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Black Man, White Bread

“I propose nothing short of the liberation of the man of color from himself.”

– Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

My room in the dorm might be the most racially diverse one on campus. Of us three roommates, one is African-American, one is Japanese, and I am Indian. Black, yellow, and brown, we know only too well how the outside world shapes our lives. For the outside world is white (or, as my Black roommate puts it, “weak”). For the outside world, we’re all black.

Such is the premise of VS Naipaul’s “The Baker’s Story”, one of his 'comic inventions' from A Flag on the Island (1967). It’s a strange candidate for a Fanonian analysis: the coloniser is all but absent. There are no white characters, and “white people” are mentioned only in passing. However, the story is driven by their perception of different races, which has led to a conflation of race with occupation – a conflation strong enough that the colonised believe it themselves.

VS Naipaul in Grenada, 1983. (Photographed by A Abbas)

The narrator, a black Grenadian teen, starts working at a bakery in Trinidad run by a Chinese family who become more and more dependent on him. The woman of the family dies; the man gambles the bakery away. The narrator, who has been baking most of the bread and practically running the establishment by this point, repeatedly hears the voice of God telling him: "Youngman, take your money and open a bakery. You could bake good bread."

Against his better judgment, the narrator borrows money to set up his own shop in an out-of-the-way area of Port of Spain. Despite the quality of his bread, he gets no customers. He runs into a black schoolmate, and has an epiphany about how race and occupation are intertwined on the island:

"And as we walking I see the names of bakers; Coelho, Pantin, Stauble. Potogee or Swiss, or something, and then all those other Chinee places… You ever see anybody buying their bread off a black man?”

The narrator then employs a half-Chinese, half-black boy ('decoy' would be more accurate) to man the shop, and “never [shows his] face” again. Fast forward to the present: he owns the Yung Man chain of bakeries, and “nobody looking at [him] would believe they looking at one of the richest men in this city of Port-of-Spain.”

But where does Fanon come in?

By the time this story was written, Trinidad had just gained independence from 150 years of colonial rule under the British (and another 300 under the Spanish and the French before that). During this period, indigenous races were enslaved, others brought – Africans as slaves, Indians as indentured laborers – and anyone who wasn’t white ended up in a specific occupation. According to this forum post, this may not have been a coincidence:

“The social hierarchy in colonial Trinidad consisted of whites as the plantation owners; the Chinese and Portuguese in trading occupations; Afrikans and coloureds in skilled manual occupations; and East Indians in the agricultural fields. The ‘commodification of ethnicity’ caused by the division of labor has had extensive implications on the process of symbolization for those it involves. This meant the subordinate groups could not fully develop their own-shared ethnic and cultural standards. Instead, images and stereotypes were superimposed by more powerful ‘outside’ groups.”

Naipaul’s characters hew to these stereotypes. The Asians – the Chinese family, the narrator’s wife, and his employees (some of whom “don’t know they working for a black man”) – work hard and speak little. The only major Indian character is a considerate moneylender; the only Portuguese character is the woman who sets the narrator on the path of his own bakery (ironic, given that half the bakeries are run by the Portuguese); the only openly mixed-race character is MacNab, the narrator’s first employee. And, of course, there are the black people: the narrator, his family, and his friend Percy.

The narrator is a product of what Fanon calls “the internalization—or, better, the epidermalization—of [...] inferiority.” He is one of ten children, doesn’t know his father’s identity, is extremely poor and deeply religious, and never thinks of going into business for himself: “[Black people] get so use to working for other people that they get to believe that because they black they can’t do nothing else but work for other people. And I must tell you that when I start praying and God tell me to go out and open a shop for myself I feel that perhaps God did mistake or that I hadn’t hear Him good.”

Fanon claims that “[i]t is the racist who creates his inferior,” but who isn’t racist here? And who isn’t inferior? The “other people” above aren’t just white people; all characters are perceived as inferior to someone or the other. There is mild racism even within the black community: the narrator thinks little of black people from Trinidad (“rangoutangs”); they, in turn, “don’t forgive a man for being a black Grenadian”. He jokes that Percy, a Trinidadian, sells insurance because “is a thing that nearly every idler doing in Trinidad, and, mark my words, the day coming when you going to see those fellers trying to sell insurance to one another.”

The encounter with Percy, with its latent self-hate, is a pivotal moment. Percy “don’t like black people meddling with my food,” but can’t explain why: “[t]he question throw him a little. He stop and think and say. ‘It don’t look nice.’” The narrator then realizes that “though Trinidad have every race and colour, every race have to do special things. [...] If a Indian in Trinidad decide to go into the carpentering business the man would starve. Who ever see a Indian carpenter? I suppose the only place in the world where they have Indian carpenters and Indian masons is India.”

The story has been hinting at this all along. The new owner of the Chinese bakery dismisses the narrator because he’s starting a grocery and “grocery customers wouldn’t like black people serving them.” The narrator himself muses: “If a black man open a laundry, you would take your clothes to it? I wouldn’t take my clothes there." Subversion is difficult but not impossible, and certainly not unheard of: in an unmistakable bit of foreshadowing, just before he meets the Indian moneylender, the narrator sees a black coconut seller in a land where all coconut sellers are Indian:

“He was talking Hindustani to a lot of Indian fellers, who was giving him jokes like hell, but he wasn’t minding. It does happen like that sometimes with black fellers who live a lot with Indians in the country. They putting away curry, talking Indian, and behaving just like Indians.”

And so it is with the narrator, proving that social constructs do not necessarily reflect the way people live in society. As he warns the reader early on, he is to all intents and purposes a black “Chinee”: he dresses like one, works like one, and even marries one. He just doesn’t look like one. He is still thrown off by “the obzocky black face in one of those fancy mirrors that expensive hotels have all over the place, as if to spite people like me.” He is still mistaken for a shop assistant from time to time, adding, as an aside: “If this thing go on, one day I going to sell somebody something, just for spite.”

“The Baker’s Story” is not explicitly about the coloniser and the colonised; instead, it is about how the colonised represent little more than their colour, which in turn represents their function. By the end of the story, the narrator has had his revenge: he may have to sneak into his own stores from the back, but "every Monday morning I walking brave brave to Marine Square and going in the bank, from the front."


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