I know that I talked a lot of the problematic handling of the Arab in the Prelude, but when asked about how to take/interpret the fact that the Arab was “not the Knight/But was an Arab of the desert, too/Of these was neither, and was both at once,” I didn’t really have an answer (ll.123-125). My first thought was that maybe Wordsworth was trying to understand a person that exists outside of British society and someone he would have never had any personal interaction with. I did not necessarily see Wordsworth’s description as positive or negative, but more problematic with an acknowledge that it was a step in the right direction (and was not era-typical racist depiction of a non-white, non-British person). However, my Studies in American Literature class had a discussion about the protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God that has made Wordsworth’s Arab even more disturbing to me.
In the class, we were discussing how Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God was not completely black (and may not be as dark as the other African American characters) and perhaps the African American, male characters loved Janie for her “whiteness” (at least in some capacity; not necessarily entirely for her “whiteness”). We discussed that perhaps her hair was not that typical of African Americans since all of Janie’s love interests seemed so in love with her hair. The reason that I bring this up is because thinking of “whiteness” in a non-white character made me look back at the Arab and how he is described.
When I reread the passage dealing with the Arab, I found a passage that is reminiscent of “whiteness” in a non-white character:
“. . . Lance in rest,
He rode, I keeping pace with him; and now
He, to my fancy, had become the knight
Whose tale Cervantes tells; yet not the Knight
But was an Arab of the desert, too;
Of these was neither, and was both at once” (ll. 120-125)
My first thought was that Wordsworth was attempting to understand the Arab by using his own culture’s equivalent because of his lack of actual interaction with actual Arabs and terminology. I did not think it was necessarily a good thing, but I did not think was necessarily an awful thing either. With the idea of “whiteness” in a character and Janie in mind, however, my opinion and interpretation has shifted a bit. I still give Wordsworth brownie points for not making the Arab a violent person (as I was expecting when I started reading the Arab’s section), but what Wordsworth has done is given the Arab a “whiteness” for a British audience to like.
For instance, we as a class (in Senior Seminar) discussed how the lance could be a biblical reference. During Wordsworth’s time, Christianity was very much a “white” person religion with Jesus depicted as a “white” person. I will be completely honest when I say that I am not completely sure what religion an Arab would have practiced during that time period, but I am willing to bet that the British audience would assume it was either Islam or some kind of “savage” religion. On top of the lance, the fact that Wordsworth thinks of the Arab as knight-like also reads as “whiteness” because the knights that the British audience (and possibly Wordsworth himself) would think of are white and British, not really Arab or non-white. So, what Wordsworth has done between the lance and connecting the Arab to knights is injected items of the white, British culture into a non-white character, giving the Arab some “whiteness” to go with his “Arab-ness.”
(FYI: Maybe I want to do this for my final paper instead?)
(Word count: 615)