Commentary on ‘The Hands of the Blacks’ by Luis Bernardo Honwana

For many centuries, theories have been propounded about the true nature of the black race. How did they come about? Are they human like other races? If so, why are they so different? Although evidences have proven over and over again that the black race is not different from any other race, aside from a few physical attributes that is, many still chastise them as less humans. As it is normal with humans, anything that is different is downright opposed or approached in a curious way, but not entirely accepted. This has been the norm when it comes to black people.

Luis Bernardo Honwana’s The Hands of the Blacks highlights the misconceptions that other races have against Blacks. It is unfortunate that all these misconceptions are inculcated in children at a very young age and they grow up believing that these misconstrued ideas are true, when they are not. Written from the point of view of a very young kid, Honwana uses humor to bring into focus the issue of racism that is taken lightly by the perpetrators, who find it amusing to make fun of others who are different, not knowing the serious repercussions that their actions have on those affected.

Kids taken in whatever they are taught or told, especially if it comes from the people close to them. They emulate whatever they see their parents or guardians doing. So, if they see their parents racially abusing people from the minority groups, there is a higher chance that they will also end up like them. It is true that the fruit rarely falls far away from the tree and this is the reason that racism has been in existence for many generations without end. When racism takes root in society, it affects all areas of that society.

In the story, the first time the narrator comes to terms with racism is in school, then in church, in the community and lastly at home. The irony of it all is that all the characters in the play have no concrete reasons, as to why they are racially biased towards Blacks. Each one is giving his/her reasons, which only highlights the stupidity that racists embrace just to hate on anyone that is different from them.

The author therefore shows how low people are willing to stoop to try and explain phenomena that are beyond their comprehension- in this case: why blacks’ palms are white like other races- in order to satisfy their reasons for being racists. The young narrator admits at the beginning of his narration that he does not remember how they got to the topic of Blacks’ hands, but it is his teacher who indoctrinates them with these racial beliefs. Teachers are the lights that illuminate the path of knowledge and rescue students from the shackles of ignorance and mediocrity.

However, it becomes rather absurd for teachers to do away with one evil only to replace it with another. Like in this book, the teacher is the one who instills this belief of superiority among the narrator’s race. The teacher claims that Blacks walked on all fours a few centuries back like other animals and since their palms were not exposed to sunrays, they remained white as the rest of their bodies became darker, due to sun burns. What the teacher fails or rather ignores to explain is why other races have maintained their light complexion, despite getting burned by the same sun. The teacher’s assertions kindle a curiosity spark within the narrator, which makes him seek further clarification on the matter.

Another complete hogwash assertion comes from Father Christiano, who teaches the narrator catechism. His claim that Blacks’ hands are lighter because they spend most of their time with their hands folded praying in secrecy, proves that human thinking ability has its limits. We all look up to religious leaders to decipher things that are even beyond our comprehension and scientific explanation. But, as Father Christiano reveals, there are things that only God, the Creator can answer. Furthermore, why should Blacks pray in secrecy? Is it wrong for them to publicly pray to their God? In order to understand these questions, we have to revisit the context with which the writer wrote from.

Honwana was born and raised during the Portuguese invasion of Mozambique. It goes without saying then that the Portuguese introduced Christianity and abolished indigenous African religions. Africans therefore unwillingly adopted Christianity, but still practiced their deities in secrecy. While this may be true, the father fails to explain what made other areas of their bodies dark. Going by his comments, we may be forced to believe that the first missionaries in Africa found the natives with dark palms and it is only when they started praying that their hands became white. But, what about their feet? They do not use them also to pray, do they?

Dona Dores then gives the little boy her own explanation, as to why the Blacks are the way they are. She claims that “God made Blacks’ hands lighter so they would not dirty the food they made for their masters, or anything they were ordered to do that had to be kept clean.” According to Miss Dores, all Black people were created for the sole purpose of being slaves and God made sure of it to make their hands lighter so that they do not contaminate food of their masters.

This is to say that black palms, if they ever existed, would be considered dirty regardless of whether they had been cleaned thoroughly or not. If her association of darkness with uncleanliness was put into retrospective consideration, then all Black people are genetically dirty.

Then there is Senor Antunes, who at first assures the narrator that all he heard about Blacks was nothing but baloney, and then he ironically provides us with his own version of baloney. Now, here is a character that Honwana uses to show how religion is misinterpreted or manipulated by people to suit their selfish goals.

According to Senor Antunes, all humans were not created at the same time, but rather Blacks came later after Jesus, his mother Mary, St. Peter and other people who had died and had a meeting in heaven, where they decided to create the black race. Since Antunes is obviously a Christian, then the point of reference is the Bible. Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures supports his assertions. “Do you know how?” he continues, “They got hold of some clay and pressed it into some second hand molds and baked the clay of creature…”

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Again, it is not clear how he came to the knowledge that there is art of pottery in heaven. He talks about the clay being pressed into some second class molds, which means Black are by design a second class race. Are the even human? Because in the next words “and [they] baked the clay of creature…,” he refers to Black people as creatures. He then goes on to a tirade of racial slurs, where he claims that the clay was hung on chimneys because there was no room next to the fire. The excessive smoke on the chimney eventually rendered them “black as coal.” He also gives his explanation as to why their hands are white: “And now, do you want to know why their hands stayed white? Well, didn’t they have to hold on while their clay baked?”

What seems more shocking is that the people who are around when Senor Antunes makes these allegations seem pleased and they burst out laughing. Senor Frias, who was not amused by Senor Antunes’ “one big pack of lies”, continues with the trend of replacing one error with another, as is common with most of the characters in the story.

His version involves God finishing men and ordering them to take a bath in a lake in heaven. Other races do as they were told and they became “nice and clean”, but not the Blacks. They were created very early in the morning and even in heavenly standards, the water was too cold and they decided to wash only their palms and soles of their feet.

Furthermore, the narrator implies that he read in a book that Blacks developed white palms as a result of “gathering the white cotton of Virginia…” But the book does not explain why natives in Africa, who have never picked a single cotton in their lives, have white hands. Dona Estefania’s assertions that Blacks’ hands were bleached because of excessive washing is also very incorrect. Bleaching agents in normal soap cannot bleach the skin and if they had that ability, then all the skin that comes into contact with the soapy water would be bleached.

The only person in the story, who provided the most sensible answer is the narrator’s mother. She says that God had His own plans when He created Black people. Although His reasons are beyond human comprehension, He made different races and cultures so that we can appreciate each other. Despite the different physical attributes among all races, He made sure that we all had white palms and soles to show that all men are created equal. People should be judged by the work of their hands, rather than their skin color.

In conclusion, all these assumptions that Black people are a second class race, created to be slaves, superstitious, dirty and creatures other than humans are nothing, but lies perpetrated by people who seem insecure of the gifts that God has naturally bestowed upon these people. For instance, they are natural athletes and they are great musicians and dancers. Imagine a world with only one race, one language and one culture. Wouldn’t it boring living a life of normalcy? Let us enjoy our differences.