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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Dilemma of South African Writing

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The key dilemma faced by African-American writers is how to avoid adopting antagonistic and simple racial positions every bit as binary as those created by the white discourses they are reacting against, exchanging one negative stereotype of Africanist identity for another, positive, but equally stereotypical, construction. Perhaps even more of a risk, though, is that the expression of a unified Black Consciousness mounted wholly against the tradition of white suppression of it can lead to the occlusion of those social problems which exist on an even lower branch within black culture, most specifically the status of women in what are often sexually and physically abusive relationships. An example of the kind of text which raises this problem might be Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. It is in response to such texts that Barbara Smith cautions critics about the danger of ignoring "that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of Black women writers" ("Toward a Black Feminist Criticism").

In the North American context, one possible way of avoiding the creation of too-simply, too-singularly, oppositional black identities is to return to, and re-awaken awareness of, the native cultural history which pre-existed settlement or slavery, and which consequently pre-existed black/white racial debates. For example, in Morrison's Song of Soloman the main (coloured) character stands and "read the road signs with interest now, wondering what lay beneath the names. The Algonquins had named the territory he lived in Great Water, michi gami. How many dead lives and fading memories were buried in and beneath the names of the places in this country". This raises the reader's awareness of a third-party, neither black nor white which suggests a middle-way (although African-American and American-Indian experiences will always be implicitly aligned) out of damaging binary racial politics which override the subtle issues faced within those generic groups (i.e. the rights of black women not to suffer physical abuse).

Since the end of Apartheid, similar dilemmas have been faced by female writers in the new South Africa: how to assert their new-found sense of identity as black South Africans, whilst preventing this from submerging both the existence of a still-legitimate white viewpoint, and the experience of black women. Sometimes, writers like Mandela, Kuzwayo, Mashini have expressed themselves and the wider cultural political context through autobiography. New publishing arenas such as Agenda are being built (though some would argue still with a distorting English-speaking bias) to empower the voiceless to speak about their experiences as women, as black women in a family unit, and as members of a wider black community.

I wonder, though, as well as this progressive creation of publishing spaces in which black women can express themselves, whether there is also a historical and retrospective movement - like that enacted by Hurston or Morrison - to take black politics back to a time before Apartheid and colonisation, and therefore to engage with the dilemmas of women and blacks on a level before the construction of racial différence. For example, to re-awaken the complex and diverse nature of individual tribes and examine positive ways in which female identity was constructed within them; to read back to find examples of female literature from before the nineteenth century; or even to encourage, endorse or offer support to those anthropologists and evolutionary scientists who argue that the 'missing link' will be found in Africa, in other words making Africa the site of a common human ancestry which pre-existed constructions of Otherness.

Are these ways in which black writers in South Africa, particularly black female writers, can find a happy middle-ground, neither oppositional to whites nor, in enforcing black identity, ignoring the problems of sexism which exist(ed) within the institutions of black society?


Posted by Alistair at 2:39 pm


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