Transnational Gendered Modernisms: Reading Manifestoes, Political Poetry, and Orature by Black South African Women

Mary K. DeShazer

What happens when feminist scholars transnationalize the boundaries of gendered modernisms?  When we read “on the move,” developing a diasporic consciousness that allows us to explore the historical and cultural exigencies of once colonized people who have documented their experiences in literary or polemical texts?  How might we reread gendered modernities through diasporic women’s testimonies of a perpetual state of living in the borderlands; their accounts of racist violence, homelessness, or forced dislocation and the attendant memories and traumas; their resultant multivocal identity politics and poetics of resistance? 

Black South African women’s anti-apartheid manifestoes, political poetry, and orature from the first half of the twentieth century suggest new ways of examining these questions.  In bringing a postcolonial, diasporic lens to modernist narratives from the South African national liberation struggle, I wish to extend the insights of Paul Gilroy on the Black Atlantic and the “chronotope” of ships passing from Europe to Africa and back; of Rita Felski on feminist discourses of racial othering in early suffragist texts; and of Janet Lyon on the significance and mutual influence of British and U.S. political manifestoes of the modernist period.  Such revisionist transnational inquiry can contribute to what Gilroy has called a “politics of transfiguration” that “reveals the hidden internal fissures in the concept of modernity” (38). It also responds to the question of what critical ground gendered modernisms need still to cover.

Reading as modernist texts the manifestoes against racism (and sexism) by Black South African women of the African National Congress (ANC) enables us to extend our understanding of feminist discourses of evolution and revolution beyond the boundaries investigated so insightfully by Felski and Lyon.  To challenge the “ideology of primitivism” in Olive Schreiner’s Women’s Labour (1911), in which, as Felski notes, Schreiner claims that Black (“Kaffir”) women accept their lot as submissive to men while  European women protest it, we might explore speeches by Charlotte Maxeke, a South African teacher who joined the “Women’s Auxiliary” of the ANC when it was founded in 1912 as a “national vigilant organization” to assert the rights of South Africa’s majority Black population.  Dissatisfied, like many women leaders, with non-voting status in the ANC, Maxeke founded the Bantu Women’s League in 1918. She was inspired by the militancy of 600 women in Bloemfontain, who in 1913 had successfully demonstrated against the white government’s efforts to require them to carry passbooks, or “passes,” that identified them as racial others and limited severely their freedom of movement.  These African women identified with British suffragism, as indicated by the cry of “Votes for Women” that emerged during the demonstrations at Bloemfontain and by their wearing of the blue rosettes which suffragists also favored  (Wells, 21-29). 

Comparing the writing of Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst about “Black Friday,” a day in December 1913 when militant British suffragists sustained their most violent treatment at the hands of the police, to the manifestoes of South African women in the 1913 anti-pass protests reveals how feminist discourse across cultures can offer a richly integrative field of study.  The anti-pass activists, like Schreiner and the Pankhursts, rely on the rhetorical strategies of repetition, abstraction, hyperbole, and prophecy in their speeches and treatises. Typically they speak as a unitary “we,” reveal a teleology that posits good vs. evil, and offer a spirited ethical critique of their oppressors (“men” for the suffragists, “white men” for the South African women).  These South African documents present Black women activists, in Felski’s words, as “subjects of social processes rather than mere bystanders” (168).  As she notes in Doing Time, reconceptualizing modernity does not erase differences but undoes and redoes them in complex ways (62).  Other documents by Black anti-apartheid women activists bear scrutiny as well, most notably the resolution on women’s resistance drafted by female ANC delegates to the All African Convention of 1935; the new ANC constitution of 1943, drafted by men and women together, which gave women full voting rights within the organization; and the 1955 Freedom Charter and its attendant list of demands, drafted by the newly formed Federation of South African Women (see Kimble and Unterhalter, 1-10).  Also worth examining is the rhetoric of the second women’s anti-pass march of 1956, when 20,000 women stormed the government halls in Pretoria, chanting the now-famous slogan,

      You have tampered with the women;
      You have struck a rock.
      You have dislodged a boulder;
      You will be crushed (DeShazer, 133).

Although few Black South African women published poetry during the modernist period, and virtually none in English, poets since the 1960s have written imaginatively from the perspective of their mothers and grandmothers.  An especially salient motif has been the plight and protests of domestic workers, arguably the most exploited of South Africa’s female laborers (Thula Baba, 324).  Looking intertextually at domestic worker poetry by African American women of the Harlem Renaissance and poetry by South African women that documents the 1940s and 50s can yield fruitful insights into what Rachel DuPlessis terms “social philology,” a method of close reading that attends to “the events of the form” and the ideological assumptions and cultural narratives that undergird them (5).

 For example, we might compare the language and imagery of Anne Spencer’s tribute to a Black American washerwoman, “Lady, Lady” (1925), to those of Boitumelo Mofokeng’s “Inside a Domestic Worker” (1950).  Addressing the domestic worker with empathy, Spencer uses the woman’s hands as a synecdoche for her exploited labor:

      Lady, Lady, I saw your hands,
      Twisted, awry, like crumpled roots,
      Bleached poor white in a sudsy tub,
      Wrinkled and drawn from your rub-a-dub.

Ironically, the Lady’s hands emerge “poor white” from the washtub, as bleached and “twisted” as the minds of her oppressors.  Mofokeng also employs hand imagery in her poem; however, she speaks not to a domestic worker but in her voice, and she portrays the worker’s hands as a tool of salvation:

      If I don’t know arithmetic
      My hands will save me.
      I can work in the kitchens.
      My back can be a rocking horse
      For kleinbassie. (the boss’s son)
      Restig, Missus soek vir hardwerkers. (Be assured, the Missus is determined to find hard workers).

Using Afrikaans, the official language of apartheid, Mofokeng’s domestic worker both acknowledges and resists her status as beast of burden.  Although she recognizes the indignity of her body as a toy that the master’s young son can manipulate, she confronts the “Missus” on her own terms and in the oppressor’s language.  By validating the domestic worker’s subjectivity, both Spencer and Mofokeng contribute to the feminist project of breaking silence about Black women’s exploitation.  However, through her use of colloquial free verse rather than quatrains of iambic tetrameter, and through her code-switching from English to Afrikaans, Mofokeng inscribes a subversive text.  She presents her domestic worker not as a victim but as a survivor.

The poetic form most fully embraced by rural Zulu women is that of izibongo, or praise poems.  Although izibongo have for centuries been associated with war and male authority, and izimbongi (bards) who recite on public occasions have generally been men, women too have composed and performed praise poems in private circle ceremonies, as a means of exploring issues of daily life, personal identity, and domestic conflict.  The scholar and oral historian Elizabeth Gunner, who collected and translated women’s izibongo from KwaZulu/Natal during the 1960s and 70s, argues that such poetry constitutes “an effective and socially acceptable way of publicly announcing one’s anger or grief”(240).  Moreover, through their private nature via “in-house only” performances (no men or female outsiders are allowed), and through their use of an indigenous language, izibongo have resisted appropriation by the forces of apartheid, which from 1948 to 1994 attempted, through forced relocations and inferior educational opportunity, to rob South Africa’s Black people of their cultural heritage and distinction.  Proponents of apartheid devalued or ignored orature, just as they marginalized the people who create it, yet orature has thrived for generations across African cultures and languages.  Praise poetry might thus be usefully compared to those poetic forms that Cheryl Wall has called “the building blocks of African-American modernism”: folk speech, spirituals, gospel, jazz, and blues (1). 

Specifically, Zulu women’s praise poems can be read alongside the blues songs of Bessie Smith, “Ma” Rainey, or Billie Holliday and the “bad” ballads of Margaret Walker, known for their powerful blend of outrage and lament, their sexual explicitness, and their representations of women’s anger at male exploiters and female rivals. Take, for example, the praise poem of Silomo of the Mdlalose clan, composed early in the twentieth century for her daughter, Princess Magogo, and translated by Gunner.  Its primary stylistic characteristics are indirection and private allusion, its major motif is confessional, and its composition appears to be singular rather than collaborative.  ( Izibongo often are composed collectively by members of the audience, but this poem is attributed to one woman rather than a group of women from a certain tribe).  Initially addressing her daughter as “sensitive one,” Silomo vents her hostility toward an unnamed other woman, probably a co-wife; reveals that woman’s aggression toward Silomo, which motivates the speaker’s anger; and relies on explicit references to female sexuality and embodiment:

      Sensitive one, easily moved,
      I wonder if the deceitful creature over there hears my words?
      The broad-lipped woman pursued unmercifully, the one with labia like a puffed adder?

Lines 4-9 catalog a series of insults the speaker has suffered at the hands of this broad-lipped woman, who “turned in disdain from me.”  The reason for this scorn, and the reason for the poem, is probably the birth of the speaker’s regal child:  “I have become the great mother of the royal line.”  In the last five lines, addressing her competitor directly, the speaker offers a humorous, dismissive invective:

      And what could you say to me? You with a twig for offspring,
      With your lop-sided head.
      You’re like this and I will insult you like this:
      You’re like the shrivelled-up buttocks of my brother-in-law;
      You’re like the shrivelled-up buttocks of Zinyo (Gunner, 250).

This izibongo might be usefully compared to Margaret Walker’s “Molly Means” as the type of poem that Countee Cullen, speaking pejoratively of the jazz poetry of Langston Hughes, called an “interloper” (DuPlessis, 108).  Walker’s speaker, like Silomo, plays the dozens, insulting Molly as a “witch,” “hag,” and “chile of the devil”; she too portrays her adversary in derogatory, sexualized terms—“barking like a dog/And on all fours like a common hog”. Gendered remappings and rich textual hybridities emerge through such migratory readings.

In 1984 Adrienne Rich challenged U.S. feminists to consider Black South African women’s discourses of resistance as crucial texts for global feminist theory:

When I learn that in 1913, mass women’s marches were held in South Africa which caused the rescinding of entry permit laws; that... African women have played a major role alongside men in resisting apartheid, I have to ask myself why it took me so long to learn these chapters of women’s history, why the leadership and strategies of African women have been so unrecognized as theory in action by white Western feminist thought (231).

Why indeed?  I join Rich in urging that further critical attention be given to these exemplary South African texts and contexts.  Yet in doing so I wish not to privilege the discourses of one nation’s women over those produced by other postcolonial and gender-focused writers and activists.  A vital concern that events following September 11 have reawakened for Western academic women, it seems to me, is how best to support dialogue across cultural differences and thus foster solidarity among women seeking self-determination.  As U.S. playwright and activist Eve Ensler noted at the Dec. 2001 Brussels Conference on Women in Afghanistan, to women struggling against misogyny and for survival and empowerment, “Afghanistan is Everywhere” (Austin, 14).  So, I would argue, is South Africa.  From Charlotte Maxeke and the women of the ANC to domestic worker poets like Boitumelo Mofokeng and Zulu praise poets like Silomo, South African women have created political art that matters and transformed political matters into art.   If we want to transnationalize gendered modernisms, feminist scholars must hear their voices.

Works Cited

Austin, Sara.  “Where Are the Women? Debating Afghanistan’s Future.” The Nation. December 31, 2001.  11-12, 14.

DeShazer, Mary K.  A Poetics of Resistance: Women Writing in El Salvador, South Africa, and the United States. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry 1908-1934.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Felski, Rita. Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture.  New York: New York UP, 2000.

_________.  The Gender of Modernity.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Gunner, Elizabeth.  “Songs of Innocence and Experience: Women as Composers and Performers of Izibongo, Zulu Praise Poetry,” Research in African Literatures 10.2 (Fall 1979): 239-67.

Kimble, Judy and Elaine Unterhalter, “ANC Women’s Struggles, 1912-1982.” Feminist Review 12 (1982): 11-35.

Lyon, Janet.  Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999.

Mofokeng, Boitumelo.  “Inside a Domestic Worker (1950).” Poem given to the author, Johannesburg, June 1992.

Pankhurst, Christabel.  The Great Scourge and How to End It. (1913)  In Suffrage and the Pankhursts.  Ed. Jane Marcus. London: Routledge. 1987: 187-240.

Rich, Adrienne.  “Notes Toward a Politics of Location.” In Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

Schreiner, Olive.  Women and Labour.  London: Stokes, 1911.

Thula Baba Collective, “Domestic Workers.”  In Breaking the Silence: A Century of South African Women’s Poetry. Ed. Cecily Lockett.  Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1990: 324.

Walker, Margaret.  This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems.  Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1989.

Wall, Cheryl.  Women in the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Wells, Julia.  We Are Done With Pleading: The Women’s 1913 Anti-Pass Campaign. Johannesburg: Raven Press, 1991.

Bio: Mary DeShazer is Professor of Women's Studies and English at Wake Forest University. She teaches at Wake Forest University.  She is the author of A Poetics of Resistance: Women Writing in El Salvador, South Africa, and the United States (University of Michigan Press, 1994) and Inspiring Women: Reimagining the Muse (Pergamon, 1987) and is the editor of The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature (Addison Wesley Longman Press, 2001). Currently she is writing a book on breast cancer, feminist theory, and contemporary women’s literature, as well as an article on landscape and environmentalism in South Africa women’s poetry.

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