A romance that failed: Bessie Head and black nationalism in 1960s South Africa

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Date: Summer 2011
From: Research in African Literatures(Vol. 42, Issue 2)
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 9,158 words
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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Bessie Head's decision to leave South Africa for Botswana in 1964 at age twenty-six has been read as the consequence of apartheid's oppressive racial politics that saw her racial ambiguity as particularly threatening. However, as her early South African work would suggest, Head, who would become Botswana's best-known writer, was ostracized as much by burgeoning black nationalist discourses as by apartheid's racism. This article argues that the existing anti-apartheid discourse in post-Sharpeville South Africa was inadequate in comprehending Head's identity as mixed-raced and as a woman, as evident in her juvenilia. In this early work, Head undertook the double task of dismantling not only the racist discourse of apartheid but also the racist/masculinist elements of the available anti-apartheid discourse of her time, in an attempt to accommodate her dissident identity as an anti-apartheid writer and activist--but not male; and not black and not white. Gender, alongside her race, is seen to play a crucial role in Head's inability to construct an anti-apartheid identity in an atmosphere of a sharpening racial dialectic.

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In his poem "Lament," dedicated "To a sister who had invited me to visit her where she lives with her white boy friend," South African Black Consciousness poet and historian Burns Machobane imagines precolonial Africa as Paradise and the white man as the serpent:

   When time was born,
   Abyssinia was bare.
   That's when the Nile sprang
   That I might therefore spring
   From the loins of Abyssinia.

   When time was born,
   When the Nile had sprung,
   A serpent also sprang--
   Though an age after I was born
   Into the loins of Abyssinia.

   Should I forgive or forget?
   Should I revenge or avenge?


The poem's false nostalgia is characteristic of the Black Consciousness imagination in South Africa of the 1970s, in which precolonial Africa is depicted as an Edenic space and associated with female fertility (the loins of Abyssinia) where Africans lived in harmony with nature and each other, and European colonization as a disruption of that harmony through the violation of the African woman. (1) The exclamatory ending--"Shame!"--carries in South African English both the meaning of "pity" and at the same time "disgrace," both lamenting and condemning the couple's interracial love. The black woman, a "sister" in arms, is marked as a traitor of the struggle; the white man, a subversive "serpent," is a predator on a foolish Eve, stealing her from black men to whom she presumably belongs.

Although the poem was probably written in late 1960s or early 1970s, it reflects the radicalization of the anti-apartheid movement's racial politics that began after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which sixty-nine black workers protesting against the discriminatory pass-book law were shot by the South African police. The post-Sharpeville banning of the moderate African National Congress (ANC) and the radical Pan-Africanlist Congress (PAC), the imprisonment of their leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and Walter Sisulu, and the brutal repression that followed led to a deep disillusionment with the multiracial ideals of the ANC and the Liberal Party that had dominated opposition politics in South Africa. In 1968 Steve Biko, a black medical student at the University of Natal, formulated Black Consciousness (BC) as a new awareness among the blacks of the need to break away from the coalition with white liberals. The BC slogan, "Black man, you are on your own" (Biko, "Black Consciousness"), reflected black dissatisfaction with the tendency of white liberals to ideologically dominate the anti-apartheid struggle, which, according to Biko, was undermining the prospect of racial equality ("Black Souls"). Machobane's "Lament" is symptomatic of the atmosphere of growing black resentment of any relations with whites, including sexual, as a consequence of BC's political alienation from white liberals. The existential "shame" that was imposed on the South African "coloured" (mixed-raced people) by the racial purity discourse of Afrikaner nationalism is endorsed here and made an anathema of the black struggle, a shame from which they were able to liberate themselves only recently (see Wicomb, "Shame"). Zoe Wicomb's work, in particular David's Story (2001), has been instrumental in the cultural process of removing that shame and repossessing the term "coloured" as neutral.

The imagination of Machobane's "Lament" did not provide an anti-apartheid identity to someone like Bessie Head, born as Bessie Amelia Emery in 1937 in Pietermaritzburg, Natal Province, from an illicit sexual union between a white upperclass woman and a black laborer. Head's birth thus transgressed two prohibitions of her society at once: sex across race and class. The racist economy of female sexuality in segregated South Africa, linking interracial sex with nymphomania and madness, marked Bessie Head's mother, and by implication Bessie Head herself, as both deviant and insane: "Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother" (Head, A Woman Alone 4). Due to apartheid's racist revulsion at the obscenity of "miscegenation" (and especially if it involved a white woman and a black man, rather than vice-versa), Head's mother, Bessie Amelia Emery, was committed to a mental asylum while pregnant; she committed suicide there six years later. (2) The newborn baby was given up for adoption to a white family, who returned her a week later for looking "strange." A coloured adoptive family was then found for Head, whom she considered to be her biological parents until age thirteen, when the circumstances of her birth were related to her in a cruel manner by an orphanage teacher. The information made Head live with a permanent sense of shame about her body and suffer an unbearable splitting of her identity throughout her life. (3)

Head's shame was particular to her own so-called "coloured" identity as the product of not just cross-race, cross-class sexuality, but a sexuality between a black man and a white woman who by coupling with a representative of the "tainted" race symbolically sullied the entire white femininity as sexually deviant. (Sexuality between white men and black women, on the other hand, was much more common and went largely unnoticed.) This unusual narrative of origins puts Head outside of the history of most mixed-raced South Africans, whose mixed ancestry went back many generations before the idea of the immorality of "miscegenation" had taken such a strong hold in the South African psyche. (4) Unlike blacks, the coloured, who represented about 8% of the South African population at the time, did not have to carry a pass and enjoyed limited freedom of movement to demonstrate the "redeeming" value of whiteness. Yet, they too were classified as "nonwhite" and their mixed race was considered worse (genetically and morally) than "pure" African ancestry, because their ambiguity posed a threat to the rigid social order. This is amply documented in Sarah Gertrude Millin's novel God's Step Children (1924) which, informed by early-twentieth-century eugenics, makes a case for the coloured's degeneracy.

Head's origin made her excluded from the South African coloured community, which had its own hierarchies and notions of pedigree and "purity." As Rob Nixon has pointed out, Bessie Head, a first-generation "coloured" orphan raised in a missionary orphanage in Natal, was unable to claim affinity with the Cape Coloured, the largest South African mixed-race community rooted in and around Cape Town who could trace its ancestry to seventeenth-century Dutch seamen and Khoi women (Nixon, "Border Country"). (5) Moreover, Head's first language was English rather than Afrikaans, the language of the Cape Coloured. Although she arrived in District Six, Cape Town's vibrant multiracial community until its destruction in the late 1960s, at age twenty and lived there for three-and-a-half years, she never became part of its milieu: "As a newcomer to the Cape I thought I had found the ideal place for my mixed-race soul. But I quickly and painfully learned that if you were not fully grounded in the colour brown, you would have to be excluded from the community's business and be ready to endure insult." (6) By "fully grounded in the colour brown" Head meant her multiple ambiguous position: as mixed-raced with no knowledge of Afrikaans or African languages, an illegitimate child and an orphan with an unknown black father and a "mad" white mother, no lineage, bloodlines or heritage, apart from the name inherited from her mother.

Already rejected by whites, and now by the Cape Coloured community, Head sought refuge with the Pan-Africanist political circles formed around Robert Sobukwe, who had split from the traditionally moderate ANC in 1959 to form a radical Africanist party. As her tribute to Sobukwe upon his death indicates, Head's attraction to the party was sparked through her attraction to its charismatic leader whom she saw as a Messianic hero, "as beautiful as the coming of the Christ-child" ("Christ-Child" 117). She wrote about him: "He gave me a comfortable black skin in which to live and work" (A Woman Alone 97). Soon, however, Head found that even here she was not "black enough," as she later wrote to her friend Randolph Vigne (Vigne 64). One of her most traumatic experiences of black racism at this time was her encounter with her admired jazz star, Miriam Makeba, who rudely refused to be interviewed by Head, then a young reporter, because of the color of her skin. "She doesn't like Coloureds," Head was told (Vigne 93). When courting the Liberal Party members, she was in turn regarded as "the pan-Africanist on a soap box" (Vigne 13). Through her eccentric act of writing and printing her own newspaper, a single cyclostyled sheet defiantly called The Citizen that she handed out in the streets of District Six, Head constructed herself as a national citizen, political subject, and an African.

Analysis of Head's exilic Botswana work has drawn attention to Head's experience of Batswana racism for not being fully "black," a tragic paradox of her search for a new homeland where she could fit in and be accepted as African. However, as her early poetry and her debut novella The Cardinals would suggest, Head was ostracized by black nationalism already in South Africa, where she witnessed (and took part in) a sharpening racial dialectic of the struggle in the wake of Sharpeville. The significance of Head's encounter with Pan-Africanism in her life and work has so far not been adequately commented upon; in particular, critics have not taken fully into account the role played by her gender in Head's racial alienation. This article, which is indebted to and builds upon the valuable work of Rob Nixon, Dorothy Driver, and Rosemary Jolly, argues that the existing anti-apartheid discourse in South Africa was inadequate in comprehending Head's identity as mixed-raced and as a woman, and that this is evident already in her juvenilia. In this early work, Head undertook the double task of dismantling not only the racist discourse of apartheid but also the racist/masculinist elements of the available anti-apartheid discourse of her time, in an attempt to create an alternative narrative that would accommodate her dissident identity as an anti-apartheid writer and activist--but not male; and not black and not white. Read in this way, Head's decision to leave South Africa for the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) in 1964 on a one-way exit permit seems as much influenced by Pan-Africanism and the burgeoning Black Consciousness as by the absurdity of apartheid's racial politics.


From the late 1960s, this new consciousness would find expression in the poetry by young black township poets who on the pages of magazines and newspapers sought to construct a unifying, inherent "Black identity" that could become a rallying point of resistance against white domination. Called "the single most significant socio-literary event of the nineteen-seventies South Africa" (Chapman, Soweto Poetry 11), BC poetry had a profound impact on black political conscientization and played a crucial role in the growth of black solidarity and dignity. While not aiming to dispute this fact, it is however problematic that by essentializing race and culture, BC poetry worked against the opportunity for solidarity among black, white, and mixed-raced South Africans. (7) The imagination of white domination in the poetry by Mongane Serote, Mafika Gwala, Ingoapele Madingoane, or Sipho Sepamla is always envisioned either as rape or black whoring. Africa is either a helpless victim of white rapists, or she is a prostitute who has betrayed the black struggle by copulating with white men, and a fickle mother who throws away her starving children:

   when I lost you
   you were a virgin rich with love
   until they split your loins
   eagle spread and raped you all
   within three centuries
   when they boasted their manhood                (Madingoane 16)

   South Africa
   how like a bitch you are
   without a blush
   look at yourself

   you renegade on the original dream   (Sepamla, "South Africa")

This gendered imagination, of course, had to do with the fact that at the heart of BC poetry was an overriding concern to reject colonialist emasculation of black men and recover a positive male identity. Yet, such imagination unwittingly endorsed apartheid taboos in that it could not accommodate interracial love and sexuality. Simultaneously, as I have analysed elsewhere, it was deeply disabling for black women's anti-apartheid identities (see Pucherova). It demonstrates, as feminist critics such as Anne McClintock and Elleke Boehmer have argued, that the categories of race and gender come into being through each other by depending conceptually on the same binarism of weak/ powerful or inferior/superior. Just as black African men were symbolically feminized by white European colonizers (as irrational, morally deviant, sexually depraved) to justify their subjectification, so were white men often feminized by postindependence black African writers in being portrayed as homosexuals who prey on African men and boys. (8) Homosexuality was seen here through the lens of homophobia as an emasculated identity and at the same time a pathological condition that violates the gender binary.

The issue here is not the radical political position of the BC, which had well-argued reasons for its opposition to "white" values and political ideas, but that BC essentialized both race and gender, replicating the very problem it was fighting against. Nevertheless, some coloured intellectuals, such as James Matthews, Richard Rive, or Alex La Guma, were able to establish themselves as important exponents of Black Consciousness (although in the case of La Guma this was an indirect involvement since he went to exile in 1966). Matthews's poetic debut (with Gladys Thomas), Cry Rage! (1971), was a landmark Black Consciousness manifesto and the first collection of poetry to be banned by the regime; Rive's short stories and his autobiography, Writing Black (1981), established him as an important Black resistance voice against apartheid. What this shows is that identities such as "Black" and "coloured" in the context of the anti-apartheid struggle were based not on the color of one's skin, but were political identities based on a combination of various markers such as ethnicity, language, and religion. As a result of their mixed ancestry, the political identity of the coloured had always been ambiguous and depended on current political atmosphere. Most coloured spoke Afrikaans as their first language, which made them "half-Afrikaners" in the eyes of blacks. After the 1976 Soweto Rebellion, in which more than 300 Sowetan schoolchildren were shot by the South African police for protesting against the use of Afrikaans in schools, the Cape Coloured reacted by a movement to rescue their language from its association with oppression (Wicomb, "Shame" 97). At the same time, there was a rise in the tendency among young coloureds to identify themselves as "black" (see February vi-viii). In the first democratic election of 1994, most Cape Coloured shockingly voted for the National Party (the party that had ruled apartheid South Africa) (Wicomb, "Shame" 97). Matthews, Rive, and La Guma were all bilingual in English and Afrikaans, which gave them a foothold in both communities. Moreover, all three were rooted in Cape Town's District Six, the famous crosscultural community, where Head was unable to establish herself for reasons of her provenance, language, and family history. Arguably, this also had to do with their gender. If politics and writing have traditionally been regarded as male domains, this was perhaps even more so in segregated South Africa where black women were profoundly disadvantaged in education. Black women's absence from South African writing of the 1960s and 1970s, I argue, can also be seen as a function of the way femininity was imagined. In Black Consciousness poetry it is symptomatic that the voice of the narrator, the resistance hero, and the writer merge into one to construct a masculine figure of a writer struggling with his pen against oppression. The woman, who figured in this poetry as the raped land--passive and violated object of the struggle--could only with difficulty position herself as author.

If the black woman is constructed in Black Consciousness poetry as the contested land, or as a traitor of the struggle, the coloured woman figures in South African imagination yet more vividly as a temptress; a product of depraved sexuality, she is by nature wanton and corrupt. The archetypical temptress in the South African mythology is Krotoa/Eva, known as the first indigenous (Khoi) woman to marry a European, in 1664. (9) Krotoa's primeval position in the creation myth of the Cape Coloured eroticized the coloured female body (even though only a minority of South African coloured were descendants of Khoi women's sexual relations with Europeans). In addition, Khoi women's anatomical singularity, namely, their enlarged buttocks and unusually shaped external genitals, were constructed by Europeans as a sign of their loose sexuality (as well as radical alterity). Its most famous symbol became the body of Saartje Baartman, a Khoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in Britain and France in the early nineteenth century. (10) The Khoi woman's racistly apprehended body converges in South African white imagination with the coloured female body, both because of the presumed shared ancestry and because the skin colour of the Khoi resembled that of mixed-raced people more than the black hue of the Bantu, the largest indigenous group in southern Africa. Head's mixed race and her mother's "deviant" sexuality placed her in her consciousness in the same category of "loose woman," embodied by the hallucinatory character of Medusa in the autobiographical novel A Question of Power. At the same time, as Rosemary Jolly has analyzed with reference to Elizabeth's nightmares in the same novel, it made her identify with homosexual men, who in her mind occupied an "in-between" gender position--an imagination that bears witness to Head's inability to liberate herself from the commanding heterosexist gender binary, a point to which I will return in the conclusion.

Race, gender, and sexuality are therefore tightly interconnected in Head's identity and mark her alienation from all--white, black and mixed-raced South Africans. Left painfully isolated--"comprehensively orphaned by the familial and national past" (Nixon, "Refugees" 119)--Head had to construct her own political identity. Her search for a position from which to voice her anti-apartheid resistance in a Pan-Africanist political atmosphere first emerges in her early poetry, in which she significantly puts on a black male persona. "Things I Don't Like," written in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre when Head was in her early twenties, features a male speaker who defiantly asserts his blackness through the repetitive refrain "I am Black / Okay?" Although Head signed the poem with her own name, the poem marks her attempt to don a tough male identity that is at the same time black (literally) and Black, a politicized identity that wants to be taken seriously, and a mask to hide her feminine vulnerability, perhaps:

   I am Black
   Hot sun and geographical set-up
   Made me Black
   And through my skin
   A lot of things happen to me
   And I wake each morning
   With red murder in my eyes
   'Cause some crook's robbed me again,
   Taken what little I had right out of my hands
   With the whole world standing by ...

The poem (which is very unusual in Head's oeuvre), reflects a young writer's search for a voice that would allow her to enter the world of dissident politics and literature. The poem's racial and gender ventriloquism reflects both an implicit belief that only a male voice could speak about politics with authority, as well as an anxiety to be accepted by the male-dominated, racially exclusive anti-apartheid resistance culture of the PAC, in which both the anti-apartheid struggle and writing were seen as a masculine enterprise of black men fighting against white men over black women. The stereotypically masculine, brash, aggressive voice ("TO DAMN HELL WITH YOU ALL") gradually grows militant, going as far as invoking indiscriminate violence and bloodshed:

   Going to fight till you or I
   Lie smashed and bleeding dead
   And don't care who dies
   You or I,
   But going to fight

The editors of Head's rediscovered early poems omitted "Things I Don't Like" as a juvenile piece that Head herself later dismissed (Coetzee and MacKenzie 30). Yet, it is an interesting text in that it throws light on Head's early political conscientization in the grip of her triple predicament: as neither "white enough," nor "black enough," nor "male enough." Written in 1960, its anger and accusation anticipate Black Consciousness poetry that would come a decade later, such as James Matthews's Cry Rage! (1971). Anti-apartheid resistance is articulated through the male speaker's anger against the "bitch woman"--a derogatory name for any woman but presumably also a prostitute who sleeps with white men--who becomes the sign of his castration by the colonizer:

   And some bitch woman with dull brown eyes
   Fries eggs and polony
   For the fourth successive night,
   Eggs and polony for supper,
   And I don't know when last I had a woman.
   The way I feel--so sick,
   Never want a woman again ...

A similar voice is found in Head's poem "The Underdog," the only other poem Head ever published, which has been entirely critically omitted. It develops an existential imagination in which the universe becomes an empty, directionless no-place for the crushed black male hero:

   They call me the underdog
   But they mean
   This earth's not big enough to accommodate
   Them and I
   Maybe I'm like a star
   With a fixed pattern, a destiny,
   But I'm slow to move--
   My side of the canvas is empty.
   It's like I'm baffled into contradictions,
   It's like I'm living in a void.
   It's like I'm a power revolving within itself
   But going nowhere.
   It's like I want some confirmation
   Of my manhood, my provocative and strong maleness--
   But my woman can't give it to me.

This scheme, which casts the man in the symbolic role of a "star"--a being destined to die after a brief but spectacular flashing performance--and the woman as either the "sun" or the "earth," a life-giving symbol of constancy and infinite energy--is set within the stereotypical gender binary typical of Black Consciousness poetry that celebrates the woman as a symbol, yet denies her an active role in the narrative of the anti-apartheid struggle. It can be found in poem sequences such as No Baby Must Weep by Mongane Serote, Africa My Beginning by Ingoapele Madingoane, or "The Black Girl" by Sipho Sepamla, in which "She is the sun / She is the daughter / She is Africa."

Head soon realized that she was inventing a voice that failed to speak politically for her. The posthumous publication of her debut novella, The Cardinals, demonstrates that Head was acutely aware of the problem of the coloured's and women's exclusion from the discourses of resistance and writing in South Africa. Although women, as well as the coloured, mass-participated in antiapartheid campaigns, it was invariably black men who were represented as heroes of the struggle in media such as Drum or The New African and in fiction by black authors. (11) The only aspect of women's political involvement covered in Drum was anti-pass campaigning, which was considered a sufficiently "domestic" issue appropriate to women. Head proceeded to redefine her racial hybridity as representative of the human race in which black and white meet in reconciliation, giving her, in her mind, an ideal platform from which to voice opposition to racialism:

I laugh when I think of that poem ["Things I Don't Like"] you published. You did not like me then because I was such a hot rod black nationalist. I very soon got over that phase because many people pointed out to me that I was not black enough. I began to feel queer, that something was wrong somewhere and that my destiny led me along other paths. Some people can hog the black skins for themselves but I have to opt for mankind as a whole. You know, my friend, a combination such as I of two nations finally establishes the human race. (Vigne 64)

Head's acceptance of her racial ambiguity made her resist the pressures of Pan-Africanism and the emerging Black Consciousness and replace it in her Botswana writing with her preoccupation with "refugeeism, racialism, patterns of evil, and the ancient Southern African dialogue" (Head, "Social and Political" 67), recognizing a universal human tendency to exclude others on the basis of an invented "difference." In 1967, she wrote: "To many, Pan-Africanism is a sacred dream, but like all dreams it also has its nightmare side ..." (Vigne 52-53). As the following analysis will attempt to demonstrate, Head had been thinking about the pitfalls of racial nationalism from as early as 1960, the year of the Sharpeville Revolt that first brought world-wide attention to the struggle in South Africa. In defying racial determinism, Head would simultaneously reject gender binarism in favor of a more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality, signaling her understanding that racialism and patriarchy always operate in tandem, and it is necessary to liberate oneself from both simultaneously. In this way, Head critiques the patriarchy and racialism of the Black Consciousness Movement and related Black nationalisms that depended upon the subject of the citizen as implicitly black and masculine.


As the recently discovered correspondence between Head and Langston Hughes from mid-1960 to mid-1961 indicates, after the shock of Sharpeville Head increasingly started to identify as a coloured. The correspondence is significant in shedding light on a period in Head's life that is very little documented. In her letter to Hughes in New York dated 10 October 1960, Head solicits his assistance with publishing a book that was "nurtured by such a feeling of despair, absolute frustration and a deep sense of isolation, of not belonging" (Moore 8). Choosing Hughes, a poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance, as a "non-white" ally reflects Head's belief in a Pan-Africanist solidarity. She goes on to describe a conversation with a friend whom she describes as "the spirit ... of the unrecognized black struggle towards freedom" (Moore 8.):

   'I will follow the masses', he said slowly ... 'those who are not
      with me are
   against me.'
   I said: 'I am not with you. I am part of you.'
   He was silent so long. I fiercely resented what I had said. Though
      free of mistrust,
   I felt incapable if faced with it. He is African. I am Coloured.
   'When freedom comes', he said, 'then we will sit down and drink all
      the wine
   we want to.'
   That is the book. A pledge of non-white to non-white--'WHEN FREEDOM

(Moore 8)

The book is most likely The Cardinals, written between 1961 and 1962 when Head was twenty-four and twenty-five years old, although not published until 1993, six years after Head's death. In the book, as in the letter above, Head positions coloured identity as being in solidarity with black South Africans and people of African ancestry worldwide; yet she warns them against a black-versus-white view of the South African reality.

The protagonist, Mouse, is a mixed-raced orphan who grows up in the slums in a series of adoptive families with abusive step-fathers. The only spark of hope in her sad story is an old man who teaches her how to write. Mouse runs away to the city, where she almost accidentally lands her first job with the tabloid African Beat as the only female reporter. The short-lived feeling of triumph is quickly dispelled by the daily reality of her job, in which she is mercilessly bullied by her colleagues. Mouse's lessons in sexual harassment from her cocksure colleagues are intended as well-meant advice on how to become a journalist, but instead have the opposite effect of inhibiting her self-expression. Moreover, the racial make-up of African Beat's staff is hierarchically distributed, with a white editor at the top and black reporters at the bottom. As Mouse soon discovers, "African Beat" is only a cover name for a government-monitored newspaper that justifies apartheid and damages relations between blacks and whites.

To a South African reader, African Beat is an obvious parody of Drum, the notoriously popular lifestyle/political magazine catering to black urban readership that launched the careers of a generation of black writers who have since been identified with the "South African literary renaissance" (see Chapman, "Drum"; Visser; Guldimann, "The Cardinals"). Although most of these authors went into exile in the wake of Sharpeville, some would become important voices of Black Consciousness, such as James Matthews. However, as Dorothy Driver has commented, Head's novella seems to suggest that Drum was much less enabling to women with writing aspirations than to their male counterparts (Driver, "Drum"). In Driver's analysis, Drum's creation of modern black urban identity functions through the sign of the woman, who is reduced to the object of desire of the modern black man. In The Cardinals, Head however undercuts this narrative by constructing a plot that moves by the desires of two women (Mouse and Ruby) and one man (Johnny), whose lives are fatally interlocked. Mouse is the daughter of Ruby and Johnny, who later becomes her lover. The theme of incest structures the entire story and parodies both conventional romance and, because Johnny is an ardent African nationalist, the nationalist romance of liberation from white domination.

Mouse becomes a protege of Johnny, an older colleague who takes it upon himself to teach her to express herself as a writer and as a woman. Not knowing he is in fact her father, Johnny and Mouse start living together in a relationship that is veering towards incest. Climbing into bed with Mouse, Johnny tells her to pretend she is his sister. He tells her of his elder sister, who became a prostitute at the age of ten to feed the fatherless family. He says that "at night, she used to come and lie next to me and cry. One night she was stabbed to death. I think I would have never forgiven myself if I had withheld the kind of love she wanted from me" (78). He then goes on to say that if he had a daughter, he would probably make love to her, too. "Does that shock you?" he asks Mouse. "No," she replies (78).

A number of influential readings of The Cardinals have argued that Head is making a case for the redemptive value of incest in an abnormal society like apartheid South Africa where inter-racial love is forbidden (See Daymond, "Introduction"; MacKenzie, "Bessie Head's South Africa"; Gagiano, "Finding"). The protagonists are seen to oppose apartheid's political control by transgressing the universal sexual taboo with the power of their private passion, understanding that societal norms are not universal. If this had indeed been the authorial intention, the strategy is not entirely successful because Mouse is not a willing and independent player in the relationship. Mouse is dazed, uneasy and terrified, choosing to become numb under Johnny's demands to trim her dresses and please him sexually: "Dazed by the unexpectedness of events, Mouse preferred not to think or feel" (73-74). The relationship with Johnny, who wants to liberate himself from the predicament of race, might be seen to stir Mouse's desire for freedom, but at the same time denies it; as the novel ends, Johnny is about to rape her. I suggest that the story can instead be read as a subversion of romance, the genre that Head knew very well from her work as a journalist and would later subvert also in her novel Maru (see Guldimann, "Bessie Head's Maru").

As Margaret Daymond has observed, The Cardinals was inspired by Head's experience of working for the Golden City Post and its tabloid supplement, the Home Post (Daymond, "Introduction"). Golden City Post was a sister publication of Drum, and the two shared offices in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. Between 1958 and 1960, Head worked in both places, where she was the only woman on the staff (MacKenzie, Bessie Head 6). Although she wanted to do political or investigative journalism, she was asked to write three columns: one for housewives, called "True Romances," and two for children and teenagers ("Dear Gang" and "Hiya Teenagers!"). She lost her job after her suicide attempt following an experience of sexual assault in April 1960 (Eilersen 49).

Head's biography by Gillian Stead Eilersen is unable to shed much light on this period in Head's life. (12) While the incidents surrounding the sexual assault are unclear, if read through the lens of The Cardinals, they seem to point to the masculinism and misogyny of Drum and the anti-apartheid resistance. As Driver has aptly commented, "Head survived as a writer in spite of Drum" ("Drum" 231). On March 21, 1960, Head was briefly arrested for supporting the PAC and Robert Sobukwe, who in her eyes already gained heroic proportions, in their march to the Sharpeville police station, in order to defy the Pass Law (Eilersen 49). Consequently, she suffered a shock of disillusionment with the party. The Sharpeville demonstration ended in a massacre of sixty-nine people; parallel demonstrations in Johannesburg and Cape Town resulted in hundreds of wounded and thousands of arrested, mostly men. Head organized a money collection for the women and children left without their main providers. She claims that after handing the money over to the PAC headquarters, "The few men there immediately took that money and went off on a huge womanizing spree" (49). This statement, regardless of its strict veracity that in Head's biography has often been difficult to trace, reflects Head's frustration with women's exclusion from the discourses of resistance, and her sobering up from her romanticized views of the struggle, which would inspire her debut novella, The Cardinals.

On the surface, the story follows the conventional Victorian romantic plot epitomized by Jane Eyre or Villette: a plain heroine whose real beauty lies inside opens the eyes and heart of a self-deceiving hero. Later, however, the latent violence of this romance is exposed. Johnny is a prototypical romantic hero: a raw, anarchic idealist who has not yet given up his belief in the possibility of true love and freedom. Mouse embodies the opposite of Johnny's mental freedom: passive, quiet, fearful and self-destructive, she lacks worldliness and the ability to act independently. Although Mouse's literary attempts reveal her insight and passion, Head portrays her as sexually timid. Likely, this is Head's strategy to counter the South African stereotypes of coloured women as sexually depraved as described above, and to foreground Mouse's intellectual side, at a time when Head was trying to reconcile her own identities as an intellectual and a coloured woman. Johnny, however, views the "problem" of Mouse's lack of confidence as closely bound with her "repressed" sexuality, and takes it upon himself to help her: "If you are a bit scared of sex then it's simple. Most women are when they haven't experienced it before. You just have to tell me. I know what to do" (105). Gagiano has argued that Head endorses and values Johnny's feelings for Mouse, whose psychologically damaged self he saves by caring for her beyond the seduction game (67-70). There are, however, too few signs of his caring. The romance gradually gives in to a parody of romance as Mouse becomes a toy in the whimsical hands of Johnny, who threatens her with violence ("You may not love me but I can't just let it end there. I want you.... I might do just about anything to you when the mood gets me.... I'm going to kill you ...") and at one point actually starts choking her--literally gagging her voice (72-73, 111). Mouse puts up surprisingly little resistance to Johnny's pathological love, petrified in fascination of the danger that lurks in Johnny's bedroom. The invalid woman, who is tricked by the African Beat into hopes of receiving a wheelchair, is an image of Mouse's own cheated self whose "endless opportunities" with the African Beat turn her into an emotional and mental invalid. Mouse's regression from an independent tea-girl who writes an indignant letter to the editor of the African Beat, to a "Mouse," to an invalid and a concubine, to a child ("It's only the dumb, blank child in you that makes me tolerate this crazy set-up") parodies and reverses the Romantic quest for self (113). The implication of the suggested rape at the end of the story is that women's desires are not recognized by nationalist discourses: Johnny, an ardent believer in freedom, wants to force Mouse's freedom upon her. Johnny's attitude towards Mouse mirrors the paternalistic way white liberals treated blacks in South Africa.

Yet, Mouse is not simply a victim: she possesses a power that lies precisely in her multiple ambiguity. "I've never in my life seen so many contradictions in one human body," Johnny tells her. "Aren't you a puzzle, even to yourself, Mouse? ... I just can't figure you out anymore" (111-12). Despite being terrified of his sexuality, Mouse goes to live with Johnny. Her "body look[s] child-like" (78), yet her writing reveals the passion of a woman: "This bit here proves to me that you are very much alive inside" (37). She keeps repeating that she loves Johnny and yet cannot love him. Born in 1937 as Miriam, she later becomes Charlotte Smith born in 1939, and then simply Mouse. "Who are you?" "Where do you come from?" "What's your name?" ask the "exasperated voices" of nurses and doctors in the hospital. "To all these questions she kept silent" (10). Mouse's silence, repression and multiple identity is a self-defense mechanism through invisibility. Like J. M. Coetzee's titular character Michael K, who chooses invisibility as a way to successfully escape a system that tries to name him, classify him, pin him down, Mouse's feminine silence resists Johnny's dominant masculinist voice that operates in a binary, heterosexist, black-and-white world. As Johnny sees it, the problem with South Africa is the whites. He resolutely rejects the advances of Mona Ross, both for being white and for being a woman:

"I just don't mess around with White women," he said bluntly. "For heaven's sake. I'm just a woman." "Yes. When it suits you to be." "How can you be so chauvinistic." "You can call it that if you like. All I know is that you White women frighten me to death. You run around with facades so thick that a man just can't find a way to the real person beneath." (85)

The Cardinals is a testimony to Head's clear understanding of the interrelated workings of racial and sexual prejudice. Gender difference, the most deeply internalized binary model of unequal opposites, is the basis for Johnny's African nationalism, in which the "other" race is associated directly with the "other" sex. In this mechanism of othering, reflected in Drum's hypermasculinity and later in Black Consciousness poetry, blackness is bold, straightforward, virile, fighting in solidarity (stereotypically male), while whiteness is duplicitous, treacherous, and otherwise morally deviant (stereotypically female): "Don't talk to me about women. I hate them. They mess everything up.... I'm sick up to the head of women and their squirming, wriggling bodies" (24, 63). Mouse baffles Johnny because she is neither male nor female ("But am I not a real woman?" she asked seriously. "No. Just a shambles of unfocused atoms"), grown up in the slums yet an intellectual, and (unknown to Johnny) neither black nor white, born of a union of a black father and a white mother (109). To Johnny, she is both a virgin and a provocative prostitute, a woman and a child, and, in a very real sense, a lover and a daughter. Although Mouse's multiple ambiguity eventually fails to protect her from Johnny, it violently shakes up his binary universe.

To claim that Johnny is simply a Black nationalist and a male chauvinist would be to overlook his complexity, however. Like Mouse, Johnny is first of all a victim of apartheid, frustrated and unfree. Yet to her, his self-confident, flippant, passionate, bursting-with-energy figure embodies freedom and is a source of fascination. The confrontation with Johnny's masculine alterity becomes an inspiration for her own desire for liberation. The problem is that Johnny's aura of freedom--that is, his stereotypical masculinity--at the same time threatens Mouse with violence and rape. The novella ends with Johnny preparing to rape Mouse while she cries into her pillow.

Johnny's macho masculinity is however partly redeemed by Head in a subplot, the "true romance" in which Johnny is placed in a stereotypically female position. This is the story of Johnny, a black fisherman, and Ruby, a white middleclass woman, who one day meet on a beach, fall in love, and conceive a child. Johnny's and Ruby's crossrace and crossclass liaison subverts both apartheid and Black Consciousness discourses. Instead of a black predator on a fragile white woman, the black man is the sexual and aesthetic object, linked with a natural element--the sea--traditionally associated with femininity; while Ruby (who has a mane of long black hair suggestive of sexuality) is the voyeur and pursuer escaping from the boredom of suburbia and repressive middle-class conventions: "How beautiful," she whispered and looked at him the way anyone would look ... [at] a beautiful object" (43). By simultaneously reversing the black woman-white man scenario of BC poetry, Head defamiliarizes the understanding of crossracial sex in South Africa and suggests that race is not essential. The powerful, clandestine sexual attraction between Johnny and Ruby is figured as an opportunity for the redemption of racial violence and anticipates the theme of love for the forbidden other that becomes an important device of Head's anti-racist protest in her later writing. It is implied that even though Johnny doesn't like white women out of principle, he cannot resist Ruby's passion:

   Love me! Love me! Love me! she cried and it seemed as though his
   love was as fierce as the savage, battering beat of high sea; or,
   like a storm beating down on the dry, hard earth of her body and
   she absorbed its pounding drive, lost and lost in elemental
   ecstasy; and then, like the sweet shuddering sigh of the satiated
   earth, their limbs enclosed about each other in a close and relaxed
   embrace. (45)

Despite the romantic cliche of love as transcending racism, the potential of the relationship between Ruby and Johnny lies in its reversal of conventional romantic gender roles: Ruby is the sexually virile initiator, while Johnny is the more passive participant in the relationship. In being completely outside the social bond of middle-class marriage, their passion can transcend the sexism of Paddy, Ruby's white fiance, who wants to marry a woman with whom he can "get somewhere in the world," using her as a launch pad for his own ambitions (51). Sadly, the possibilities of the dissident desire are thwarted by a racist society. After her family force Ruby to give up her mixed-raced child--who is none other than Miriam/ Charlotte/Mouse--Ruby commits suicide.


Head's early writing bears witness to her political conscientization, oppressed not only by apartheid ideology but also by emerging African nationalism in post-Sharpeville South Africa, which was inadequate in comprehending Head's identity as a mixed-raced person and as a woman. In an attempt to construct her dissident identity as an anti-apartheid writer and activist, Head needed to dismantle not only the racial assumptions of the apartheid discourse, but the racial and gender assumptions of South African Black nationalism as well. Head's staging of racial and gender ambiguity in The Cardinals through the fatal triangle of Mouse, Ruby, and Johnny, and her parody of romance, unsettles the internalized binary structures of race and gender and points to women's and coloureds' exclusion from both the discourses of anti-apartheid resistance and writing in South Africa of the 1960s. Romance, Head suggests, does not take into account women's desires, just as the nationalist romance, staged by BC poetry as the struggle of black men against white men over the body of the black woman, did not recognize women as desiring subjects, and white and mixed-raced people as national citizens. She would pursue these ideas further through the character of Margaret in Maru, whose ethnic minority status makes her a pariah and whose marriage to Maru denies her her desire for Moleka; and Elizabeth in A Question of Power, whose mixed race makes it very difficult for her to be accepted in her adopted community and turns love and marriage impossible.

Head's idealistic impulse born from a survival instinct--to redefine her stigmatized racial origin as a "universal human identity"--is, I argue, closely related to her playing with androgyny, in an attempt to evade all binary systems that she saw as inter-related. Her racially ambiguous autobiographical protagonists (Mouse, Margaret, Elizabeth) are also, in ways, gender-ambiguous. Androgyny, however, effectively partakes of the same binarism when it is seen as the only alternative to the masculine/feminine binary. In A Question of Power, Elizabeth is unable to conceptualize her identity within the available binary of race and gender; therefore, she identifies, reluctantly, with those whom she perceives to have fallen between apartheid's racist and heterosexist classifications--the androgynous coloured homosexuals who dress in women's dresses and use "feminine" gestures. As Rosemary Jolly has pointed out, Elizabeth's identification with the coloured homosexuals (both racially and sexually ambiguous) is problematically accompanied by the obvious homophobia of her nightmares, in which homosexuals figure as child-molesters, rapists and psychopaths given to bestiality. Elizabeth's (and Head's) pathologization of homosexuality, Jolly argues, depends upon Head's inability to conceptualize gender outside the binary patriarchal structures.

This comes through also in Head's private letters to Giles Gordon, her editor at Gollancz. Seeking to liberate herself from stereotypical femininity, Head chose the opposite stereotype of masculinity as powerful, courageous, broad-minded, and mentally free:

   that quiet rhythm of deep feeling which so often builds up in me is
   so powerfully masculine that I was forced to create powerful males
   to bear the tide of it.... It's simply my personality. I can't
   express myself as female. I can't stop thinking outside female
   bounds, in broad horizon terms, like a man.... I know my head is
   male and I simply accept that. (Letter to Gordon)

   There is something tough and masculine in me that will suddenly
   make me do bold, unexpected, courageous things, and I concentrate
   on that quality to the detriment of my feminine side. (Undated
   letter to Gordon)

Head's racial and gender unsettledness, which emerge through each other, reflect her inability to attain an integrated identity under apartheid, in whose language she was, as Jolly has written, always "only an imperfect white and/or an imperfect black with respect to her race, and an imperfect man with respect to her gender" (115). Wishing to change the terms of the struggle and escape the racialism and sexism of the anti-apartheid discourse, Head however often fell prey to the same binary structures. As has been commented by critics, her male protagonists are always stereotypically masculine, endowed with a patriarchal authority and a messianic function in the plot, such as Johnny, Maru, Gilbert, and Makhaya (Daymond, "Fable"; Gardner, "Introduction" 11; Ibrahim 88-123.)

Where Head's gender discourse can be said to succeed in escaping these structures is in placing her female protagonists into active roles of artists, journalists, and teachers who struggle against oppression within the small scale of their personal situations, yet maintain also many of their "feminine" characteristics, such as self-denial. For Mouse in The Cardinals and Margaret in Maru, the possession of the (traditionally masculine) creative or writing skills signifies their desire for freedom. Even though they may not triumph (a fact that has made Head's fiction often problematic for feminist readings), their constant desire for freedom, which in Head is always equated with a masculine identity, provides an important source of imagination of alternative narratives (see Lockett; Gardner, "Introduction"; Clayton; Daymond, "Fable"; Ibrahim 88-123). Being at the same time racially ambiguous (Mouse and Elizabeth are mixed-raced, while Margaret is a Masarwa who passes for a coloured), they are portrayed as bearers of change who struggle to place their humanity above their race and gender. In this way, Head responds to the racialism and sexism of black nationalism in South Africa. Her two-fold emancipating project points to the limits of Black Consciousness and cautions against uncritically celebratory accounts of this discourse as liberating for all. Racial and gender ambiguity function in her work as resistance against both racial nationalism and patriarchy, which she recognizes as always operating in tandem. Although her work is sometimes apt to replicate binary gender structures, it pulls in several directions at once in its attempts to divest patriarchal assumptions about women's sexuality, marriage, and motherhood.


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(1.) See the poetry by the South African Black Consciousness poets Mongane Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Mafika Gwala, and Ingoapele Madingoane, but also of the Senegalese poet, politician, and the founder of Negritude, Leopold Sedar Senghor, whose odes to the "Black woman" indicate that this imagination was universal to black nationalism across Africa.

(2.) This is Bessie Head's interpretation of her mother's life. It is disputed by Susan Gardner, who found evidence that Bessie Amelia Emery had been hospitalized for mental illness prior to her pregnancy with Head. However, I agree with Dorothy Driver that Head's self-mythologization of her origins is the narrative lens through which Head's life should be interpreted, since it was the narrative that Head chose to believe. See Gardner, "Introduction" and Driver, "A Question of Power."

(3.) The main sources for this biographical summary are Eilersen's biography and Head's autobiographical writings in A Woman Alone.

(4.) I am using the lowercase term "coloured" rather than the capitalized apartheid term "Coloured," in the neutral sense of "mixed-raced" as it has been repossessed by the South Africans who identify as such.

(5.) Nixon, however, omits Head's early work to focus fully on her Botswana work, in particular Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind and The Collector of Treasures.

(6.) Unpublished interview with Cecil Abrahams, qtd. in Nixon, "Border Country" 109.

(7.) This is even though Steve Biko emphatically argued against the Movement being anti-white, and opened the Movement to everyone officially designated "black," including people referred to as "coloured." See South African Students' Organization Policy Manifesto.

(8.) On this, see Dunton, who cites Williams Sassine, Wirriyamu (1980); Kofi Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother (1971); Caya Makhele, L'homme au Landau (Man in Landau, 1988); and Camara Laye, Dramouss (A Dream of Africa, 1966). (9.) On Krotoa's ambiguous status in the South African Coloured mythology, see Carli Coetzee, who argues that the figure of Krotoa has been both unifying and divisive for the Coloured population.

(10.) On Baartman's iconic status in late nineteenth-century discourses on female sexuality in art, medicine, and literature, see Gilman.

(11.) A number of "Soweto novels" that take inspiration from the Soweto Revolt and its aftermath cast black men as heroes and women as the procreative bodies. See Mongane Serote, To Every Birth Its Blood (1981); Miriam Tlali, Amandla (1980); Sipho Sepamla, A Ride on the Whirlwind (1981); Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, Children of Soweto (1982).

(12.) Eilersen sums up mid-1960 to mid-1961 with this sentence: "Very little is known of her movements during the next year" (50).


Institute of World Literature, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovakia


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A268789192