/ 25 July 2023

Writing ourselves into existence: The story of black women

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

I remember that conversation, because it sparked a fire within me, igniting a newfound appreciation for the power of representation and the significance of individual narratives. It was a conversation that challenged my perspective, forcing me to question my biases and assumptions. I had just moved to Cape Town. My colleague and supervisor had invited me to her office to discuss academic plans and my settling in the mother city. 

The conversation drifted to literature. Maria had just finished reading Noni Jabavu’s book, “A Stranger at Home.” Edited by Makhosazana Xaba and Athambile Masola, it compiles Jabavu’s  columns written for the UK-based Daily Dispatch in the 1960s and 1970s.

In my customary cynicism, I expressed my indifference towards Jabavu and my scepticism regarding the necessity of documenting her life. I admitted that I failed to see anything revolutionary about her, asserting that her parents, true pillars and revolutionaries, deserved far greater attention and acknowledgement. Her father, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, was a Xhosa educator and activist who was a founder of the All Africa Convention, a movement aimed at forging solidarity among non-Europeans in their resistance against the apartheid government’s discriminatory policies. Her mother, Thandiswa Florence Makiwane, established the Zenzele Woman’s Self-Improvement Association, empowering and uplifting black women in the former Bantustan of Transkei.

My initial indifference towards Noni Jabavu originated from a column she wrote for the Daily Dispatch. Published in March 1977, the column, headlined “Why don’t our blacks read?”, appeared to denigrate and diminish black people living in Transkei. I held onto this perception and disregarded her other accolades. Born in 1919 in Transkei, where she lived until the age of 13 before her parents sent her to Britain for education, Jabavu emerged as a trailblazer in the literary world. She became the first black person to hold the position of editor for a literary magazine in England. She also wrote Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts (1960) and The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life (1963).

Maria listened attentively. After a moment of silence, she responded, her words etching themselves deeply in my consciousness. She said that even if Jabavu’s life may not have been as overtly revolutionary as others, her presence in the archives was crucial for black women. “We need to read about her and know about her to preserve ourselves and write ourselves into existence.” She spoke about the significance of representation and the power embedded in our narratives. “Our stories hold immeasurable value, irrespective of their alignment with mainstream narratives. We, as black women, have consistently existed beyond the confines of those predefined notions, and that in itself is an accomplishment to be celebrated and cherished.” 

She emphasised the need for a paradigm shift, where black womanhood is not only recognised but also elevated. She illuminated the contributions black women have made to society throughout history and in the present, oftentimes without receiving recognition or appreciation. 

Maria reminded me that black women’s stories are not just stories, but living testaments to the triumphs, struggles and indomitable spirit that define our collective journey. She said black women’s narratives offer invaluable insights, perspectives and wisdom that enrich and shape our world. 

I learnt from this conversation to embrace a pro-woman perspective on blackness. In doing so, I recognise that the views held by women in the black community should not also be approached with a critical attitude. I acknowledge that these perspectives have a place in the political landscape of South Africa and deserve to be considered as integral components of the ongoing contestations that shape our public discourse. In embracing this mindset, I move beyond acknowledging the existence of diverse viewpoints in the black community. Instead, I choose to engage with them and question these voices while recognising their agency and relevance in the broader political landscape. By doing so, I am cultivating a more inclusive and empowering environment that embraces the richness and complexity of blackness. I advocate for an inclusive society that amplifies the voices and experiences of black women, recognising their resilience, strength and brilliance.

Maria’s conviction reminded me of the countless unsung heroes and heroines whose stories had been overlooked or overshadowed. Throughout history, black women have borne the weight of unjust punishments, their contributions often disregarded, and their agency overshadowed by the circumstances of their time. Take Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for example, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. She faced vilification for her commitment to the struggle for freedom, while society was quick to embrace Nelson Mandela and Umkhonto weSizwe cadres as freedom fighters but the same compassion was not extended to Madikizela-Mandela.

Her actions as a freedom fighter, whether we agree with them or not, were rooted in her determination to dismantle the oppressive structures that shackled her people. Similar to Jabavu, their experiences reflect the struggle of black womanhood, marked by resilience and perseverance. Their stories, in as much as we might disagree with them, compel us to re-evaluate the value placed on black women’s contributions and to recognise their agency as they navigated the complexities of their time.

By amplifying the voices of black women and highlighting their lives, we move closer to a more inclusive and just society. They were the ordinary people who fought silent battles, whose everyday lives held extraordinary significance. Their experiences shaped the fabric of our collective history, even if their names were not etched in bold letters in history books.

I realised that this was about more than just Jabavu or Madikizela-Mandela; it was about reclaiming our stories. It was about recognising that each story, no matter how seemingly insignificant, added another thread to the rich tapestry of our shared history.

As I sat there, absorbing Maria’s words, I felt a responsibility to honour those who had come before me, those who had forged paths in the face of adversity. They may not have been the traditional revolutionaries, but their mere existence was an act of resilience, a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

I felt a determination awaken within me. I committed to acquiring the book on Jabavu, not only because I recognised her as a symbol of revolutionary spirit, but because her narrative carries significance. It serves as a testament to the multifaceted journeys of black women, who have charted their paths through the world, imprinting their legacies upon history.

I came to realise that representation goes beyond highlighting exceptional individuals; it involves embracing the everyday experiences of black women. By immersing myself in Jabavu’s journey, I am reclaiming a vital part of my own identity, honouring the challenges faced and victories achieved by those who paved the way for me. In a world that frequently succumbs to prevailing narratives and distorts perceptions, I choose to recognise the task to forge an empowering platform that celebrates the richness of black womanhood. 

I now look back and re-evaluate many of my “hot takes” about black womanhood with a newfound appreciation for the importance of representation, even in unconventional forms. I embrace the idea that by learning about Jabavu, I am not only expanding my knowledge but also participating in the act of preserving our collective heritage and empowering future generations of black women. In the end, Maria’s words opened my eyes to the power of diverse narratives and the significance of each individual story within the larger embroidery of history. Noni Jabavu may not have been a well-known revolutionary, but her existence mattered, and her story deserves to be told. And now, as I delve into the pages of her life, I do so with a sense of gratitude and understanding, knowing that by immersing myself in her world, I am preserving a piece of our shared history.

This article is a winning essay of the Canon Collins Trust’s annual Lead with Your Mind: Troubling Power Essay Competition.

Abongile Nkamisa is a Cannon Collins scholar pursuing her LLM at the University of London.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.