The Analysis of The Short Story “The Hands of the Black”
The full story “The hands of the Black” by Bernardo Honwana takes only a couple of minutes to read, but it needs much more time to think it over. The story starts from the simple question a schoolboy he asks just out of curiosity, but the answers turn it to something much more complicated. The comprehension of the questions the adults ask in return and the answers they give can say a lot about the world of racial discrimination.
The question about the hands of the black people is firstly raised by the narrator’s schoolteacher and then the most offensive explanation possible is given to the class. According to the teacher, the black people didn’t evolved as fast as the white ones, so the palms without tan is a memory about the times when they were walking on their four like monkeys.
The first disturbing thing in the story is that the narrator (who is probably Bernardo Honwana himself) is the only one who disagrees with this explanation and starts to seek another answers from random people. But still, none of them satisfies him, because – this is the second thing that makes us worry – people claim that black people as a race have some special traits that distinguish them from whites, that they have different personalities.
The priest – the next man the narrator asks and the one who has the most authority among the neighboring adults – gives much prettier explanation, but it still looks fake. He says that God left the hands of the black people light-colored because they hold them together during the prayer so often that the skin has no time to become tanned.
This version, on the contrary, makes black people better than whites and more obedient to God – but by intuition or logic the narrator understands that it isn’t true either. So he continues his quest for answers, trying to comprehend why adults have such different versions of them.
The other answers were mostly bitter or offensive again. For example, Dona Dores said to the boy that though the black people are destined to be slaves, their hands were deliberately made white by God, so that they won’t soil anything they bring to their masters. Another version was that the palms were bleached during the constant picking of white cotton or doing the laundry from day to day. Almost everyone the narrator asks associates the black color of the skin with dirt that is either disgusting and has to be rid of or plainly the sign of the inferiority.
Some of the adult men play a stupid prank on the boy, telling him the outright silly story they came up with on the spot. One of them told the narrator that the whites were created first and then they made black people by themselves from clay and second-hand forms previously used by them. But due to the lack of space and their neglection, the whites overbaked the clay and it became ashes.
Their palms were still white because all the black people had to hold on something just not to fall to the fire. While the narrator tries to comprehend such an unusual and disturbing story, the men around burst into laughing, persuading him that the full story is a lie from the first to the last word and they don’t know the right answer to such a ridiculous question. So, not only they treat black people as laughingstocks, they also mock the average and innocent child curiosity.
More tamed but still fantastic version comes from another neighbor of the narrator: God created all the people and at first they all were black because of ash and dust. He showed them the big lake and ordered them to wash themselves before going to Earth to live there. But the first part of the people was created before the dawn and the water was freezingly cold in the night.
So they decided just to wash their hands and feet. It was too dark for them to see that they are covered in dirt from heads to toes, so they went as they were and became black people. This story contains more equality in it, but again, the black skin color is associated with being dirty, lazy or dim-witted, it is a flaw and a drawback.
The only story that satisfies the narrator is the story of his mother. Several times we, as readers, see that Bernardo Honwana draws our attention to the fact the woman is crying while telling her story. She starts from the words that persuade the boy more than everything else: “God made blacks because they had to be”. This single phrase makes everything right: the very existence of the black people is the natural and legitimate thing. They are not meant to be the instruments, they don’t exist on purpose, they just are, because God wanted the Earth to be populated with people of different skin colors.
But then the narrator’s mother adds a very bitter thing to the whole story: later God regretted that he created blacks, because the whites made their life miserable, they enslaved the blacks, mocked them and discriminated them. God even thought about making everyone white, but he couldn’t violate the choice of those who wanted to stay black.
So, to remind that inside all the people are equal and the real value of a person is determined not with their skin color but with the deeds they do with their hands, God made the hands of the black people lighter than the rest of their skin. The story ends with the words of the narrator that he has never seen someone crying so much as his mother, without being hurt.
We can conclude that the story of the discrimination of the black people is something very personal for the narrator’s mother, though we learn that she is clearly a white woman. Still she cries and emphasises several times that the black people just need to exist because God wants it. The woman chooses the exactly right words to give to her son the most right, though biologically incorrect answer.
The boy doesn’t reveal for himself why the skin on the palms of the dark-skinned people contains less melanin than the rest of their body, but instead he receives a much more powerful epiphany: all the previous versions were wrong, because the black people aren’t different from the white ones. They can be good or bad, kind or mean, bright or dim, just as anyone else, because they are just people who have darker skin.
In a few sentences the narrator’s mother showed him all the oppression the black people came through, so severe that even God, almighty and omniscient, regretted His decision to create them for such suffering. She also dismisses the association of black skin with dirt, saying that even God respects the right of the person to be black. No wonder that the previous versions told to her by her son made the poor woman cry. The adult and reasonable people (even the teacher and the priest) who are the authorities for the kids, deliberately or ignorantly, spread the racist views, raising the new generation of racism discrimination supporters.
Let me remind you that the narrator was the only one from the whole class who raised the question. The other kids took it as granted and the other adults (who may be fathers of those very kids) support the views that utterly dehumanize black people, portraying them as inferior beings marked by God (or evolution) to be slaves and servant to the superior whites.
The understanding of the scale of the problem can be shocking for everyone. The brave woman does what she has to do and what she can do. She can’t fix the whole world, but she can be a good mother to her child and give him the answer that will help him to stand for the equality of all the people in the future. Her story is beautiful and logical enough to be spread among the other kids and maybe some of them will reconsider their opinion also.
We see the powerlessness of a single mother who stands against almost all the town, but also we see hope, because the reaction of her child is the best reward we, as readers, can be given. He believes her with all his heart and he finds that her values resonate with his own, with the sense of right that is innate for everyone, that makes us human, disregarding the color our hands are.