratic elections in the Congo within a few months. Nathan—as condescending as ever—refuses to believe that there will ever be elections in the Congo. Based on what he's seen in his village, the Congolese are too foolish and disorganized to ever support a democratic movemen—they can't even communicate a simple political message to one another.

Nathan's position is almost nonsensical—he's ready to believe that the Belgians are pulling out of the country, but he sees no reason to believe that the Congolese have the wherewithal to replace their overlords with any other leadership. In short, Nathan seems to believe that the Belgians, with all their cruelty and hypocrisy, were the best thing for the Congolese, because they provided law and order that the Congolese could never provide for themselves.

Book 4, Chapter 55 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Leah Price (speaker), Tata Kuvudundu
Page Number: 354
Explanation and Analysis:

In this long scene, Kingsolver offers us an allegory of capitalism. The Congolese village has successfully completed a huge hunt: the hunters have killed a large number of wild animals, with the help of the children, the women, etc. In short, everybody has earned their equal share of the food. But instead of dividing the food equally, the villagers quibble over portion sizes. People greedily take too much, meaning that other people are given too little. Over time, a scarcity arises—somehow, there's not enough food to go around. Just like in a capitalist society (at least according to Kingsolver), the competition for more results in an overall deterioration of social relations: the villagers become each other's enemies.

It's important to note that the hunting scene arrives shortly before the assassination of Patrice Lumumba—the political tragedy that will usher in an era of rampant capitalism and foreign investment in the Congo. Kingsolver foreshadows the economic depression and social breakdown that Lumumba's death will ultimately cause.

Book 4, Chapter 60 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Rachel Price (speaker)
Page Number: 367
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Rachel reacts to the death of her little sister, Ruth May. Rachel has been living in a dream world up to this point: she's been living in the Congo, but she holds her community at a distance. In other words, Rachel thinks of her peers and neighbors as strangers—unlike her siblings, she makes absolutely no effort to get to know them (she's just counting the days until she's back in the U.S.A.) But Rachel can no longer pretend that her life in the Congo just a bad daydream: the Congo has killed her sister.

In this moment, Rachel's racism and self-absorption are made especially clear. She's always had an easy time distancing herself from her life in the Congo—not because she thinks the Congolese are necessarily inferior, but because she just assumes that they are "unlucky," and Africa could never become anything like America.

Book 5, Chapter 68 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Leah Price (speaker), Anatole Ngemba , Agostinho Neto
Page Number: 431-432
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Leah describes the life she's made for herself after Ruth May's death (the event that broke up her family). Years have passed, and Leah is now married to Anatole Ngemba, the young man who tutored her when she first arrived in the Congo. Anatole has been in correspondence with Agostinho Neto, a young, ambitious political leader who sees himself as the successor to Patrice Lumumba. Like Lumumba, Neto is enormously popular with the people of the Congo (and Angola), though he alienates the government with his socialist views.

Leah's impressions of Neto suggest how political she's become since Ruth May's death. By marrying Anatole, Leah has committed to a lifetime of political engagement: support for Neto and other elected leaders, and general investment in the wellbeing of the Congo. Although Leah is clearly shocked by the way the government has treated Neto, she has a quiet optimism that Neto will succeed in his political goals—he has enough supporters to guarantee his success in the long run.