Social Roles in African Literature

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During the uprisings of the 1970s, Nadine Gordimer presented a very dreary and pessimistic prophecy to white and black South Africa in July's People. This prophecy suggested a probable overthrow of the apartheid system which would challenge the currently existing social and racial roles of its inhabitants. Amid the chaos, traditional roles would be overturned and new ones are formed as the Smales accept their servant's offer of refuge and flee to his village in the bush. Additionally, Zoe Wicomb describes the social and sexual roles that dominate Afrikaaners in You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town. Through a series of connected short stories, Wicomb's narrator, Frieda Shenton, grows from childhood to womanhood in a community labeled as "colored." These colored, people of racially mixed decent, were classified not on ethnic or cultural values, but rather based on skin color and appearance. To gain complete understanding of racial and sexual roles present in the southern part of Africa, one must carefully examine both July's People and You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town for semblances of an old social structure as the birth of a new nation develops.

In Wicomb's You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, we are presented with a young girl, Frieda, transforming into a woman in a rural African village. Frieda is faced with the realization that apartheid has ghettoized the coloreds to live in dreadful conditions. It is through the suppression of this ghetto life along with the suppression of racial and sexual stereotypes that Frieda removes herself and gains her independence. Frieda's changing sexuality is important for her maturation into a woman. Wicomb presents a sexual hierarchy of women as viewed from a colored perspective. Men can improve their social appearance through education, but for a woman, she must get married. A necessary ingredient for a successful marriage is to be pretty as suggested by Frieda's mother: "Poor child… What can a girl do without good looks? Who'll marry you? We'll have to put a peg on your nose" (164). Even in Frieda's teenage years, she never saw herself as attractive, for she saw herself as "too plump." This "plumpness" is a direct result from her father urging her finish all her meals, as he saw skinniness unattractive. In addition, during the train ride to school, Frieda dreamt of a fairytale in which boys were regarded as princes and her role was not that of Cinderella, but rather that of the pumpkin. This issue of sexual attractiveness is not only fortified by her mother, but also while she attends school. In the story A Clearing in the Bush, Frieda is confronted with issues of sexual desirability. As she is trying to finish a paper on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervillle, she finds the paper difficult to finish when the canteen fills with male students. The presence of these male students not only discourages her from completing her paper, they also discourage her from simply walking across the room because she fears that they may whistle at her. Furthermore, the whistles also prevent Frieda and her friend, Moira, from engaging in conversations with the group of males at another table. Frieda becomes skeptical and analyzes the meaning of this whistle. She ponders whether the men whistle because they are obliged to in the presence of a woman or if they actually find her attractive. Her scrutiny of appearance and reaction from others further exemplify the importance of sexual attractiveness in Wicomb's stories. The men in the canteen do not acknowledge the women with conversation, but rather, the women are acknowledged with whistles. In this manner, the women are objectified by the men with the whistling. Not only does this create a sexual awkwardness in the women, the whistle also creates a power hierarchy in which the men control. At the same time that Frieda and Moira are humiliated by the whistles, they would be further humiliated if there were no whistle at all. It...
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