The most common justification for colonialism is the argument that the colonizers are bringing “civilization” to a primitive, brutal, and savage population. In today’s world, most people acknowledge that at best this kind of thinking is naïve and patronizing, and at worst it is a thinly-veiled disguise for the colonizers’ desire to abuse native people while gaining wealth and power for themselves. It is certainly difficult to see how the white characters in the novel are bringing “civilization” to the black population. While some white characters claim that they are bettering native people by forcing them to work, this is not a particularly convincing excuse for the harsh labor conditions to which they subject black workers.
There is also evidence that the white characters are actually disturbed by black people who assimilate into white culture and behave in a “civilized” manner. When Charlie is saluted by two black policemen, he feels uncomfortable, and the narrator notes that he “could not bear the half-civilized native.” Similarly, the narrator describes the self-assured satisfaction with which white people greet the news that Moses killed Mary. These examples suggest that even though colonizers claim that they seek to “civilize” the native population, in reality they do not truly wish to welcome native people into their vision of civilization. Instead, they would rather that natives continued to live up to the stereotype of brutality projected onto them by white people.
The white characters have different reasons for treating black people badly; for example, while Dick is motivated by paternalistic feelings, Mary is more power-hungry and sadistic. However, none of them seems to really be bringing “civilization” to the black population, even while some of them—such as Dick—are convinced that they are doing so. In fact, the white characters in the novel behave in a far more brutal manner than any of the black characters. Even Moses’s murder of Mary is arguably not an act of brutality, but rather a reasonable response to the experience of colonial oppression. The question of whether all violence is immoral or whether some forms of violence can in fact be justified is not given a clear answer within the novel. The reader is encouraged to feel at least some sympathy for Moses, particularly after Mary ferociously injures him by whipping him across the face. Even if his murder of Mary is judged to be immoral, there can be no denying that Moses’s act of brutality is a response to the brutality to which he is subjected as a native person living under colonial rule.
At the same time, the murder of Mary plays into the pre-established narrative that “white civilization” is under threat in Southern Rhodesia (and the rest of the world). Many of the white characters—and in particular Charlie—justify their actions as a way of defending white civilization from the “brutality” of the natural landscape and indigenous population. Note that at the time the novel was written, the British Empire was in the latter stage of disintegration, a fact that caused great distress among white Brits living in colonized countries whose fates were thrown into question. When Tony first arrives in Southern Rhodesia—before he has become accustomed to the severe racism of the white Rhodesians—he notices that figures like Charlie insistently deny that a white person can have a “human relationship” with a black person, and that this denial is vital to ensuring the racial order keeping the colonizers in power. In this sense, “white civilization” is not under threat from any external brutality, but rather from the lie at the center of its colonial “civilizing” project.
Brutality vs. Civilization ThemeTracker
Brutality vs. Civilization Quotes in The Grass is Singing
Most of these young men were brought up with vague ideas about equality. They were shocked, for the first week or so, by the way natives were treated… They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society they were joining. It did not take them long to change. It was hard, of course, becoming as bad oneself. But it was not very long that they thought of it as "bad." And anyway, what had one's ideas amounted to? Abstract ideas about decency and goodwill, that was all: merely abstract ideas. When it came to the point, one never had contact with natives, except in the master-servant relationship. One never knew them in their own lives, as human beings.
To live with the color bar in all its nuances and implications means closing one's mind to many things, if one intends to remain an accepted member of society. But, in the interval, there would be a few brief moments when he would see the thing clearly, and understand that it was “white civilization” fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, “white civilization” which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it.
“If you must do these things, then you must take the consequences,” said Dick wearily. “He’s a human being, isn't he? He's got to eat. Why must that bath be done all at once? It can be done over several days, if it means all that to you.”
“It’s my house,” said Mary. “He's my boy, not yours. Don't interfere.”
“Listen to me,” said Dick curtly, “I work hard enough, don't I? All day I am down on the lands with these lazy black savages, fighting them to get some work out of them. You know that. I won't come back home to this damned fight, fight, fight in the house. Do you understand? I will not have it. And you should learn sense. If you want to get work out of them you have to know how to manage them. You shouldn't expect too much. They are nothing but savages after all.” Thus Dick, who had never stopped to reflect that these same savages had cooked for him better than his wife did, had run his house, had given him a comfortable existence, as far as his pinched life could be comfortable, for years.
If she disliked native men, she loathed the women. She hated the exposed fleshiness of them, their soft brown bodies and soft bashful faces that were also insolent and inquisitive, and their chattering voices that held a brazen fleshy undertone. She could not bear to see them sitting there on the grass, their legs tucked under them in that traditional timeless pose, as peaceful and uncaring as if it did not matter whether the store was opened, or whether it remained shut all day and they would have to return tomorrow. Above all, she hated the way they suckled their babies, with their breasts hanging down for everyone to see; there was something in their calm satisfied maternity that made her blood boil. "Their babies hanging on to them like leeches," she said to herself shuddering, for she thought with horror of suckling a child. The idea of a child’s lips on her breasts made her feel quite sick; at the thought of it she would involuntarily clasp her hands over her breasts, as if protecting them from a violation. And since so many white women are like her, turning with relief to the bottle, she was in good company, and did not think of herself, but rather of these black women, as strange; they were alien and primitive creatures with ugly desires she could not bear to think about.
A white person may look at a native, who is no better than a dog. Therefore she was annoyed when he stopped and stood upright, waiting for her to go, his body expressing his resentment of her presence there. She was furious that perhaps he believed she was there on purpose; this thought, of course, was not conscious; it would be too much presumption, such unspeakable cheek for him to imagine such a thing, that she would not allow it to enter her mind; but the attitude of his still body as he watched her across the bushes between them, the expression on his face, filled her with anger.
What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip. She felt that she must do something, and at once, to restore her poise. Her eyes happened to fall on a candlebox under the table, where the scrubbing brushes and soap were kept, and she said to the boy: “Scrub this floor.” She was shocked when she heard her own voice, for she had not known she was going to speak. As one feels when in an ordinary social conversation, kept tranquil by banalities, some person makes a remark that strikes below the surface, perhaps in error letting slip what he really thinks of you, and the shock sweeps one off one's balance, causing a nervous giggle or some stupid sentence that makes everyone present uncomfortable, so she felt: she had lost her balance; she had no control over her actions.
He approached slowly, obscene and powerful, and it was not only he, but her father who was threatening her. They advanced together, one person, and she could smell, not the native smell, but the unwashed smell of her father. It filled the room, must, like animals; and her knees went liquid as her nostrils distended to find clean air and her head became giddy. Half-conscious, she leaned back against the wall for support, and nearly fell through the open window. He came near and put his hand on her arm. It was the voice of the African she heard. He was comforting her because of Dick's death, consoling her protectively; but at the same time it was her father menacing and horrible, who touched her in desire.
He had been in the country long enough to be shocked; at the same time his "progressiveness" was deliciously flattered by this evidence of white ruling-class hypocrisy. For in a country where colored children appear plentifully among the natives wherever a lonely white man is stationed, hypocrisy, as Tony defined it, was the first thing that had struck him on his arrival. But then, he had read enough about psychology to understand the sexual aspect of the color bar, one of whose foundations is the jealousy of the white man for the superior sexual potency of the native; and he was surprised at one of the guarded, a white woman, so easily evading this barrier. Yet he had met a doctor on the boat coming out, with years of experience in a country district, who had told him he would be surprised to know the number of white women who had relations with black men. Tony felt at the time that he would be surprised; he felt it would be rather like having a relation with an animal, in spite of his "progressiveness."
"It’s not customary in this country, is it?" he asked slowly, out of the depths of his complete bewilderment. And he saw, as he spoke, that the phrase "this country," which is like a call to solidarity for most white people, meant nothing to her. For her, there was only the farm; not even that––there was only this house, and what was in it. And he began to understand with a horrified pity, her utter indifference to Dick; she had shut out everything that conflicted with her actions, that would revive the code she had been brought up to follow.
When the dark returned he took his hand from the wall, and walked slowly off through the rain towards the bush. Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say. For, when he had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the soaking bush he stopped, turned aside, and leaned against a tree on an ant heap. And there he would remain, until his pursuers, in their turn, came to find him.