In her column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be. This month, she examines a South African writer whose unconventional work has often been left out of the canon.
When, in 1961, the long-running English literary magazine The Strand relaunched as The New Strand, it made newspaper headlines across the world. Although the London-based periodical had an illustrious history—founded in 1891, it counted the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle (whose Sherlock Holmes stories debuted in its pages), Agatha Christie, and P. G. Wodehouse among its contributors—its reinvention was hardly breaking news. What was, though, was the identity of its new editor: Noni Jabavu, the Black, South Africa–born writer, journalist, and broadcaster. A woman editor would have been surprise enough, but appointing a Black woman was unheard of at the time. Ernest Kay, joint proprietor of The New Strand (with the crime novelist John Creasey), defended this “bold and imaginative” choice in the press. “Miss Jabavu has led such a varied life that she will bring a completely fresh outlook to the magazine,” he told Ebony in April 1962. “She couldn’t be conventional if she tried.”
Jabavu’s life had certainly been anything but orthodox. She was born Helen Nontando Jabavu, in 1919, in Middledrift, a small town in the Eastern Cape, into a Bantu Christian family. Like her father before her, Jabavu was educated in Britain. From 1933, she attended the Mount (the famous Quaker boarding school in York, which counts another subject of this column, Margaret Drabble, among its alumnae), and afterward the Royal Academy of Music in London. But instead of then returning to South Africa like her father had, Jabavu remained in England. By the time she started at The New Strand, she had been based in the UK for over two decades. She was the mother of a teenage daughter (from her first marriage, to an RAF man killed in World War II); the wife of an upper-class, white Englishman (the film director Michael Cadbury Crosfield); and an established broadcaster and writer, newly famous for her book Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts (1960). The fact that this had been published by John Murray (one of the UK’s most established and respected publishing houses) to both rave reviews and impressive sales (it was reprinted five times in its first year) was all the more noteworthy because Jabavu was the first Black South African woman to publish a book in the UK. In 1962, both Italian and American editions appeared, and the following year Jabavu published a sequel, The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life. Drawn in Colour’s notoriety turned Jabavu into a “public literary figure,” explained the poet Makhosazana Xaba in The Johannesburg Review of Books last year: “The case of a black African woman, a British citizen by marriage, being published by a mainstream publisher so long before the advent of a distinct, feminist British women’s press that only began in the eighties was certainly an oddity for many a Briton.”
“This honest, searching analysis reveals to us the Africa still largely hidden to European eyes,” said The Tablet, recognizing that Jabavu’s bicultural identity was central to Drawn in Colour’s success. “I belong to two worlds with two loyalties,” Jabavu explains in the author’s note: “South Africa where I was born and England where I was educated.” As such, she was the perfect cultural mediator for her white British readers—lest we forget that this was the audience to which the book was marketed. She eloquently explains, for example, that isiXhosa is a language of emotion—“expressive, forceful, not Biblical as some writers lead you to think, more like Elizabethan English; words are pliable, can be manipulated and therefore impregnated with subtle, often startling shades of meaning; and ‘from the shoulder’ yet poetic in allusion and illustration”—or perceptively ponders “how profoundly custom—isiko—is based on psychological need.”
Despite its sensational beginnings, Jabavu’s editorship at The New Strand was ultimately short-lived. Discovering that she was much happier as a writer than as an editor, she resigned after only eight months. Afterward, she returned to her globe-trotting life, not settling in South Africa until 2002, by which time she was eighty-three years old. Jabavu was an anomaly in many ways. Everything about her—from her upbringing to her achievements, even the way she lived her life—transgressed so much of what was understood by the terms “African” or “Western/European.” As the academic and writer Athambile Masola notes: “Jabavu drifts in and out of the South African grand narrative of what it means to be a black woman anything. Jabavu drifts in and out of the identity politics that seeks to homogenise what it means to be black in South Africa.”
Drawn in Colour is an account of Bantu culture, as seen through the eyes of someone who straddles the line between insider and outsider: a native daughter who finds herself back in the bosom of her family after an absence of over twenty years. It is not a didactic compendium, though; instead, as the blurb on the dust jacket says, it’s “a personal story about the author’s family.” Today we’d classify it as travel writing or memoir. In elucidating episodes in the present, Jabavu dips into the past in the form of recollections of her childhood, stories about extended family members, or broader observations about the customs, languages, and history of the continent of her birth. Nevertheless, the narrative is tightly structured around a central event: the trip home that Jabavu made, in March 1955, on the occasion of her brother Tengo’s murder. He was twenty-six years old and a medical student in the final year of his degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg when he was shot dead by gangsters. Jabavu attends the funeral, thereafter spending the requisite period of mourning in seclusion with her family, after which she travels north, to visit her married sister, who lives in Uganda with her husband and their baby and was unable to attend Tengo’s funeral. As various family members explain to Jabavu before sending her on her way, it’s her duty to help her sister “re-live every phase of our tragedy … It will be only if you, eldest of the umbilical cord, properly fulfil your function that your sister will find the peace that we have found through these traditional rites.”
In Drawn in Colour, the racism of the country jolts through Jabavu the minute she arrives in Johannesburg:
As soon as I stepped out of the plane with its relaxed international atmosphere, I could feel the racial atmosphere congeal and freeze round me. The old South African hostility, cruelty, harshness; it was all there, somehow harsher than ever because Afrikaans was now the language. You heard nothing but those glottal stops, staccato tones; saw only hard, alert, pale blue eyes set in craggy suntanned faces.
But as the narrative continues, its only one of many threads. Jabavu wasn’t penning the kind of South African protest literature that would soon become prominent. As Masola notes, Jabavu is often omitted from lists of prominent Black South African women who wrote in exile during apartheid. And yet, though her exile might not have been strictly “political,” as was the case with some of her peers—contrast her with Miriam Tlali, another previous subject of this column, for example—Jabavu was writing and publishing in Britain during a period when it would have been impossible for her to do the same in South Africa, and her marriage to Crosfield would have broken the country’s miscegenation laws.
Jabavu takes an instructive tone, or quietly appeals to the reader’s humanity. Take her account of her widowed father’s second marriage, which takes place after the mourning period for Tengo is over. The ceremony is a small affair conducted by a magistrate in a nearby settlement where, despite the significance of the occasion and the elegance of their dress, Jabavu and her new stepmother are forced to “walk to a deserted part of the town close by and squat in the short grass,” because the lone public lavatory for women is for “Europeans”—whites—only. Rather than directly express her anger, Jabavu simply lets the jarring image shock the reader. Later, while Jabavu is traveling through Rhodesia, a white woman behind the counter in a chemist’s refuses to sell her sanitary towels, telling her to “Go ’n get whatever you people use in yer own native shops, go on, get out.” Jabavu points out, “This is a matter that should hardly figure in one’s story. But some readers may not realise the levels at which the colour bar is liable to make itself felt if you are black.” The academic Alice A. Deck draws comparisons between Drawn in Colour and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), arguing that they’re written with a similar aim: “To demonstrate the basic humanity of their peoples to an audience of readers living outside of the particular communities under scrutiny.” In both, Deck explains, “cultural explication and personal narrative intertwine in such a way that either discourse may subordinate the other at any given moment.” One of the things that makes Drawn in Colour so compelling is precisely this calibration; namely, the ease and perspicacity with which Jabavu switches between impassive eyewitness and emotionally engaged filtering consciousness.
Jabavu’s sojourn in Uganda functions as a further point of comparison against which she can assess her own culture. She and her fellow Southerners have, we learn, always thought of their Northern brothers and sisters with reverence—“those of our people who were fortunate enough to be beyond the reach of racialistic Boers seemed blessed creatures indeed.” These are Africans who own their own land and are in charge of their own lives. “Go you now therefore and look on our behalf,” her uncle tells her. “And when you write, uplift us with eye-witness reports of civilised Africans, for they are said to be all that we here in the South are not.” What she finds, however, is a culture of such “disparate social observances and manners” that life in Uganda actually seems significantly more “primitive” than that which Jabavu is used to. In contrast to Southern Bantu culture, she is surprised by Ugandan attitudes to polygamy, concubinage, and what’s considered incest; and in contrast to her Western mores, she is surprised by the lack of modern hygiene and the proliferation of disease and malnutrition. “I thought how one hated, in South Africa, to see rough local ‘Europeans’ in their dealings with other races,” she writes.
I was not to know then that before much longer in the country my sister had married into, I too alas, would be compelled to adopt the hectoring manner when dealing with “the natives,” a terrible inevitability arising out of people not beginning to understand or identity themselves with one another or appreciating different habits of life.
Jabavu’s uncomfortable inspection of her own beliefs could be read as a clever means of bringing a white reader face-to-face with their own prejudices, or it could be read as a dangerous validation of those intolerances. “This whole business of feeling impelled to try to ‘like’ and ‘be nice to those natives I knew’ was a dilemma,” Jabavu continues. “To my dismay I saw I was now in the same boat as those whom we Southerners call slightingly ‘liberals,’ meaning white people whose brain and sense, education and conviction tell them there’s no reason not to like us blacks; but whose emotions are rooted, as evidently mine were too, in an instinctive revulsion from a way of life more primitive than their own.” Reviewers in both the UK and the U.S. praised Jabavu’s candor: “It may be a wry comfort to those Westerners who have found Africa dismaying and disappointing,” wrote Thomas Lask in the New York Times, “to learn that it can be equally so to Africans.”
It’s perhaps worth noting, though, that Jabavu’s notions of what was considered “primitive” and what was considered “civilized” had long been colored by her composite bicultural identity, the roots of which actually lay much deeper than in the British citizenship she adopted as an adult. As Masola explains it, Jabavu’s heritage “reveals an interesting nexus of family connections and the tale of African modernity and colonialism in the nineteenth century,” and to fully understand her beliefs, one must understand her life.
The world Jabavu describes growing up in, not to mention that to which she returns in the mid-’50s, is perhaps best described by Deck as “Xhosa–British Victorian.” Jabavu’s grandfather was a teacher turned journalist who, in 1894, became the editor and owner of the first African newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu (Black opinion). His son, Jabavu’s father, was a professor of Latin, Bantu languages, and social anthropology, and a founding member of the academic staff at Fort Hare, the college for higher education that his father had helped lobby for. Jabavu’s mother, meanwhile, was a prominent social worker and organizer, and her sisters (Jabavu’s maternal aunts) were equally impressive: one was the first Black registered nurse in Africa, and the other the first Black woman to work as a journalist. “Like so many so-called Westernised Southern Bantu families,” Jabavu explains in Drawn in Colour,
we were bound to behave in a proper manner, according to the dictates of the life old and new, the essence of our African life which outsiders tend to interpret as “spoilt by Europeanisation.” In fact it is neither spoilt nor improved, it is simply different from what it used to be because of the elements from English and Boer life which have impinged on us.
Jabavu’s identity was complicated: “We were not ‘black Europeans,’ yet I saw how we were not ‘white Bantu’ either.”
Nothing about Jabavu was conventional. And as a consequence, she was both privileged and on the periphery. As Masola asks:
What does it mean for Jabavu to leave South Africa in 1933 as a 13-year-old and move to Britain … to study further? What does it mean to be married to an upper-class Englishman as a black woman in the 1950s? What does it mean to work as a writer, BBC presenter and film technician at that time? What does it mean to come home to an apartheid South Africa in 1977 to discover you are a foreigner in the country you call home?
Despite their initial success, both Drawn in Colour and The Ochre People have fallen out of print in the UK and the U.S. This is the unfortunate yet unsurprising fate of a great many excellent books. It’s much more of a travesty that Jabavu’s books have never been widely available in South Africa, the country whose literary awards body recognized her accomplishments by presenting her, in 2005 (only three years before she died, in 2008, at the age of eighty-eight), with a lifetime achievement award.
In the late seventies, Jabavu was given a brief visiting fellowship at Rhodes University; she’d returned to South Africa to research a biography of her father (which sadly remains unpublished). While there, she also began writing a weekly column for the Eastern Cape newspaper the Daily Dispatch, under the title Noni on Wednesdays. “By the end of the year,” Xaba explains, “Noni was a household name: her readers’ letter box was overflowing and her 3 months fellowship at Rhodes University had caught the curiosity, imagination and interest of many.” Yet despite Jabavu’s fast-growing fame, neither of her books was available in the country. Raven Press would eventually publish The Ochre People, five years later, in 1982 (two whole decades after it first appeared), but somewhat astonishingly, Drawn in Colour has yet to find a South African publisher. Thanks to the tireless work of both Xaba and Masola, this could soon change. Not only is their recent scholarship bringing Jabavu to the attention of a younger generation, they’ve joined forced to produce Noni Jabavu: A Stranger at Home—a collection of Jabavu’s much loved Daily Dispatch columns, along with an introduction to her extraordinary life and work—which will be published in February 2021. As Masola astutely writes, “Jabavu’s work isn’t significant because she’s one of ‘the firsts’; her work is relevant because it continues to ask difficult questions about what it means to be human beyond the limitations and impositions of identity.”
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.