Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself 
by Harriet Jacobs, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin.
Harvard, 306 pp., £29.95, July 1987, 9780674447455
Show More
The Spirit and the Drum: A Memoir of Africa 
by Edith Turner.
University of Arizona Press, 165 pp., £15.95, July 1987, 0 8165 1009 1
Show More
Kaffir Boy: Growing out of Apartheid 
by Mark Mathabane.
Bodley Head, 354 pp., £12.95, April 1987, 0 370 31058 6
Show More
Show More

The publishers of each of these books claim a revelation of common experience and suffering through the true recounting of an individual life. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself was first published anonymously in 1861. The dust-jacket of this new edition hails it both as a true life-story and as a classic expression of ‘the Afro-American experience’. Edith Turner’s The Spirit and the Drum, which recounts her visits to western Zambia with her husband Victor a century later than Jacobs’s misadventures in America, is described as ‘a highly personal memoir’ which ‘re-creates the ritual and ceremonial life of the Ndembu people’. Mark Mathabane’s autobiographical Kaffir Boy, which describes growing up in Alexandra township near Johannesburg between 1960 and 1978, is offered both as ‘a unique and remarkable memoir’ and as a revelation of ‘how a black and his family suffer the daily reality’ of the system of Apartheid. Yet each raises questions concerning their representativeness, their literalness and their significance.

Jean Fagan Yellin’s admirable edition of Jacobs’s story is mainly concerned, indeed, to confront such questions. Yellin herself had once accepted the general view that the book was a ‘false slave narrative’, sensationalising and sentimentalising the slave experience and written in a style inaccessible to a real female slave. Now, through inspired archival detective work, Yellin shows how close the story of Jacobs’s own life was to that of her renamed heroine, Linda Brent, and shows, too, that the bulk of the text is her own unedited work. From now on, the book will have to be accepted as a genuine record – but it will also have to be accepted as an exceptional and distanced one. Yellin does not underestimate the artifice involved in Jacobs’s transmutation of her life into narrative. She tells us that ‘Jacobs’s achievement was the transformation of herself into a literary subject in and through the creation of her narrator.’ Jacobs was then able to draw on a range of available literary styles, sometimes using ‘standard abolitionist rhetoric’, and sometimes ‘the over-wrought style of popular fiction’.

Edith Turner’s preface to her own book is as critically conscious as Yellin’s introduction to Jacobs’s. ‘Is this book, then,’ she asks, ‘a novel, a memoir, or an anthropological account?’ She answers that it is a reconstruction of the anthropological evidence and analysis ‘into the kind of flowing narrative that I saw in it myself ... simplified from the great length of the field-notes, changed by years of maturation, different both from an anthropologist’s style of reportage and that of his analysis’. Ndembu rites are told as narratives, facts about the girls’ initiation learned over a period of time being ‘fed into one ritual for the reader’s benefit’, and the story of the boys’ circumcision ceremony similarly reconstructed, ‘though it refers to events I did not witness’. Artifice is employed to enhance reality – to involve the reader ‘existentially with the Ndembu’ and with the Turners as they strove to identify with them.

The novelty in both women’s books, breaking through borrowed literary styles, derives from their role as mother. In a letter of 1857 Jacobs described her intention ‘to come to you just as I am a poor Slave Mother’, and her book ends with a telling reversal of the climax of popular fiction: ‘Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage!’ Yellin remarks that she breaks through ‘the conventions of literature’: ‘In Jacobs’s hand, the passive female of the captivity narrative acts to save herself: in her hand, the slave narrative is changed from the story of a hero who single-handedly seeks freedom and literacy to the story of a hero tightly bound to family and community who seeks freedom and a home for her children ... the “mammy” of white fiction becomes not the white babies’ nurse but the nurturer and liberator of her own children ... the madwoman in the attic sanely plots for her freedom.’ Turner’s book, which is sometimes over-lush, derives its originality from a differently stated motherhood. The book is ‘advocacy anthropology in the female style, that is, speaking on behalf of a culture as a lover or a mother’. The facts of fieldwork are nurtured into narrative by ‘adding my own blood of motherhood, as it were, to feed the embryo so that it might grow in its own true way’.

Mark Mathabane’s book, by contrast, is not at all self-critical and never escapes from or transcends its adopted styles. This is very much a book for an American audience. At one point he successfully manipulates an Afrikaner by telling ‘the bastard what he wanted to hear’. His book tells Americans what they want to hear and in the style in which they like to hear it. It is indeed an example of an American rather than a South African genre: not a ‘township novel’, but ‘the story of a hero who single-handedly seeks freedom and literacy’. All three books have trouble with reported dialogue. Jacobs employs standard literary conventions to convey uneducated slave speech; Turner renders her Ndembu dialogues ‘into colloquial English’ and constructs some ‘supposed conversations based on knowledge of the circumstances’. To my mind, Mathabane’s reconstructed conversations are the least convincing. I find it hard to believe in the traditionalist father’s response to his growing interest in tennis – ‘There is no way I could have fathered a wimp’ – though perhaps this is merely translation into ‘colloquial American’.

If all three books portray experience in borrowed literary styles, they are all even more strikingly stories of journeys, pilgrimages, movements away. Jacobs flees to ‘free soil’ in the Northern states but soon discovers their inequalities and prejudices. Only on a further pilgrimage to England does she find ‘pure, unadulterated freedom’. Mathabane’s subtitle is Growing out of Apartheid, and his whole book is an account of his dream of an escape to America and of its fulfilment. It ends with his setting off ‘in search of freedom and liberty in a new land – a quest for a life whose ultimate goal, I hoped, would be the betterment of my life’. Unlike Jacobs, he does not tell us whether he has found what he expected. Turner’s pilgrimage to Zambia was, of course, in the opposite direction. ‘We knew we were lucky to come to this land, for if we had never left home we would have become bitter and cynical, like so many in that disappointed society.’ And pilgrimage had the opposite intention:

What about my personal development in the course of these experiences? Could it be said that I was mastering my life? I was living a story in order to tell it ... But the reader will find that I’ve managed to entangle myself into it without being able to get out ... Nothing I can do can pull me away from these people into a separate shape that is supposed to be myself ... This isn’t the story of a self-directed triumphing individual ... You will need to look into the story, into the very rituals to find me, because I have practically disappeared into them.

As they pass each other, travelling in different directions, these books set up a whole series of oppositions. One has to do with black ‘tradition’ and religion. The two black authors are in full flight from tradition. Jacobs indignantly repudiates those who impute to her an ‘African stupidity’ or superstition, not on the grounds that this libels Africans but on the grounds that she is not African. ‘I am glad that missionaries go out to the dark corners of the earth; but I ask them not to overlook the dark corners at home. Talk to American slaveholders as you talk to savages in Africa. Tell them it is wrong to traffic in men.’ Mathabane describes how ‘in order to escape from the clutches of apartheid, I had to reject the tribal traditions of my ancestors.’ Describing a visit to Vendaland, he writes of ‘witch-doctors’ and ‘voodoo’:

As we entered the cave [of the witch-doctor] a strange terror seized me. The interior was spookily dark ... an old woman led us through – the way she looked and walked reminded me of Gagool in the movie King Solomon’s Mines ... in one far corner, alongside a font bubbling an eerie mist, was perched a human skull! ... The increased light led to my first face-to-face meeting with a witch-doctor. His looks nearly made me faint. He looked like a figure out of a Tarzan movie.

Nothing could be more different from these second-hand images than Turner’s exultant empathy with Ndembu rituals.

If Mathabane’s is the story of ‘boy makes good,’ there are moments when Turner’s is self-consciously the story of ‘girl makes bad,’ pre-eminently in her account of a visit by two missionary ladies to the Turners’ hut just after they had participated in the ‘shit-ritual’, and a healing shrine, topped with the severed head of a hen, had been erected opposite their dining hut. Time and again these two books set up scenes which directly contradict each other. Mathabane tells how he defies his father – who has come to take him to a Venda circumcision ceremony – by seizing a long knife and threatening to kill anyone who takes hold of him, answering his father’s plea that the ceremony would introduce him to the ways of his forefathers with the cry:

‘Take after you! What have you done that I could emulate! Your drinking – your gambling – your ignorance – your irresponsibility! I’d rather be dead than be like you!’

Turner, in a chapter called ‘The Knife’, describes the longing of Ndembu boys for manhood, their envy of their circumsized brothers:

Sakeru went alone to urinate and seemed depressed ... Sakeru knew what was the matter. Whenever he had a chance to see the beautifully trimmed penis of his elder brother he was eaten up with envy. Drawing back his foreskin, he gazed with dissatisfaction at his unveiled acorn.

After the operation Sakeru rejoices in ‘the open form of his phallus revealed and its graceful arrowhead of love ever before him’.

This illustrates another contrast with both Jacobs and Mathabane. Jacobs has much to say about love, but cannot speak frankly of sexuality; Mathabane has hardly anything to say about love, and sexuality comes into his book only when it is brutal and perverted, as in a scene of homosexual rape. Jacobs makes it clear that female sexuality is abused and corrupted under slavery; Mathabane is implying that male sexuality is distorted under Apartheid. By contrast, Turner’s is a book which runs over with sexuality. It is the same with religion. Jacobs writes that she could not enter into a Christianity which upheld the slave-owner and makes it plain that the Africa-derived rites of the field slaves were not for her. Only when she reaches ‘free’ England does she receive ‘strong religious impressions’. Mathabane writes with a positive frenzy of repudiation of religion emotion. His response to his mother’s Pentecostalism is as violently uncomprehending as his response to his father’s traditionalism. He sees his spirit-possessed mother as ‘locked in deadly combat with a sinister force’ and her sharing of food and shelter with ‘tramps, prostitutes, lunatics’ as close to insanity. Turner, however, turns from materialism to religion among the Ndembu, and experiences with them possession by the spirit.

It all gave a sense of thick adult stew, oniony somehow; it was dirty as a zoo, savage as a boxing ring. In sex it was the randyness I liked – it was no good otherwise – and I found religion worked the same way: I liked the plunging and the possession much better than the contemplation of the holy spirit ... The religious experience came, just like an African spirit.

Turner’s African spirits can emancipate from slavery – from the memory of it – and allow blacks to make imaginative visits into England and America without the danger of disillusionment. At one point, as she participates in the Chihamba rituals:

The doctors brought out long poles with forks at the end. Armed with these they chased the victims with greater zest than before ... ‘Those are slave yokes,’ whispered Vic ... I wondered, ‘Am I acting out the slave victim? The milk tree yoke – is all this a profound kind of loosening up, an experience we have to go through?’

At another point an Ndembu woman is possessed by a European spirit, is fed off a plate on a tablecloth, given tea in a glass, promenades with her train and then retires ‘for her afternoon nap, after the manner of Europeans’. Standing by, Edith Turner is rebuked and told that ‘Europeans do not like to be watched while they are eating.’ She remarks: ‘The turn-about was dizzying me. I was no longer European, Manyosa was. The game was serious.’ Turner sees this spirit journey as much more rewarding than a real flight from Africa, reconciling rather than dividing:

Manyosa’s greatness had come. She sat filled with the spirit ... traveller into the hearts of Europeans, conqueror of her own bad dreams. She had struggled, been patient, and had been rewarded with a moment of beauty and vision, crowned with the solemn rite of the Dinner, a rite far beyond chieftainship, deep in the remote world of Englishmen; the Dinner, served with religious cleanliness and control, tense with reverence. I remembered that world now, sitting on the bed by Manyosa. Yes, I once stood in their deep perfect houses, Manyosa: the dean’s house at Ely, the provost’s house at Coventry.

Englishmen cannot believe in this ‘solemnity and magic’ any longer, but it is there to be attained in western Zambia.

So these three journeying books evoke in the extremes of their rejection or adherence the world of those who stay in one place. But we are bound to ask how effective is their advocacy – Jacobs’s against slavery, Mathabane’s against Apartheid, Turner’s advocacy on behalf of Ndembu culture. A powerful common message emerges from all their differences – the message that love and sexuality and identity can only thrive in freedom. But what is freedom, and how is it to be attained? Here all three books are limited by their autobiographical focus. Jacobs and Mathabane tell of horrific individual experiences from which they emerge as remarkable and unusual persons – and in both cases their stories evoke compassion and aid from white people within the oppressive system – slaveholders or settlers touched by the sufferings of this courageous slave, or this promising young man. Mathabane sees himself as ‘the first black boy ever to leave South Africa on a tennis scholarship, one more vital link the oppressed of South Africa had with the outside world’. It doesn’t ring true – not only because of the controversy which his tennis career was to arouse amongst black activists, and not only because one cannot really believe the long passage in his book where he expresses the desire to become a guerrilla but is persuaded by a Zimbabwean that men must use the talents they possess and that his destiny is tennis rather than the bush. It doesn’t ring true because for Mathabane the great crime of Apartheid is its denial of the career open to the talents. There is no sense in his book of an understanding of Apartheid as socio-economic system, no sense of class identification. Freedom is ultimately escape.

One could say of Edith Turner’s book that for her, too, freedom is ultimately escapism – into the serious game of ‘false consciousness’. I don’t propose to say it, because much of my own work has been an argument for taking African religious and ritual communication seriously as a privileged insight into, and an action upon, the real world. And yet one can’t help but have doubts about her choice of the personal rather than analytical perspective. She and her distinguished anthropologist husband went to the Ndembu as some sort of Marxists. The Ndembu changed all that: ‘We were going home still imagining ourselves to be dialectic materialists, but the contact with religion had been made and the damage to our dogmas done ... The roar of the forces of production was quiet compared to the urgent howl of these crowds ... We did drop our “explanatory materialism” mainly because it did not seem the right tool to use, the right lens with which to take the picture.’ The dilemma here seems to be one that particularly affects anthropologists of Zambia. The foremost anthropologist of western Zambian cults of affliction today is Wim van Binsbergen, who has chosen to resolve the dilemma in a different way. In his academic writing, he listens to the ‘roar of the forces of production’, analysing a prophetic church movement, for example, as a product of the articulation of different modes of production. In his poetry in Dutch, he listens to ‘the urgent howl’ of Zambian personal experience. The resolution is not altogether satisfactory – there must somehow be a way of bringing the two together.

Edith Turner does not try to find such a way, and so she has nothing to say about Ndembu material poverty, nor about their relation to the encompassing and intrusive colonial political economy. One feels this particularly in her brief postscript, where she describes the changes she saw on her next visit, ‘many years’ later, to the Ndembu. The changes are recounted with gentle irony: former adepts of the spirit cults have become Pentecostals or Bahais, one young man has become a handsome, well-dressed member of the Zambian Air Force, another has become a Marxisant professor of political science. ‘So the wheel turns,’ says Turner. But one desperately needs to know more. Have such changes taken place without destroying the essence of Ndembu culture? If so, has this been possible in ‘free’ Zambia where it has not been possible in unfree South Africa? For all his unpleasant stereotyping, Mathabane has a point about Apartheid’s power to co-opt and corrupt tradition.

It seems that one has to use more than one tool, focus through more than one lens. Professor Shula Marks has done it in her two recent collective biographies of South African men and African women, where individual experience is made to illuminate political economy and vice versa. Maybe it is easier to do with biography than with autobiography. At any rate, these three very different life-stories have little to say about how it may be possible to act upon political and economic structures in order to improve the prospects for a more general liberation.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences