Books · Colonisation · Gender · Political · Whiteness & racism

The indignity of labour: anti-Blackness in pre-industrial South Africa

The Grass is SingingThe Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Re-read after about 7 year’s break.

One of the unusual things about this, Lessing’s first published book, is the extreme omniscient author position she takes. She describes a character’s appearance to others, then swoops into her psyche to reveal her thoughts. She describes someone’s response to another person’s expression and then jumps to his companion’s view of him. To emphasise her power even further, she shifts from objective descriptions of the landscape to characters’ experiences of it. However, there is one threshold she will not cross, and it is into the minds of black characters, usually referred to in author-voice and by white characters as ‘natives’.

I think Lessing has adopted this position, and drawn attention to it, and made an exception to it, to emphasise white supremacist arrogance and ignorance in general, and to acknowledge her own limited perspective as a white writer. In the opening chapter, we find this about the black man, Moses, who will be executed for murdering the white woman, Mary:

“People did ask, cursorily, why the murderer had given himself up. There was not much chance of escape. But he did have a sporting chance. He could have run to the hills and hidden for a while. Or he could have slipped over the border into Portuguese territory. Then the District Native Commissioner, at a sundowner party, said that it was perfectly understandable. If one knew anything about the history of the country, or had read any of the memoirs or letters of the old missionaries and explorers, one would have come across accounts of the society Lobengula ruled. The laws were strict: everyone knew what they could or could not do. If someone did an unforgivable thing, like touching one of the King’s women, he would submit fatalistically to punishment, which was likely to be impalement over an ant-heap on a stake, or something equally unpleasant. ‘I have done wrong, and I know it,’ he might say ‘therefore let me be punished.’ Well, it was the tradition to face punishment, and really there was something rather fine about it. Remarks like these are forgiven from native commissioners, who have to study languages, customs, and so on; although it is not done to say things natives do are ‘fine’. (Yet the fashion is changing: it is permissible to glorify the old ways sometimes, providing one says how depraved the natives have become since.)

“So that aspect of the affair was dropped, yet it is not in the least interesting, for Moses might not have been a Matabele at all. He was in Mashonaland; though of course natives do wander all over Africa. He might have come from anywhere: Portuguese territory, Nyasaland, the Union of South Africa. And it is a long time since the days of the great king Lobengula. But then native commissioners tend to think in terms of the past”

Here we have the assumption of white authority and expertise, exotification of ‘native tradition’, followed by a confession of ignorance that must be diffused with assertions of indifference and contempt.

Having opened with the aftermath of the murder, Lessing rewinds to unravel the tableau, telling the story of Mary from her childhood. This section of the story has feminist interest, because the naive young woman from an unhappy, unsupportive background is happy, independent, successful and a good friend to those around her until the pressure of heteronormative expectations and patriarchal constructions of women’s roles breaks upon her and pushes her into marriage to a young farmer, Dick, who is similarly directed by convention and vague desires. Knowing little of each other they are both disappointed in their expectations and sink into a mutually damaging marriage. Mary, struggling to adapt herself to her new situation, driven by a mixture of complex personal shame and the culture of white supremacy, abuses her servants and alienates her neighbours, mismanaging the little portion of her life she can control.

If Mary’s redeeming feature is her former happiness, Dick’s is his respect and love for the land of his farm. Unlike his neighbour Charlie Slatter, who grows tobacco, grazes cattle and makes no effort to maintain the fertility of his soil, Dick plants trees and rotates crops, growing them in small batches. Due to his lack of business sense and short attention span with his misguided investments, he never makes money, and both he and Mary are harrowed and embittered by their poverty.

Like all of the white South Africans, Dick is an ardent bigot, and Lessing-as-author cannot restrain herself from direct criticism of him: “‘Listen to me,’ said Dick curtly. ‘I work hard enough don’t I? All day I am down on the lands with these lazy black savages, fighting them to get some work out of them[…] you should learn sense. If you want to get work out of them you have to know how to manage them. You shouldn’t expect too much. They are nothing but savages after all.’ Thus Dick, who had never stopped to reflect that these same savages had cooked for him better than his wife did, had run his house, had given him a comfortable existence, as far has his pinched life could be comfortable, for years”

At other points in the book, she is more subtle, allowing white injustice to indict itself:

“Like most South Africans, Dick did not like mission boys, they ‘knew too much’. And in any case they should not be taught to read and write: they should be taught the dignity of labour and general usefulness to the white man.”

“She said again sharply, her voice rising: ‘I said, get back to work.’
At this he stopped still, looked at her squarely and said in his own dialect which she did not understand, ‘I want to drink.’
‘Don’t talk that gibberish to me,’ she snapped. She looked around for the bossboy who was not in sight.
The man said, a halting ludicrous manner, ‘I… want… water.’ He spoke in English, and suddenly smiled and opened his mouth and pointed his finger down his throat. She could hear the other natives laughing a little from where they stood on the mealie-dump. Their laughter, which was good-humoured, drove her suddenly mad with anger[…] most white people think it is ‘cheek’ if a native speaks English. She said, breathless with anger, ‘Don’t speak English to me,’ and then stopped. This man was shrugging and smiling and turning his eyes up to heaven as if protesting that she had forbidden him to speak his own language, and then hers – so what was he to speak? That lazy insolence stung her into inarticulate rage[…] involuntarily she lifted her whip and brought it down across his face in a vicious swinging blow.”

Mary’s steadily disintegrating mental health is the dynamic moving the plot throughout. Lessing keeps the focus on her and most often takes her perspective. She carefully and cleverly marks this foregrounding, for example by suddenly giving Moses a name for the first time when Mary is shaken out of her lassitude by the sudden, deeply uncomfortable awareness of his humanity, when he waits for her to be out of sight before completing the task of washing himself. Mary is unable to process this pivotal revelation. Although she is deeply unsympathetic, the reader is able to empathise with her and see her as a damaged personality locked into a situation that is hostile to her fragile, confused sense of herself.

In my opinion this book is a passionate, humble and self-aware response to the virulent injustice of white supremacy and the social structure in South Africa.

Just as I finished reading it, I came across the website of an exhibition of Margaret Bourke-White’s photography from South Africa that is contemporary to Lessing’s book. This section is on farm workers and this one on exotification is particularly interesting. he photograph at the top of this page could be Mary and Dick: ‘poor whites’

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