Frye and Artis on Gordimer

Nick Frye ’16 – Remember when South Africa ended apartheid with a violent revolt with the aid of the Russians, Cubans, and other African countries?  If you said no, do not worry  – this is just the setting for Nadine Gordimer’s fictional book, July’s People.  During this revolt, that never actually occurred, a family of white liberals find themselves fleeing to the village of their African servant, July.  The Smales family, had thought themselves a progressive people in the time of apartheid in South Africa.  The family had been very kind to their servant July, at least in their eyes.  They had instructed him to call them Sir or Madame instead of master; they had paid him quite fairly; they had let him go home to his village once every two years; and, they had given him gifts to take home to his wife during this time.  This family had viewed themselves as being progressive for the way that they treated July and other African people, and they did not truly believe in apartheid.  This is where the problems begin to arise. I think that one of the main points that Gordimer makes with this book is that it does not matter how liberal whites claim to be in South Africa in the time of apartheid.  They might publicly disagree with apartheid, and they might have joined some different political parties in protest of apartheid, but when everything is said and done, most of these whites were still participating in the apartheid system. The Smales family was still contributing to it by hiring an African servant who they thought they paid well, but compared to a white servant, they were probably paying a lot less.  They thought that they were progressive when they had July call them Sir instead of master, but in reality, the changing of titles does not make any difference at all.  July would still have to complete the same tasks no matter what the title of his employer is.  The only difference that it might make is by giving the ones with the titles a false sense of being fair. Gordimer’s writing must have been heavily influenced by the works of Biko. I wrote about Biko’s opinion on how white liberals should not necessarily be involved in the movement of the Africans to free themselves from apartheid.  Biko writes about how the whites can truly never understand what the Africans are trying to achieve, and that even if the whites are trying to help get rid of apartheid, they are still using the system in their day to day lives.  Biko is basically writing about the Smales family from Gordimer’s book, and how they should not necessarily be involved in the movement.  I find this kind of funny considering that Gordimer herself was a white liberal.  This work might have been her way of showing other white liberals at the time that just because that disagreed with apartheid did not mean that they were not still taking advantage of it.

Ian Artis ’16 – Arguably the more experimental of the novels we’ve read excepting A Question of Power, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People is a novel which narrates a world in which the Soweto Riots would have been successful – a novel in which blacks now carry the power. Overthrown by the black population, whites are now the enemy. Their neighborhoods are destroyed and they are forced to flee. Even air travel is not a safe escape, as planes are being shot out of the sky. A striking feature of the novel is the black character, July, and his relationship post civil war to Maureen Smales. Maureen and Bam, her husband, used to employ July, a black man. The white couple would sign his passbook as he traveled back and forth from his area to his own. Once the system of apartheid was toppled, July took the couple into his village. The language surrounding the power shift Maureen and July’s relationship is somewhat sexually charged: “the incredible tenderness of the evening surrounded them as if mistaking them for lovers” (Gordimer 153) and a moment in which Maureen is aware that July is watching her scantily clad form both lend to the idea that Maureen and July’s relationship may have taken a sexual turn. Is this possible? Is it necessary? Potentially – especially since the gun Bam brought with them suddenly turns up missing. With the missing gun comes symbolic castration – after it is confirmed that the gun is gone, Maureen returns to the house to find Bam feeding the children, very typically seen as “a womans’ job”. Everything is on its head. Just consider the title – who has ownership in the story? July. He now has the agency, the power. They are his people; they rely on him. At any moment, if the mood strikes him, he can turn them over to militants and have him killed. Why not, then, since her husband is now powerless, keep July sexually satisfied? The entire crumbling of traditional power structures is well detailed in the novel.

Sodipe and Andre on Gordimer

Immanuel Mitchell-Sodipe ’18 – Nadine Gordimer sets her novel, July’s People in the context of a fictional civil war in South Africa in which the Black South Africans overthrow the system of apartheid — the very system from which the two main characters, Maureen and Bamford Smales (a married couple of white liberals) benefit from, though they may seem to show “objection” to it. There’s a slew of symbolism in this novel, all in an attempt to describe what revolution means for white South Africans — the conservatives and the liberal types alike. Gordimer also makes an attempt to pull back the veil of marriage and white middle class sensibilities, sentiments and values. The Smales’ go from having a Black servant (July) to having a Black savior (still, July). Later on in the book, there is a scene in which Bamford Smales loses his gun — a symbol of the white power nationalist structure. In class, we talked about the possibility of Maureen being attracted to July, and if this is the case, then the novel shows a complete revolution. The white power structure, involving its institutions of course but also its manifestations, were overthrown in the civil war. We see the patriarchal nation state (Bamford) lose its power (gun). We see Bamford emasculated by Maureen’s rejection of her husband for July. In thinking about this novel — thinking about the civil war and revolution — it is easy for me to think about Soweto. It is easy for me to figure that this is what Soweto could have meant for the Black South Africans.

Derek Andre ’16 – Over the past week, our class read the 1981 novel July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. The novel exists in an alternate history where black uprisings in Apartheid South Africa, such as the Soweto Uprising, were successful in toppling the Apartheid regime. Because of the overthrow, the Smales family, a family of white liberals, are smuggled out of town by their black servant July. Over the course of the book the power dynamic between the former-oppressors and the former-oppressed flip to a point where July, toward the end of the novel, becomes the dominant force in the relationship. In sum, July’s People is an interesting take on the ways that power can shift based on outside forces. I found it interesting, having completed the book, how the nature of the novel can change depending on the perspective of the reader, especially those in South Africa at the time of the novel’s publishing. For White-South Africa in 1981, it’s hard to imagine this work as anything less than a perverse, dystopian fiction. For Black-South Africa, the novel was, in some ways, a beacon of hope that their efforts, both militaristic and peaceful, could be successful and that they would come to dominate the country in the coming years. To be fair, this does seem to be the case for most literature, but the stark difference between the two perspectives seems to be especially noticeable here.



Campbell and Artis on Biko

Ty Campbell ’16 – One of the topics that interested me the most from Biko’s I Write What I Like is the concept of Black Consciousness. The term is one that I’ve only recently heard of through my senior seminar class, focusing on The Black Arts Movement. In our class focusing on BAM, Black Consciousness and the Movement are forms of expression and self-identity within the United States. Although sharing many similar ideals, Black Consciousness in South African has a slightly different meaning and goal. Martin Delaney is credited with the beginning of Black Consciousness in the United States. Delaney promoted, “…the view that black people’s appreciation of blackness was a key dimension of their eventual liberation” (Biko ix). Later, W.E.B. Du Bois is credited with further promotion of Black Consciousness concepts in the United States. However, in South Africa, after Apartheid, Black Consciousness focused more on political awareness. As stated by Dr. Marshall during one of our classes, “Black Consciousness language incorporates political based terminology, especially in South Africa.” With Black Consciousness starting as an organized movement in South African during the mid 1960s, this would explain why Biko references several different political topics in I Write What I Like.

Ian Artis ’16 – Before this class, I had never read any South African literature. I had hardly read anything from African authors, let alone ones from this particular part of the continent. I read very little related to apartheid, racial consciousness, or government sanctioned racism. Going into this class, I was tremendously excited to see what would unfold in my study of this literature. Certain themes have presented themselves, one being the collective consciousness and self-perception of the oppressed. This theme is discussed in Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, and is called black consciousness. From the reading: “In essence, Biko’s black consciousness was “an attitude of mind and a way of life” (91). It was a new way in which a black person, previously with low self-esteem, began to look at him or herself.” I found this idea pretty interesting, since in the novels we’ve been reading, the perception of self plays quite a central role. In You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, the main character is constantly evaluating herself, critiquing herself, and defining herself according to her skin color and shade (which happens to be light, giving her a sense of comfort and ease of access in obtaining an abortion). Black consciousness sought to elevate the profile of blacks and heighten the black experience by changing the attitudes and self-perceptions of blacks. This idea was also the precursor to the black power movement, which instilled blackness as a point of pride rather than shame. As the readings continue, I’m looking forward to reading more about this idea and how it affects the characters in the novels.

Rhodes and Bowe on Biko

Christian Rhodes ’17 – Steve Biko was an anti-apartheid activist in the 1960’s and 70’s. He is considered a martyr because he was killed while in police custody in 1977. He was 30 years old when he died, and in his short life, he started a movement that is integral in the anti-apartheid movement. He brought the idea of black consciousness to the forefront of peoples’ thoughts by starting the grass roots movement to empower his black brethren to stand up and fight for what was right.  Biko references the Idea of black consciousness continuously throughout his book I Write What I Like. The idea of black consciousness is an idea that is hard to quantify because of the ever changing world we live in. It is essentially the self-awareness of identity and place in the world as a black individual. The ideas of “race” and “ethnicity” are turned on their head with Biko’s writing. “Ethnicity” is the belonging to a certain social group that has similar natural or cultural tradition. “Race” is someone’s physical characteristics. Biko argued that being black has nothing to do with one’s color. It is a state of mind, which goes hand in hand with his idea of black consciousness. Biko would be proud of the progress that has occurred in South Africa since his murder. There have been elections, and a new constitution was passed to make the Republic of South Africa truly a republic. But despite the progress in his nation state, there is still so much further to go.

Evan Bowe ’17 – Biko talks about how it is impossible for white men to identify with black men because of the former’s privileged perspective on life. Furthermore, white liberals are not necessarily insincere but subconsciously support Apartheid and do not want to give up their position at the top of society. Biko says that they have fooled themselves into thinking their part of the solution, and they have fooled blacks too. In You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, Frieda’s mother has a high opinion of Mr. Weedon, calling him a “gentleman” repeatedly. She says that “these Boers could learn a few things from him” (Wicomb 3), setting him in contrast to the oppressive status quo. However, her mother and father both fail to recognize his role in the oppression. Mr. Weedon owns a mine in which blacks are exploited for cheap labor. And, as he tells Frieda’s parents about his wife’s asthma, they sympathize with him when he explains how she has to spend time in the Bahamas during the winter because of the cold. Until both Frieda’s parents realize that Mr. Weedon is neither their friend, nor someone to be admired, their Black Consciousness cannot begin to take effect.

Andre and Sodipe on Biko

Derek Andre ’16 –  Throughout this semester, with nearly all of our engagements with South African literature, a common theme of madness has permeated our readings. We’ve dealt with a woman descending into a schizophrenic mania, a daughter committing patricide and acquiring a strange form of Stockholm Syndrome for her rapist, and general disjointedness to the prose that indicates that this theme of hysteria may run deeper than just these two examples. For the first few weeks of the course, I struggled to understand where this psychosis stemmed from; of course it’s understandable that the insanity could be driven by the authors’ individual reactions to the Apartheid regime, but to see such a pervasiveness caught me off guard initially. After reading Steve Biko, however, this ubiquity makes much more sense. In his book I Write What I Like, Biko continually returns to this concept of Black Consciousness. While it’s difficult to put a precise definition on the idea, Black Consciousness is, essentially, the perspective of the black individual, formed by the circumstances in which black people often find themselves. Often, this consciousness involves an inferiority complex and Biko explicitly states that being ‘black’ is a matter of thought, not one of skin color. Ultimately, Biko contends, the goal of the Black Consciousness movement is to create an environment where black people can view themselves as independent and important beings. He says “what Black Consciousness seeks to do is to produce at the output end of the process real black people who do not regard themselves as appendages to white society.” With this concept of a specific Black Consciousness in mind, it seems, at least in my opinion, that much of the insanity we have seen in our other readings is emblematic of the characters’ internal conflicts between seeing themselves as unnecessary attachments to the white, male hegemonic society and seeing themselves as sovereign beings capable of asserting their own place in that society. While it would be convenient for the characters to simply be able to achieve this new level of consciousness without descending into a sort of madness, I think this descent is representative of the difficulty of ascending beyond the hegemony. Biko even seems to have these signs of conflict in his own writings; however, he also seems to have moved beyond the desire to ‘fit in’ for the most part. In sum, I feel that Steve Biko’s writings speak to something significant about not only the black consciousness, but also the South African consciousness.


Immanuel Mitchell-Sodipe ’18 – When reading Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, I couldn’t help but draw connections between his philosophy of Black Consciousness and my own personal experience in a modern day liberation struggle — the Black Lives Matter Movement. Black Consciousness, in sum, is the view that black people’s liberation is connected deeply to their appreciation of blackness. In fact, that it was key to their liberation. This philosophy influenced some famous names such as Malcolm X, Charles Hamilton, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) who later developed it into the philosophy of Black Power. This past summer, I attended a conference in Cleveland, OH called the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). It was like any other conference but instead it was specifically tailored for Black activists, organizers, and Black people. One of the prevailing themes of that conference was the notion that our liberation was tied directly to recognizing and appreciating our blackness. Not only were there workshops on policy formation and direct action training (items that one would expect at a conference tailored for organizers) but also there were workshops that were explicitly tailored to the history of Black arts, Black literature, and things of that nature. One gripe I do have with Biko’s analysis was that he didn’t include a space for queer folks – but I imagine one must consider the times in which he was writing. M4BL did, however, and I think it is necessary to include such a space — a space for queer folks, women, and poor folks — in any analysis for Black liberation. For the liberation of Black people (abroad and domestically) must include a space for the liberation of the most marginalized in that group.

Frye and Cramer on Biko

Nick Frye ’16 – In Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, there is a chapter labeled Black Souls in White Skins? that deals with the issues of whites helping the African movements in South Africa.  Biko labels these whites “the liberals”.  The liberals, in the context of achieving equality for Africans in South Africa, are doing more harm than good, according to Biko.  This is because the white liberals are trying to live in two separate worlds.  On one hand, they are trying to acquire more rights for the African community and, on the other hand, they are trying to save face with the white population by not overstepping their bounds.  Biko claims that these liberals cannot have the best of both of these worlds and says that even though they are trying to help Africans, they are still able to use their white privilege.  The use of their white privilege shows that they are truly not able to understand the hardships that the African community is facing.  Biko states that these white liberals should not concern themselves with helping the Africans directly with their movements, rather, Africans should lead their own movements so they can truly reach their desired goals and not assimilate into what the whites want them to. Whites should address the problems of white racism and privilege amongst the white population. In the times we live in within the United States we are still seeing racial discrimination.  There are many people fighting so that this discrimination can truly end.  Many whites are aiding these issues by joining campaigns and movements.  It is good that they are trying to end discrimination, but the white community is still unable to understand fully what is exactly going on.  They will not know the true struggles that some African Americans have to face on a daily basis and they, like the liberals that Biko talked about, can use their white privilege whenever problems arise for them.  They can still do well for these movements by educating other whites, but they cannot possibly lead these movements for they will not truly understand the struggle.  This is my interpretation of how Biko would see modern day Americans struggle with racial discrimination.

Ben Cramer ’17 – Throughout his life as an activist in apartheid South Africa, Steven Biko produced a substantial body of essays on the social issues that plagued his life. He wrote quite strongly about the police in South Africa and the environment of fear they created, and unfortunately those writings are still relevant today. “One frequently hears people say of someone who has just been arrested or banned – ‘there is no smoke without fire’ or if the guy was outspoken – ‘he asked for it, I am not surprised’. In a sense this is almost defying the security police; they cannot be wrong.” All too often in the last few years while police brutality has become more of a national conversation in the United States, African American men and women are consistently put on trial for their own deaths at the hands of white police officers. Biko’s writings become more and more relevant. It is agonizing to see the public readily accept that police officers are telling the truth about the events that led up to a shooting. Enough people doubt the narrative now, at least, that there is a push for body cameras on police officers, which is one advantage that we have over the 60s and 70s. Advancing technology is letting us hold everyone more accountable, and while that does nothing to bring back those who were brutalized, these advances should help to bring justice in the future, and eventually end the need to bring justice at all.

Greene and Biehl on Biko

Zach Greene ’16 – In Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, he discusses white racism and privilege while specifically attacking the white liberal. Bearing in mind this was written during the Apartheid era in South Africa, he has one point that resonated with me. Biko writes, “The problem is WHITE RACISM and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realize this the better for us blacks… White liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society—white racism.”

I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to my own condition as a white citizen in the United States. While racism is not as prevalent in my generation as it was in prior generations, it still exists to some degree. In order for the United States to continue moving forward, the final coals of racism must be put out of a once raging fire. One hundred and fifty years have gone by since slavery was abolished and forty-seven years have gone by since the Civil Rights movement ended, yet there are still black children being shot in the streets and gross inequality in African-American incarceration rates. As Mr. Biko suggests, it is White America’s duty to make sure racism is blotted out, so real progress can be made.

Chris Biehl ’16 – In Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, he analyzes the different problems in South Africa in terms of Apartheid and general racism. He writes about Black Consciousness and how it plays a role in South Africa’s immense racism. A passage that stuck out to me directly was his chapter about Black Campuses and their attitude toward Apartheid and racism.

The way he writes about these campuses directly parallels to the American Civil Rights Movement. Biko says that the young college students are less focused on ending segregation because it does not change the true racist attitudes of those in South Africa. He says, “These people realise now that a lot of time and strength is wasted in maintaining artificial and token nonracialism…artificial not in the sense that it is natural to segregate but rather because even those involved in it have certain prejudices that they cannot get rid of and are therefore basically dishonest to themselves,” (Biko 17).

In the American Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. This made it illegal to discriminate in public, hire or fire based on race, and called for an integration of schools. On paper, this is everything a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement would want. Yet, in practice, the racial tendencies of Americans were in tact and did not magically change by the passing of this Act. This parallels with what Biko is saying about the attitudes towards desegregation on Black Campuses. Even if desegregation happened, it would not change the immoral attitudes of the individuals in South Africa.