Forbidden Reading: African Freedom
When I was a kid in Asheville, NC, I loved to hang out at the library, and, when she thought I was old enough, my Mom had to go uptown and convince the librarian to let me read the stuff in the adult room. You’re probably more interested in what my Mom wouldn’t let me read than what I was allowed to read. The book I remember being told I couldn’t read was Something of Value, by Robert Ruark . It was a novel about the Mau-Mau uprising against the British in Kenya. Mom said it was too violent. She was definitely in favor of independence for African nations, though.
Here and Now
I wouldn’t recommend that book today. Too violent. Instead, I’d recommend Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, which I did read at the time. That was a book set in South Africa, in which a Black minister from a small country town is summoned to the big city of Johannesburg, to try to help his sister. Not only does he find that his sister is drinking and working as a prostitute, he discovers that his son is in a reformatory (juvie). His son, Absalom, has been accused of murdering a young white man who, ironically, was a humanitarian trying to help South African Blacks and bring about equality. Absalom’s father and the dead young white man’s father meet, realize they are from the same small town, and eventually work together to improve the situation of the Black farmers in that part of the country.
Reading about Cry the Beloved Country now, I find out it was first published in 1948, the same year that the Nationalist party won in South Africa and instituted apartheid. That was a brutal system of racial segregation, with the minority Whites in power over the minority Blacks. And Coloreds, and Indians. Paton’s book was part of a last-ditch effort to bring hope and racial equality to the country before it was too late.
If you want to read a slightly more recent book, about apartheid days, check out Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, by Mark Mathabane. Mathabane grew up in almost hopeless poverty and violence in a South African township. I say “almost hopeless” because Mark was a top student whose mother and grandmother sacrificed to make sure he could get an education. He also learned to play tennis, which was really rare for a Black kid. (Kaffir could be described as the K word, so I’m saying Black here.) But his book is unsparing in the way it describes what being poor and Black under apartheid was really like. Finally, with the help of a famous American tennis player, Mark got a scholarship to an American university and was on his way out.
Back to Kenya
Looking for something to read about the Mau-Mau uprising, I just found Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, by the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Both books take place the time of the Kikuyu-led rebellion, in which his older brother fought as a guerrilla, and the British suppression of it. In the first, Ngugi is a kid, and in the second, he’s a student in a new high school for African Kenyans, while his brother is in the mountains and then in prison. Read these books and see what you think.
Vaughn Harrison works at Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile.