Cry Sorrow Nkosi

Cry Sorrow Nkosi


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I write so much at length about the hero of Alan Paton’s novel not in any effort to give a full critique of the novel as a work of art, but in order to show that when we entered the decade of the fifties we had no literary heroes, like generations in other parts of the world.



Books by Lewis Nkosi


Mandela’s Ego  / Underground People / Mating Birds / Tasks and Masks: An Introduction to African Literature


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Home and Exile

from Cry Sorrow, Cry Joy

By Lewis Nkosi

My generation came to maturity just before or soon after the Second World War, at about the same time that Dr. Malan was taking over the country on a mandate to apply more rigidly apartheid than the Smuts Government before him had seemed prepared to do. It could not therefore without some superhuman effort understand the naïve credulity of its elders. Though we doubted we could have done any better in the circumstances, we were nonetheless bitter that our great grandfathers had lost a country to the whites. It was therefore with genuine pain that we were prepared to forgive them their ignoble defeat.

What we were not, by any means, prepared to forgive was the indecent readiness with which our immediate elders were prepared to believe that after this history of war and pillage white people meant well by us, and that given time they would soon accord us equal say in the running of the country’s affairs. Not only had our elders apparently believed this patent hoax but during the Second World War they had allowed themselves to be pressed into service under the impression that they were helping win freedom and democracy for us! This seemed to us incredible stupidity. . . .

The evidence of their writing was not the least encouraging. When we turned to their literature our sense of outrage was sharpened. . . .

We, the young, were blamed, of course, not only for having defected from the time-tested morality of the tribe but were also sharply reprimanded for refusing at least to substitute a Christian morality in its place. Often enough—I think with some truth—we were accused of being irresponsible, cynical, pleasure-loving, world-weary and old before our time had arrived to be truly old.

Most vernacular novels upon which we were nourished in our boyhood, worked and reworked the theme of Jim Comes to Jo-burg in which it was implied that Jim’s loss of place in the tightly woven tribal structure and the corresponding attenuation of the elders’ authority over him was the main cause rather than the result of the nation’s tragedy. Jim’s disaffiliation from the tribe in favour of the self-seeking individualistic ethos of urban life, we were made to understand, was tantamount to Jim’s loss of manhood. As a matter of fact, this was the subservient theme in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

If we rejected Stephen Kumalo, Paton’s hero, it was partly because we, the young, suspected that the priest was a cunning expression of white liberal sentiment. Paton’s generosity of spirit, his courageous plea for racial justice, and all those qualities which have earned him the undying respect of many Africans, we re not of course in question.

What was in question was Paton’s method, his fictional control of African character which produced an ultimate absurdity like Stephen Kumalo: an embodiment of all the pieties, trepidations and humilities we the young had begun to despise with such a consuming passion.

We thought we discerned in Stephen Kumalo’s naivete and simple-minded goodwill, white South Africa’s subconscious desire to survive the blind tragedy which was bound to engulf the country sooner or later; for if the African (or anybody else for that matter) was as fundamentally good and forgiving as Stephen Kumalo was conceived by Paton to be, then the white South Africans might yet escape the immense penalty which they would be required to pay.

You will remember that Kumalo, the priest who goes to Johannesburg in search of his son, is afforded ample opportunity to witness the moral decay of the society for which the major responsibility must surely lie with the racist exploiters. But strangely enough, if somewhat unconvincingly, this is the kind of Gethsemane from which Kumalo emerges without moral profit to return once more to Indotsheni, his innocence still intact, as convinced as ever that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the society which cannot be set right by love and prayer.

Caught as he is in the Christian liberal’s dilemma of how to persuade an unwilling people to change for the good without a recourse to revolution or a certain amount of force, Paton’s novel can only end with a distorted, sentimental, if meliorative vision, in which reconciliation consists of liberals supplying milk and helping build a dam in a Bantustan. However, this optimism, then as now, was false, infantile. We had to wait for the publication of Paton’s Tales from a Troubled Land, a record, I would say, of Paton’s actual experience and therefore an unsemtimentalised encounter with the dark and iron reality of the life of the urban African, to witness, finally, Paton’s earnest confrontation of the central issue of Evil and the meagerness of the liberal vision before so challenging a realtiy  . . .

. . . Stephen Kumalo seems to me quite incredible and I would say he is quite easy to repudiate, for as a character he is no more than a figment of a white liberal’s imagination. Where so many white South African writers fall flat on their faces in their effort to portray the so-called simple African is in their inability to see and underline the fantastic ambiguity, the deliberate self-deception, the ever-present irony beneath the mock humility and moderation of speech. It is this irony of the subtle persecution of a white man by a so-called simple African which is the supreme achievement of Don Jaconson’s The Trap.

We, the young, also despised Stephen Kumalo, of course, for his failure to come to terms with the city; we despised him even more heartily when he “cropped  out,” retreating finally to Indotsheni; and we despised him right up to the moment he climbed the mountain to offer that extraordinary prayer to god, which was really the prayer of a man in a deep panic, a man, nonetheless, who is not permitted even the dignity of a minimum awareness and comprehension of his situation.

I write so much at length about the hero of Alan Paton’s novel not in any effort to give a full critique of the novel as a work of art, but in order to show that when we entered the decade of the fifties we had no literary heroes, like generations in other parts of the world. We had to improvise because there were no models who could serve as moral examples for us in our private and public preoccupations. On the other hand by the time we were through living in the fifties we had given white writers a milieu and characters who were recognizably modeled upon our lives. Several associates working for DRUM magazine individually and collectively made up the characters and provided the social milieu of stories like Paton’s Drink in the Passage, or Nadine Gordimer’s A World of Strangers and Occasion for Loving. Paton’s story is, in fact, a report of what actually happened in real life to one of us.

I know that for those who do not believe in the power of literature to mould life and manners the need for literary heroes must seem not only silly but self-indulgent; nevertheless it seems to me that as a generation we longed desperately for literary heroes we could respect and with whom we could identify. In the moral chaos through which we were living we longed to find a work of literature, a drama or film, home-grown and about us, which would contain a significant amount of our experience and in which we could find our own attitudes and feelings.

For a generation reaching maturity, it was an intolerable strain not to have our own Holden Caulfield against whom to measure our own feelings and test our own vision of reality. I suppose, in a sense, the war between us and Stephen Kumalo was therefore a war between two generations—the older generation which looked forward to fruitful changes under the Smuts Government and the young who saw themselves beginning their adult life under a more brutal apartheid regime.

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Cry Sorrow, Cry Joy

Selections from Contemporary African Writers

Edited by Jane Ann Moore

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Lewis Nkosi (5 December 1936 – 5 September 2010) was a South African writer and essayist. He was a multifaceted personality, and attempted every literary genre, literary criticism, poetry, drama, and novels. Nkosi worked for many years in Durban for the magazine Ilanga lase Natal and in Johannesburg for Drum.

Nkosi faced severe restrictions on his writing due to the publishing regulations found in the Suppression of Communism Act and the Publications and Entertainment Act passed in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961, he received a scholarship to study at Harvard, and he began his life in exile. He was an editor for The New African in London, and the NET in the United States. He became a Professor of Literature and held positions at the University of Wyoming and the University of California-Irvine, as well as at universities in Zambia and Warsaw, Poland.

As opposed to apartheid, Nkosi’s work explores themes of politics, relationships, and sexuality. His essays and other works were published over four decades in America, England and Africa. His works, possessing great depth, received less recognition than they had actually deserved. In the post-apartheid era, his works are gaining critical attention across the third world. Interestingly, Nkosi joined forces with African powerhouse authors Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka in an interview in the third chapter of Bernth Lindfors’ Conversations With Chinua Achebe. In 1978, Nkosi and composer Stanley Glasser wrote a collection of six Zulu-style songs called “Lalela Zulu” for The King’s Singers, a group of six white British, male a cappella singers.—Wikipedia

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Mating Birds

By Lewis Nkosi

From his cell in Durban, South Africa, the black narrator of this short, powerful novel can see mating birds “clinging to each other joyfully in the bright air as though for dear life.” But he is condemned to die: condemned for mating with a white woman. On her accusation, he has been found guilty of rape; by his account they were “mating birds,” drawn together across racial barriers by irrepressible sexual desire. While the nature of their encounter remains ambiguous, the squalid evils of apartheid are rendered with the utmost clarity. Nkosi, an exiled South African, has a fine ear for dialogue and an unusual economy of expression. Recommended for black studies and fiction collections.—Peter Sabor, Library Journal

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Books on African Film

African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent / Symbolic Narratives: African Cinema / African Cinema: Politics and Culture /

Africa Shoots Back: Alternative Perspectives In Sub-Saharan Francophone African Films  / Black African Cinema  /

African Cinemas: Decolonizing the Gaze / Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers

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Still Beating the Drum : Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi

By Lindy Stiebel

Lewis Nkosi is one of South Africa’s foremost writers and critics, and one of the few survivors of the exile generation dating from the Drum era. Up until now, however, no full length study has been done on his work. This is a gap in South African literary history and criticism that this book is intended to fill. Besides his well known earlier works, Nkosi is still very much an active writer as the publication in 2002 of his novel, Underground People, shows, with his latest novel due out in 2005. The timing of Still Beating the Drum, a book which intends to highlight and evaluate his extensive and varied oeuvre, is thus appropriate. Given Lewis Nkosi’s life trajectory, this volume will appeal to readers interested in South African and African literature, both in South Africa and abroad.

Intended as a important critical resource on Lewis Nkosi, the book is divided into three parts:

Part One collects papers from scholars around the world currently working on Nkosi’s work in various genres; Part Two reprints key articles from different moments in Nkosi’s critical writing, together with hitherto unpublished recent interviews with Nkosi; and Part Three provides the reader with a timeline and extensive bibliography for Lewis Nkosi, both invaluable resources for scholars working on Nkosi given the scattered nature of much of his more ephemeral writings in the past. Lewis Nkosi is an important figure in South African literature whose voice has been heard far and wide—this book aims to collect for critical consideration some of the echoes and reverberations his voice has generated.

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Lewis Nkosi (documentary film)

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African Film on DVD

Black Girl / Borom Sarret Sugar Cane Alley Kirikou and the Sorceress Lumumba

Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony / Cry, The Beloved Country   /  The Power of One 

Bopha / Mandela and deKlerk / Cry Freedom  / Hotel Rwanda / Sarafina / Yesterday

Tsotsi  / Hyenas Mandabi  / Xala Madame Brouette  / Yeelen / Life on Earth

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 21 November 2010



Home  The African World  Transitional Writings on Africa  

Related files: Cry Sorrow Contents  Cry Sorrow Introduction  Home & Exile

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