Reading Noni Jabavu in 2017

Pioneer: Noni Jabavu in her job as editor of New Strand magazine in London in 1961. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pioneer: Noni Jabavu in her job as editor of New Strand magazine in London in 1961. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘The mores that I was used to were neither purely Western nor purely Bantu. We were not ‘black Europeans’, yet I saw how we were not ‘white Bantu’ either.”

These words were written by Noni Jabavu in her memoir Drawn in Colour, published in 1960. I didn’t encounter her writing during my education, alongside reading the likes of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Judy Blume.
I discovered her writing by what feels like a miracle.

Jabavu’s words, written in the 1950s, resonate with me and reflect the complexity of identity in the interplay of cultures. Culture. A curious portmanteau with an interesting root in words related to inhabit, cultivate, honour with worship and cult. I took the word culture for granted, as something rigid and immalleable, until I began to take Jabavu’s life story and work seriously. Her writing poses many questions about who we are, especially in 2017.

In 2008, I started writing articles for the Daily Dispatch. At the time, I could count on one hand the number of black women writing columns in newspapers. I became curious about the dearth of black women’s writing and contribution to the public discourse — as well as their absence in my own education. This curiosity and discomfort led me to investigate it, propelled by a refusal to believe that people who looked like me and may have shared similar experiences did not produce knowledge.

Apart from reading the work of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gcina Mhlophe and Tsitsi Dangarembga, I did not know about other black African women writers. This is not a new complaint and many young black people are joining the chorus challenging a whitewashed education system.

My curiosity led me to Jabavu, born in 1919 in the Eastern Cape. I discovered that she had also been a writer of columns for the Daily Dispatch in 1977, and I read her two memoirs, Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts and The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life.

She was a daughter of the izifundiswa zakwanoKoleji, an educated Fort Hare family. Her history reveals an interesting nexus of family connections and the tale of African modernity and colonialism in the 19th century. Her father was a scholar and educationist at the South African Native College in Fort Hare, and later a Cape politician, who was a founder and the president of the All African Convention. Her grandfather was a newspaper pioneer, who established Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinion). Her mother, Florence Thandiwe Makiwane, was a prominent social worker and organiser, whose one sister, Cecilia Makiwane, became the first black registered nurse in Africa and another, Daisy Makiwane, became a pioneering journalist. Jabavu describes her in the preface of the 1982 edition of The Ochre People: “She had been a writer on my grandfather’s weekly newspaper at the turn of the century … [a] genius as well as a mathematician”.

I am being deliberately silent about the names of Jabavu’s patriarchs, because their names read as a hall of fame in Xhosa history and would dim the significance Jabavu’s mother and her aunts, a further erasure of black women’s life stories.

What does it mean for Jabavu to leave South Africa in 1933 as a 13-year-old and move to Britain (with the help of “Oom” Jan Smuts) 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?

These questions can only be understood by reading Jabavu’s words, which lie hidden in books that are no longer available in South Africa. Without poet Makhosazana Xaba’s work on Jabavu’s biography, we would not have been able to see how Jabavu negotiated borders, because her life story spans very different homes — ekhaya nasemzini: home and the home of marriage — as well as the many other countries she visited during her lifetime: Britain, Jamaica, Italy, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Hence she was neither “purely Western nor purely Bantu”.

Her mobility raises the question of the narrative about women and movement. What does it mean for us to read about the litany of countries Jabavu visited in a context that still seeks to constrain and flatten black women’s life experiences?

Recently I told a prominent academic based in London that I was reading for a PhD focusing on Jabavu’s memoirs. He told me he had met her in the 1970s and was disappointed. She was invited to Rhodes University as a researcher and, instead of doing the writing and research she had been invited to do, she drank her way through her residency and, according to the academic, had “delivered nothing”.

This anecdote is significant because it poses the possibility of a flawed writer who was not able to deliver because of what it meant to be a black woman writing in the 1970s at the behest of a university such as Rhodes. 

The challenge of being a black woman writing during apartheid is captured by Lauretta Ngcobo in the 1988 preface she wrote in Miriam Tlali’s Footprints in the Quag, which begins with the words: “A South African woman writer in the 1980s is a rare find.”

She explained how Tlali was joining a “small but significant band of women” who were writing under a system of repression. She also explained the history of black writing in South Africa and listed the names of prominent writers who continued to write while living in exile.

Jabavu is not part of this list. She was not in exile in the political sense, but she wrote and published while living in Britain.

I contrast the prominent academic’s disappointment with Jabavu with Ngcobo’s words deliberately to highlight the double life of being a pioneer and a disappointment on the peripheries of history.

Jabavu writes about the experience of being misunderstood as a black, modern woman who was “neither purely Bantu nor purely Western”. She writes about meeting relatives, “classificatory family” related by clan names, who shared the same experiences as modern girls: “Handsome, gay, modern girls. We found we had much in common and were happy and proud at the enlargement of our classificatory family, which had thus brought us together. And it seemed to be an example of how some of us moderns sometimes benefit from the effects of recondite things like ‘extended family’ of olden days, whereas observers carelessly assert that ‘Westernised blacks are but poor copies of the white man’. To this I and ‘cousins’ like these can scoff: ‘How ignorant some observers and self-styled experts can be about “us Kaffirs”!’

“Indeed how can they help being so, forced as they are by the present political dispensation to observe us from a distance, which distorts and throws little light on our lives as we live them?”

I quote from Drawn in Colour to give context to the question she poses about the distortion of her life as she lived it in a context that wanted to flatten her experiences as simply a copy of white people. Jabavu slips through the cracks because she captures the words of filmmaker, writer and literary theorist Trinh Minh-Ha: “Not being the same, not quite the other, she stands in that undetermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and out.”

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.

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.

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