social roles in African Literature

social roles in African Literature

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During the uprisings of the 1970s, Nadine Gordimer presented a very dreary and pessimistic prophecy to white and black South Africa in July’s People. This prophecy suggested a probable overthrow of the apartheid system which would challenge the currently existing social and racial roles of its inhabitants. Amid the chaos, traditional roles would be overturned and new ones are formed as the Smales accept their servant’s offer of refuge and flee to his village in the bush. Additionally, Zoe Wicomb describes the social and sexual roles that dominate Afrikaaners in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. Through a series of connected short stories, Wicomb’s narrator, Frieda Shenton, grows from childhood to womanhood in a community labeled as “colored.” These colored, people of racially mixed decent, were classified not on ethnic or cultural values, but rather based on skin color and appearance. To gain complete understanding of racial and sexual roles present in the southern part of Africa, one must carefully examine both July’s People and You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town for semblances of an old social structure as the birth of a new nation develops.
     In Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, we are presented with a young girl, Frieda, transforming into a woman in a rural African village. Frieda is faced with the realization that apartheid has ghettoized the coloreds to live in dreadful conditions. It is through the suppression of this ghetto life along with the suppression of racial and sexual stereotypes that Frieda removes herself and gains her independence. Frieda’s changing sexuality is important for her maturation into a woman. Wicomb presents a sexual hierarchy of women as viewed from a colored perspective. Men can improve their social appearance through education, but for a woman, she must get married. A necessary ingredient for a successful marriage is to be pretty as suggested by Frieda’s mother: “Poor child… What can a girl do without good looks? Who’ll marry you? We’ll have to put a peg on your nose” (164). Even in Frieda’s teenage years, she never saw herself as attractive, for she saw herself as “too plump.” This “plumpness” is a direct result from her father urging her finish all her meals, as he saw skinniness unattractive. In addition, during the train ride to school, Frieda dreamt of a fairytale in which boys were regarded as princes and her role was not that of Cinderella, but rather that of the pumpkin.

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This issue of sexual attractiveness is not only fortified by her mother, but also while she attends school.
In the story A Clearing in the Bush, Frieda is confronted with issues of sexual desirability. As she is trying to finish a paper on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervillle, she finds the paper difficult to finish when the canteen fills with male students. The presence of these male students not only discourages her from completing her paper, they also discourage her from simply walking across the room because she fears that they may whistle at her. Furthermore, the whistles also prevent Frieda and her friend, Moira, from engaging in conversations with the group of males at another table. Frieda becomes skeptical and analyzes the meaning of this whistle. She ponders whether the men whistle because they are obliged to in the presence of a woman or if they actually find her attractive. Her scrutiny of appearance and reaction from others further exemplify the importance of sexual attractiveness in Wicomb’s stories.
The men in the canteen do not acknowledge the women with conversation, but rather, the women are acknowledged with whistles. In this manner, the women are objectified by the men with the whistling. Not only does this create a sexual awkwardness in the women, the whistle also creates a power hierarchy in which the men control. At the same time that Frieda and Moira are humiliated by the whistles, they would be further humiliated if there were no whistle at all. It seems that the whistle is the only recognition that Frieda knows in which to assess her sexual attractiveness.
Throughout the novel, the reader is meant to sympathize with Frieda’s quest to discover her beauty, even though she feels her figure as almost revolting. Through Frieda’s denial of personal beauty and Aunt Nettie’s attempt to reform Frieda, the qualities of an attractive female can be deduced. Aunt Nettie never loses sight of “those attributes that lifted her out of the madam’s kitchen, the pale skin and smooth wavy hair” (102). Frieda became enticed with these attributes as a young girl and strove to make her appearance resemble that of Aunt Nettie. It is noteworthy that these attributes, pale skin and straight hair, are generally associated with the whites. Ironically, as Frieda tried to become more attractive, her appearance became more like that of a white woman. This semblance to being white has many consequences that she would not normally be accustomed to. Only through this “white” appearance is the able to obtain an abortion, as the woman who performs the abortion says that no colored girl has ever been on the sofa. Additionally, during the observance of the prime minister assassination, the lectern attracts the audience by calling out “ladies and gentlemen.” Frieda feels that the lectern is personally calling her a lady, a prestige that is restrictive to white females.
Importantly, Wicomb presents the division of ethnic and racial backgrounds as further examples of self-identity. Rather than simple black and white racial groups, we are presented with several groups that are separated by parents’ color and tribal beliefs. Throughout the novel, Frieda’s father stresses the importance of their British background. In so doing, he also claims superiority over other coloreds outside the family. Frieda becomes romantically involved with dark-skinned boy, named Henry Hendrikse, whom she often refers to as a “native.” Even though they had several encounters, she does not continue their relationship because of her father’s disapproval, as he is almost pure “kaffir.” The Shenton’s British background is the principal reason for her father’s rejection of Henry, because his racial history did not meet her father’s standards: “we, the Shentons, had an ancestor, an Englishmen whose memory must not be defiled by associating with those beneath us. We are respectable coloureds” (116). In addition, rather than speaking the native language of Afrikaans, Frieda is taught to speak English both at school and at home. This presents a language barrier with the other children who only speak Afrikaans and further separates her from the rest of the villagers.
Throughout the novel, Frieda attempts to reject this social stigmatism created from apartheid in order to live as an individual. In both novels, we are presented with a society that resembles the American civil rights movement. Based on skin color, Afrikaaners have little hope of escaping the racial and sexual roles that the dominant white class has imposed on them. In July’s People, July escapes this submissive role when Bam and Maureen flee with him to escape the dangers of the city. July was immediately placed in the dominant role as the Smales now rely on July for their own personal safety.
In July’s People, revolution forces Bam and Maureen from the relative comfort of a white Johannesburg suburb to alienation in their former servant’s black village. Through this exile, Bam and Maureen not only struggle to preserve their identity in an ever-changing nation, but also struggle in the transference of power from the white elitist family to that of a black servant. In July’s village, the Smales must live in the dirt between dangerous tribes, walk barefoot and eat what they kill. In order to survive in the bush, the Smales must learn to cope without many of the conveniences they enjoyed in the suburb. The relationship between Afrikaaners and the English elite underlie much of Gordimer’s portrayal of white society in Africa.
Upon the Smales’ arrival to the village, disequilibrium shatters their sense of time and identity roles. Immediately, Bam and Maureen begin discussing how long their food rations will last and how to protect their children from disease. Almost as quickly as their sense of time is shattered, the chaos disrupts their sense of place. The Smales lose all sense of place in the wild expanse of the bush, as they are now away from the architecture and technology that they became accustomed to living in the city. Without their sense of time and place, Bam and Maureen struggle to retain their social constructs that were important in the city, but are irrelevant in the bush.
Bam initially attempts to retain his previous identity as an important architect by setting up the water tank. This proves to be dually constructive as the tank becomes an important source of water and Bam fortifies his importance to the village. At first, Bam retains control of the bakkie, as the bakkie represents the obvious symbol of power in the family. When July stretches beyond his customary social role and keeps control of the keys, Bam realizes that his authority over July is no longer applicable. A direct result is that roles shift. Maureen is now drowning kittens, Bam is hunting for food, and July has become the foreman of the Smales family. Bam desperately seeks reassurance that the world outside, his home, still exists through the radio. Towards the end of the novel, Bam refuses fresh batteries as he gives up hope of tuning to the military’s radio station.
Maureen’s relationship to July is atypical compared to that of Bam and July. Maureen is the only one that can understand July’s harsh English and this creates a strong bond between the two. Early in the novel, July comes to the Smales hut to fetch clothes for the women to wash. Maureen immediately tells him that she can do it herself and there is no need to have the other women do it for her. This is important in that this scene establishes July’s role of servant. July is a man who has served the Smales in order to provide for his own family and the conversation immediately turns to the Smales continued payment of services rendered. Even though it is apparent that Maureen is no longer master and has offered to step out of her social role by helping with the laundry, July has difficulty in understanding the implications and prefers that they maintain their familiar social roles.
Although Maureen and July seem to preserve their familiar social roles, their relationship resembles that of two lovers. On numerous occasions, Maureen and July argue in a manner which seems to strike deepest. July chastises Maureen for her apparent lack of trust and then proceeds to a discussion of payment. Maureen fires back with remarks of Ellen, July’s city girl, that strike July deepest. In most of their conversations, July continually refers to his payment of services. Maureen recognizes that her interaction with July is very superficial and greatly affected by language. This is depicted by their inability to discuss “even the most commonplace of abstractions” (96). Gordimer continues to describe his English as that which was learned in kitchens, factories, and mines.
By the end of the novel all authority and power, symbolized by the bakkie and the gun, have been transferred to July’s people. Bam is crying such as a child would and Maureen’s and Bam’s relationship resembles that of a divorced couple as they now use pronouns to refer to each other. Neither did their marriage nor their social roles remained intact towards the end of the novel. The transference of power to July and his people seemed to humiliate Bam in a manner that removed his social role as well as his identity. Removed from all roles and expectations, Maureen flees both Bam and July: the old which is dead and the new which is born.
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