Baldwin goes to a small village in Switzerland and learns that he is the first black person to ever visit. The village is high in the mountains but not particularly inaccessible. Snow falls heavily, and the village has hot spring water which attracts tourists, most of whom are physically disabled and hope bathing in the water will heal them. Everyone in the village knows Baldwin’s name and knows that he is friends with a local woman and her son in whose chalet he is staying. However, he remains a “stranger” in the eyes of the village, evidenced by the little children who shout “Neger! Neger!” when he passes. This never fails to shock Baldwin, though he smiles in order to appear friendly and pleasant. The villagers are extremely curious about his physical features, and some touch his hair or rub his skin to see if the color will come off. Baldwin knows the villagers do not mean to insult him, but this does not make him feel much better.
Baldwin’s experience in the Swiss village is one of absolute isolation. Where a white person would likely find the village a close-knit, harmonious place, Baldwin feels a profound sense of alienation from those around him. Indeed, note the way in which the villagers treat Baldwin not only as a “stranger,” but as someone who is not even human. Their curiosity about his physical features not only suggests that they think of him as some kind of exotic creature, but also that they do not understand that he has internal subjectivity like any other person. They feel no sense of shame around him, and are unconcerned about the shame he might feel.
The villagers donate money to the church in order to “buy” Africans and convert them to Christianity. During the Lent carnival, two children are ritually painted in blackface and solicit these donations. The wife of a bistro owner happily tells Baldwin that last year the village bought 6-8 Africans. Baldwin thinks about European missionaries who are the first white people to arrive in African villages, but he notes that this is a different phenomenon from what he experiences in the Swiss village. Because of European imperialism, the Swiss villagers “cannot be strangers anywhere in the world,” no matter how unfamiliar the world might be to them. Black people feel an inevitable rage and internal turmoil in this world, while white people hold onto a privileged sense of naïveté about racism and black people’s experiences. White people do not wish to be hated, but neither are they willing to give up their power. They continue to imagine black people as irredeemable “savages,” which affords black people a perverse sense of freedom as well as knowledge of white people that is fundamentally unreciprocated.
From Baldwin’s perspective, the villagers appear rather like children who have not yet learned about the world or become fluent in social propriety and politeness. For example, the bistro owner’s wife’s naïveté in imagining that Baldwin will be pleased to hear about the Africans being “bought” emerges from a total lack of understanding of Christian imperialism and the relationship of African Americans to the indigenous people of Africa. As Baldwin explains later in this passage, the woman’s ignorance is not simply a matter of stupidity or lack of education. Rather, it is a product of white people’s desire to hold onto their privilege and their refusal to look at the reality of the world, including the enormous injustice for which they are responsible.
Baldwin returns to the village each summer for multiple years, and the villagers grow less curious about him. Some are friendly, while some are rude and insulting behind his back. Being in the village reminds Baldwin of the fact that white Americans are in their essence “discontented Europeans.” He reflects on the fact that African Americans have had their past stolen in a way that makes them unique among black people—and indeed all people—of the world. As a result, they have had to manufacture a relationship to the United States (and to the world) in order to survive. White Europeans, on the other hand, do not directly experience the full reality and legacy of colonialism; in this sense, “the black man, as a man, did not exist for Europe.” Baldwin argues that there is more continuity between Europe and America than many believe, and that American principles and ideas did not originate in the States, but in Europe. The most important of these principles is, of course, white supremacy.
Here Baldwin offers a counter-narrative to the mainstream account of the relationship between Europe and America. The prevailing narrative of American history focuses on the experience of the settlers, who—facing persecution in Europe—fled to America in order to found a new country based on principles of freedom, equality, and democracy. However, Baldwin suggests that the more important account of the emergence of the United States should focus on the transmission of white supremacy from Europe into this new land. This is, after all, the only narrative that factors in the stories of all Americans, not just white people.
Although Americans have enacted white supremacy in a particularly vicious and brutal manner, they did not invent it. White Americans must find ways to live with black people in order to live with themselves, but they have thus far not succeeded in acknowledging or resolving this fact. Black Americans are not strangers in the West—they are of the West, and, as such, have a uniquely terrible and meaningful relationship to white Americans, their oppressors. Baldwin argues that the Chartres cathedral may “say something” to the Swiss villagers that it does not say to him, but that the reverse is also true—black Americans have a relationship to Western culture that white people cannot access or understand. White Americans harbor a fantasy of “European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist.” This desire has had fatal consequences, and only now are white people beginning to realize that it can never be fulfilled. People must accept the reality that the existence of the United States has created not only a new black identity, but a new white identity. They must simultaneously reckon with the past and with the future, which “will never be white again.”
The final passage of the book zooms out from Baldwin’s particular experience in the Swiss village to make an overarching statement about the future of race relations across the world. Baldwin argues that white people in America are motivated by a desire to return to a (mythical) “innocence” in which black people simply do not exist, and it is for this reason that white Americans continue to exclude, oppress, and terrorize black people rather than accepting that black people are just as American as whites are. This desire for innocence is problematic in a number of ways, not least of which is the fact that it strives to ignore the crimes committed by white people against people of color, rather than holding white people accountable. However, because this innocence will never be a reality, Baldwin ends on a hopeful note that progress is inevitable.