Laye Camara The Dark Child

Word Count: 1609 |

Caught between two cultures

The Dark Child by Camara Laye shows the African struggle and search for an identity in colonial times, published in 1953. The Negritude Movement, as it is known, wanted to explain Africa in its own terms as well as to break down the negative representations which had led Europeans to an easy colonization. The Dark Child proves the task to be more complex than it may seem at first sight. This paper examines the ambivalence that characterizes the autobiographical novel of the Guinean writer. My purpose is to prove that its narrator-protagonist is a mental mulatto, a child that gradually moves from its African traditions to an increasing Westernized education. The result is an undecided subject who finds himself caught between two cultures, neither of which he can fully understand.

The emergence of the movement among francophone writers responds to the French system of colonization. While British colonizers opted for an indirect rule in which some tribal order would be kept, French colonies should be an extension of France and Africans were encouraged to become black French citizens. In order to avoid complete assimilation, these writers undertook a defense of African values.
In the novel, the story is told by a grown-up narrator-protagonist who recalls his years as a young boy. The autobiographical characteristics of the novel lead the reader to assume that this boy is the young Camara Laye. The first sentence introduces this idea: “I was a little boy playing around my father’s hut” (Laye 17). The relationship with his parents is the link between the six year-old boy and his African roots; its analysis is the key purpose of this paper.

Laye’s father is a well-recognized blacksmith in his community. The memory that marks the beginning of the narrative is determined by the knowledge of his father’s spiritual powers. Snakes play an important role in this respect. The second paragraph tells about the fascination of the young boy with a snake. As he dangerously plays with it, he is strongly reprimanded by his mother. This event is a symbolic antecedent of a more important knowledge: his father’s guiding spirit is actually a snake. When young Laye warns his mother about the presence of a black snake approaching the workshop, she replies: “My son, this one must not be killed; he is not like other snakes, […]” (Laye 22).

Through the dialogue between the child and his father, the reader becomes well acquainted with the importance of the snake in their lives. The father fully explains this fact and concludes; “It is to this snake that I owe everything” (Laye 25). There is a strong sense of morality behind this belief. In the narrator’s own words: “there were good spirits, and there were evil ones” (Laye 23). What could be confined as ‘primitive thinking’ allows the community to live under certain order. I would add that this world is portrayed in positive and even idealistic ways, showing Laye’s need to portray African values optimistically.

As well as the father, the mother is an outstanding character. The narrator says, “I realize that my mother’s authoritarian attitudes may appear surprising; generally the role of the African woman is though to be a ridiculously humble one, […]; but Africa is vast, with a diversity equal to its vastness” (Laye 69). Laye’s mother has supernatural powers as well: “[…] It was due also to the strange powers she possessed” (Laye 69); among these powers were persuading animals and being able to approach crocodiles without getting harmed. These powers had been gifted to her for being the next child born after twins.

The narrator makes great emphasis on the veracity of these powers. The narration of these events is accompanied by constant comments such as “they seem to be unbelievable; they are unbelievable. Nevertheless I can only tell you what I saw with my own eyes” (Laye 70). He extends this certainty to the whole community: “No one ever doubted it” (Laye 73). Laye is inviting the reader to go deeper into Africans’ beliefs and to avoid the simplistic and comfortable option of the West to label them as ‘primitive’.

However, the narration of these events is obscured by a certain degree of doubt. The narrator- protagonist of The Dark Child shows confusion towards the supernatural. When his father asks him if he can understand what the snake means to their race the answer is yes, but he says to himself that he did not understand it very well. He seems to be different. He seems to respond to a different understanding. His dilemma is precisely related to whether he should follow his father’s steps or continue to attend school. He asks his father the question: “What must I do if I am to do the right thing?” (Laye 28). But there is no answer. Young Laye seemed destined to be as great as his father in his African context. But western education takes away this possibility. His father says, “There is certain form of behavior to observe, and certain ways of acting in order that the guiding spirit of our race may approach you also […] I fear, I very much fear, little one, that you are not often enough in my company. You are all day at school […]” (Laye 27).

The strong current of doubt accompanying Laye’s childhood marks the understanding of his mother’s powers as well. He is well acquainted with the symbolic meaning of the crocodiles in her mother’s life: “The totem is identified with its possessor: this identification is absolute, and of such a nature that its possessor has the power to take the form of the totem itself” (Laye 75). However, he does not know his own: “yes, the world rolls on, the world changes, it rolls on and changes, and the proof of it is that my own totem –I too have my totem– is still unknown to me” (Laye 75). From my point of view, the phrase included between hyphens is the key to understand Laye’s dilemma. After carefully constructing his mother’s character, the narrator needs to recognize these values in himself. When he informs the reader that he too has a totem, he is reinforcing his difference from his parents. At the end of chapter five, where this sentence belongs, the narrator assumes that the reader might not expect him to have a totem. It also seems to me that he needs to remind himself of this.

In the novel, a gradual transition between Africa and Europe is taking place. The six year-old Laye is already strongly influenced and confused by French education. But this is just the beginning of a process in which he gets farther and farther from his African traditions. Education first takes him away from Kouroussa, his birth town, to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. When this happens, the now adolescent Laye had been already initiated in his community through circumcision. This means that he was now considered to be a man. However, he does not stay to fulfill his new condition, but rather leaves in search of a higher westernized education. His mother is still very understanding of this situation, although she thinks that her son’s venture is “rather like going to live among savages” (Laye 138). This seems to make part of the reversal of values, being that the city is usually viewed as “civilized”.

His confusion increases with this new experience. In the narrator’s words: “I was ambivalent” (Laye 148). Ambivalence is precisely the condition pervading the mental mulatto: he is racially black but culturally undecided. In spite of his dilemma, there seems to be no ways to go back. The reason for this might be that Laye did not acknowledge the wisdom of his African culture. There are certain abilities he never developed in his own land: “But I was not old enough nor curious enough to inquire, nor did I become so until I was no longer in Africa” (Laye 56). Moreover, even when he already knows all his parents’ secrets and supernatural powers and has experienced some of the most important rites in his community (circumcision and Kondén Diara), the fifiteen year-old Laye thinks he knows little. When the praise-singers compliment him, he questions them speaking to himself: “After all, what did I know? I was still very far from «wise»” (Laye 142). Undoubtedly, the narrator-protagonist is thinking of wisdom in Western terms. From this perspective his final departure to Paris was inevitable.

It also has to do with the girls in the life of the young Laye: Fanta and Marie. Their names already suggest the African/European dichotomy. Fanta is the girl that accompanied his childhood games in Kouroussa. She mostly represents his African world. Marie, instead, is described in more detail: “Her skin was very light, almost white. She was very beautiful; […] she had exceptionally long hair which hung down to her waist” (Laye 158). Her beauty seems to be related to her white skin. As it could be predicted, this is the girl who young Laye keeps at the end of the novel, as a sign of his own whitening.

My conclusion is that Camara Laye’s The Dark Child represents a good example of the colonized subject’s dilemma. It shows his/her struggle for keeping an identity that, in most of the cases, is discouraged by the colonizer. Westernized education becomes an inevitable path to be acknowledged in the new order. Negritude proved to have a well-intended purpose. However, the contradictions did not let the theory to be a practical practice. As a result, the cultures that should be highlighted or recuperated are left behind. Camara Laye’s departure to Paris at the end of his novel is the metaphor of the social and cultural oblivion of his African roots.


Laye, Camara. The Dark Child.

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