At the Franschhoek Literary Festival a few months ago, I was sorely challenged on the foundation of the English curriculum taught in South African high schools when Antjie Krog shared her thoughts on the Africa Pulse project she is co-ordinating.
She spoke passionately about African language literature masterpieces — some with the scope of Dickens, the tragedy of Shakespeare, the guile of Harper Lee and the cynicism of Plath — which have lain neglected for decades. Her team has translated these classics into English from isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sesotho — the nuances of poetry and the possibility of epics laid bare in a universal language.
This endeavour led me to question what relevance these have to high school English classes, in particular in the discussions about “decolonising” education. Perhaps an exploration of “beauty” can guide us. Conceivably one of the oldest quandaries, set deep in our history as sentient beings, is seeking to define the beautiful. Maybe we can say that beauty cannot be described. Rather, it is a “known”; something that exists beyond all manner of images and only ignites a spark in the viewer’s heart.
Yet this has not stopped those of us, from all times and all cultures, who have an ability to conjure images and descriptions with mere words to present an ideal of beauty.
And yet, the defining traits of beauty are often based on depictions that are cultural — and feminine. This is no more evident than in the field of poetry and literature: beauty is often a focal point; the means for the love (the hate, the anger) that drives the plot. Surely, in some way, the best descriptions linger on in our development of beauty ideals. In each of our minds, the idealistic loveliness of a Helen of Troy differs; yet the feelings and emotions and images crafted by wordsmiths seeks to enable our imaginations.
So, if we follow Shakespeare, beauty is a “temperate” “summer’s day”, a “rose” that “blushes”. It is a “grace” that makes dark a white: “For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright” and “whose shadow shadows doth make bright”. Beauty is F Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy: “a face lovely with bright things in it”, “a voice full of money” and hoping for a “beautiful little fool”. Beauty, in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, is “… a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” It is like Tolstoy’s Anna: she was the white light “as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking”. All this beauty — so often linked to light, not darkness. Linked to whiteness, not blackness. The only type of black beauty I ever came across at school was linked to a horse.
Subsequently, these are the depictions of beauty with which we teach the children in our care. As an English teacher, I am a firm believer in the worth of exploring literature; the creation of worlds and the ability to seek to present empathetic characters that become real to us. Perhaps we can say you are what you read. And if not, surely the ideas, times and treasured literature we teach has some effect on forming the small ideas and conceptions in the world in which we live.
And the classic canon we teach in our schools is still largely European, white and based in a “foreign” culture that represents a largely white view of beauty — and life. That is not to say that if we only read one type of literature we are wrong. Rather, it asks the question of what we are missing out on.
The Western classics are taught for a reason; they embody great universal truth and empathy, and those stories, and the power of world-making, still enchants us. Yet perhaps we can add some voices that share even more lived reality.
This is not about decolonising the curriculum; it is about integrating it, making it more inclusive and open to classical voices from all types and climes and ideas. Authors such as Benedict W Vilakazi, SEK Mqhayi and Bennett M Khaketla — giants of literature who, had they been born in England, would have had streets and monuments named after them — come to life in these translations that speak to the South African soul and experience.
The challenge is then to teach the canon of classics and incorporate these voices into our syllabus. We would gladly teach an English translation of Tolstoy. So then, let us teach a Shakespearean sonnet and a Vilakazi limerick.
Let the stories of the Drakensberg monster Khodumodumo live alongside the monsters in The Lord of the Flies. Let the Lawsuit of the Twins be alongside the issues of law in To Kill a Mockingbird. This is such an easy task — Krog and her team have enabled us as teachers to bring life to literature in all guises, shapes and colours.
Eight books have been translated and published by African Pulse, three of which are: The Lawsuit of the Twins by Mqhayi, No Matter When by Vilakazi and She’s to Blame by Khaketla. There’s also an anthology of South African poems (Stitching a Whirlwind) with their English translations.
How depressing that my concept of beauty may have, in part, been determined by the voices I have read. Until I, in my mid-thirties, heard of Vilakazi’s Nomkhosi, I cannot recall hearing “black beauty” elegantly praised. May the children in my class, reflecting South Africa’s diversity, learn that black is as beautiful as white. As Vilakazi writes: “I love you for your Blackness/ Which is like the beginning of night/ Which lightens up cats’ eye/ Those eyes are yours, Nomkhosi/ I love you for the hair in your head/ A black mamba of the forest/ With monkey-ropes coiled around its body/ It shines like fat.”
Jonathan Alexander Smith is an English teacher at Michael-house. Follow him on Twitter @jonoAsmith