The Comparison of Whiteness to Evil instead of Good

In Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, the Yoruba people openly contrast their culture with that of the Europeans with whom they are in contact.  In Act V of the play, Elesin has been captured and imprisoned by his European counterparts in their efforts to stop him in a ritualistic suicide deemed a high honor by his people.  In his conversation with Pilkings, Elesin constantly refers to the man’s whiteness in a way to show his anguish and to express his strong opinion of whiteness tainting his black culture and the balance of the world.  In this Soyinka seems to be deliberate, since it is well-known that white/light usually refers to all things pure and good and black/darkness to those things just the opposite.

The scene opens with Pilkings noticing that Elesin is looking at the moon, and Elesin responds saying, “Yes, ghostly one.  Your twin-brother up there engages my thoughts” (50).  At this moment, the reader’s attention is drawn to two things:  (1) the comparison of Pilkings (and presumably his outward physicality) to a ghost and (2) the comparison of Pilkings to the moon.  The most obvious connection is that Pilkings is white as are the moon and standard depictions of ghosts.  On any other night, the moon might symbolize something peacefully divine, purifying, and relaxing; however, on this night after the sequence of events that have occurred, the moon symbolizes unrest, fear, and an ominous future.  Likewise, ghosts or spirits can be viewed in a positive, benevolent light, but in this case, Pilkings is being juxtaposed to one inciting strife and mayhem. 

Pilkings is the evil, the wrong from Elesin’s viewpoint, and he does not hesitate to express his opinion as such: 

“You are waiting for dawn white man.  I hear you saying to yourself: only so many hours until dawn and then the danger is over. . .I shall ease your mind even more, ghostly one. It is not an entire night but a moment of the night, and that moment is past.  The moon was my messenger and guide. . . I began to follow the moon to the abode of the gods…servant of the white king,  that was when you entered my chosen place of departure on feet of desecration” (51).

Here, it is evident that the dawn and the light of the moon (before the events) represent safety, peace, and purity, but that since Pilkings interrupted the ceremony and essentially tainted the purity of the occasion, all is lost to evil even in the presence of seeming good (i.e. dawn, the moon).  Also, Elesin draws a strong contrast between who he answers to (i.e. “the gods”) and who Pilkings answers to (i.e. “the white king”), and obviously places the negative emphasis on Pilkings being a “servant of the white king.”  This comes up again, more explicitly, when Elesin mention Olunde’s involvement with the Europeans, stating to Pilkings, “Once I mistrusted him for seeking the companionship of those my spirit knew as enemies of our race.  Now I understand. One should seek to obtain the secrets of his enemies.  He will avenge my shame, white one” (52).

Throughout the entire scene (and often throughout the play), the characters flip on its head the standard connection of whiteness with goodness and blackness with evil, and this contributes to the play’s uniqueness of perspective and narrative plot.

–Amani Morrison

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