EXISTENTIALISM IN THE NOVELS OF BESSIE HEAD
1.1 Background to the Study
The African American and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature Toni Morrison, speaks eloquently of what she calls “a sense of rootedness”(339). What Morrison is referring to, is the gut sense of belonging to a common tradition of historical sensibility that binds writers of different background and different ideological leanings. For the African-American writers, the legacy of slavery, the throes of racial oppression, and the macabre paradox of Jim Crow politics in a free democratic society constitutes the background of that common tradition. Morrison contends that for the African writer, his sense of rootedness is defined by his belonging to an ethnic and cultural group together with the sense of identity which it fosters and which invariably conditions his creative imagination. Writers like Achebe have the Igbo cultural tradition, Ngugi—the kikuyu/Gikuyu culture, P’bitek—the Ugandan Acoli tradition Kane—the Islamic tradition of the diallobe. For Bessie Head, however, Morrison suggests that there is this inordinate sense of detachment from the African cultural tradition because of the intervening forces of apartheid in her native South Africa. She does not share in the ancestral sensibilities of an African homestead because she has not been allowed to develop root in any tradition.
The issue is her nativity; Bessie Head bore the burden of a double illegitimate birth: in 1937 she was conceived out of wedlock and, in apartheid argot, across the colour bar. Simply by being born, she transgressed the racial and gender edicts of her society, a deviance that portended the torments of her later life. In her thirteenth year, Head learned that the man and woman whom she had presumed to be her parents bore no biological relation to her. That year, the South African state removed her from foster parental care and placed her in an orphanage. It was only then that her origin was revealed to her and quoting Susan Gardner:
I was born on the 6th July 1937 in the Pietermaritzburg hospital….The reason for my peculiar birth place was that my mother was white, and she had acquired me from a black man. She was judged insane and committed to the mental hospital while pregnant(95).
Head’s mother, Bessie Amelia Emery, came from an upper-class white South African family renowned for breeding racehorses. The family’s professional preoccupation with eugenics may well have compounded their deep-seated racial prejudices, when their daughter, on the rebound from a failed marriage, flouted racial and class taboos by entering into a sexual liaison with a black stable hand. When she fell pregnant, her parents had her locked away in a mental asylum on grounds of, in the words of Randolph Vigne, of “premature senile dementia” (65). Emery gave birth to Head in the asylum and, six years later, in 1943, committed suicide there. Head never met her mother, nor did she ever learn the name of her father, who fled the Emery estate without a trace. By the age of thirteen, Head had known four sets of parents: her biological parents; the Afrikaans foster parents who returned her a week later because she looked “strange”. According to Gillian Eilersen, “did the delicate little fingernails have a brownish tinge? Were the wisps of hair too curly? The child is coloured, in fact quite black and native in appearance”(9); the mixed-race foster parents into whose care she was delivered, and the South African state which, acting in loco parentis, removed the young girl from these second foster parents and placed her in an orphanage, as a ward of the state. Thus, from an early age, Head came to experience the family not as a natural form of belonging but as an unstable artifice, invented and reinvented in racist terms, and conditional upon the administrative designs of the nation-state. Elizabeth Odhiambo opines that:
…for writers like Kane, Achebe, Laye, Soyinka and others the knowledge emerging and experienced by them is anchored in shared collective tribal and ethnic identity. For Head on the other hand, the emergent knowledge is one constructed on the knife-edge categories of race, otherness and crippling alienation, a fact which discourages any kind of affinity or sympathetic rootedness(45).
Her estrangement from tradition placed her under relentless pressure to improvise a sense of community and ancestry, in her life and writing alike. Sandra Paquet, in her analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Hurston and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison, emphasizes the necessity of “knowing oneself in ancestral terms” (508).