Biography of Bessie Emery by Elizabeth Venditti

ABSTRACT:

Bessie Emery was the first black South African woman to publish a collection of short stories.[i] She was also described as a passionate and invested woman in all subjects of which she wrote. Many historians have also argued that Emery was not only a remarkable writer, but also a historian as well. She befriended many influential artists and political activists throughout her life, including Langston Hughes, Paddy Kitchen and Randolph Vigne. Emery also suffered through the significant effects of apartheid in South Africa in the 1960s, including censorship on political writing. Emery’s friendships through politics, shown through her correspondence, shaped her motivation as one of the most influential South African female Coloured writers.

Figure 1 Image source

Bessie Emery was born on 6 July, 1937 in an asylum, in Pietermaritzburg, because her mother was white and her father was black.[ii] Her white family, the Birches, only came forward to claim relation after Emery’s death.[iii] Emery’s father is still unknown. The prohibition of mixed marriages act of 1949 was still in action when she was born, which caused Bessie Emery’s existence to be “taboo.”[iv] This “racial purity” ideal, which formed acts like the prohibition of mixed marriages, was one of the major influences and harshest beliefs of apartheid. It drove Emery to face a harsh reality and stigma for her lifetime. Her “coloured” appearance made her feel alone and different due to apartheid’s severe rules and stigmas, which pushed Bessie Emery to write and fight.[v] One source claimed that Emery’s foster parents rejected her because she was “too black” when she was a child.[vi] While another source, Everyday Matters editor MJ Daymond, explained that Nellie Heathcote, Emery’s adoptive mother, could not afford to keep her after Heathcote’s husband died. Daymond also wrote, “Bessie loved and had believed was her birth mother,” showing the closeness between Heathcote and Emery. Also, the principle at the Anglican School Head attended for six years, Saint Monica’s, would not allow Emery to see her foster mother during the holiday season, because the principle claimed that her foster mother was insane.[vii] Daymond cited Emery when he described how the principle also claimed Emery’s “origins were a ‘horror.’”[viii] The principle from Saint Monica’s was yet another example of the stigma Emery faced for being Coloured in South Africa. After her schooling, Emery was certified as a teacher in 1957 and taught in Clairwood, Durban until 1958 as well.[ix] Next, Emery wrote for Drum Magazine and Golden City Post in 1956 for three months as a freelance reporter.[x] She became a court reporter in the 1950s as well, and witnessed the political unrest and resistance.[xi] Bessie Emery married Harold Head in 1961, then settled in District Six, until Harold started a new job in Port Elizabeth, which the family followed him to. Their son Howard was born May 1962, whom Head raised by herself after her divorce.

Head was a refugee, or a “stateless person,” for fifteen years until she became a citizen in Botswana in 1979. She was reported to have left South Africa in 1964 when she was twenty six, because of her broken heart and lack of writing freedom.[xii] Cherry Clayton, author of “A World Elsewhere,” wrote, “She left because of the breakdown of her marriage, the economic lure of a teaching post in Botswana, and her despair at being unable to function as a 'storyteller' in a country of rigidly enforced racial separation, which made both personal stability and a sense of human community difficult to achieve.” Clayton’s assumption would seem more accurate than other sources. Her reasoning for emigrating to Botswana is still misconstrued and misunderstood. Being a journalist, Head faced much censorship and prejudice against her skin color, inspiring her to be involved in the Pan Africanist Movement, or the PAC,[xiii] in the 1950s, and the Liberal Party in 1961.[xiv] Regrettably,  Bessie Head died 1986, due to an “infectious form of hepatitis.”[xv]

In the 1950s, when harsh new apartheid laws were passed, Head was briefly involved in the PAC. Daymond wrote, “during the Anti-Pass Laws campaign, in which she was a peripheral participant, Bessie joined the Pan-Africanist Congress,”[xvi] showing her quick interest in the PAC. At this time Head was a court reporter, so she saw the political resistance often and was aware of the trials political activists faced. Daymond also wrote, “while she swiftly withdrew from party politics, she retained a life-long admiration for the party leader, Robert Sobukwe,” showing how friendship and admiration influenced Bessie Head’s initial political interest.[xvii] Sobukwe and Head were not close friends, but Head still appreciated his views and found his cause interesting. One historian wrote that Head, “returned to Cape Town after dramatic involvement in Johannesburg political and journalistic circles in the first half of 1960… the arrest and conviction of her friend and PAC leader Robert Sobukwe, her own arrest and subsequent dismissal on obscure charges, and a failed April 1960 suicide attempt.”[xviii] In various sources the years in which Head was involved in the PAC and arrested did not correlate. Possibly, she could have been involved later after she faced more censorship. Head’s primary biographer Gillian Eilerson claimed that, “her travels abroad had made her aware that she was a controversial figure in her refusal to give her total support to either feminism or African nationalism and in her unconventional views of good and evil.”[xix] Both Daymond and Eilerson wrote that Head was not interested in political parties. These observations proved to be a contradiction to other sources about Bessie Head’s political involvement, which again showed how history can be misunderstood and unclear. Head was a feminist icon, because she was the first Coloured South African woman to publish her writing in general and was quoted to acknowledge political parties. She also surrounded herself with political leaders and associated with activists. Even Eilerson wrote, “her circle of friends was extremely wide. It encompassed established writers, critics, university lecturers, Peace Corps volunteers, admirers from many different walks of life and students.” This large cohort of friends showed how friendly and lively Head was and how she immersed herself in a group of politically active friends. Perhaps, Head was interested in the political unrest and was a major part of the discriminated population, leading her to political involvement due her frustration. Also, Eilerson may have intended to establish that Head did not politically endorse these causes, since it was clear Head definitely was a huge part of both feminism and African nationalism.

Historians also found that Head’s involvement in the Liberal Party, was due to the friends she made and the stressful time in her life. Paulette Coetzee and Craig Mackenzie, both authors and experts in South African history, wrote, “ she sought friendship in the leftist political circles loosely grouped around the Liberal Party,” showing her involvement and care of the party. Her friends were in the Liberal party, therefore she was around their ideals and assertions and probably agreed with them. She even used politics to make friends, once stating that, "he fantastic thing about friendships in South Africa is that one always and only meets one's friends through politics.”[xx] However, Eilerson explained that at the time of her involvement in the Liberal party, Head was facing severe depression. Eilerson also wrote, “Bessie Head's spirits were mercurial. Perhaps a naturally exuberant nature had been marred by a traumatic childhood of rejection and isolation, and an adult life marked by intense suffering.”[xxi] Here Eilerson expanded on Head’s emotional trauma and perseverance. Most historians acknowledged Head’s severe depression, and blamed the racism and cruelness of apartheid, while others claimed her divorce was the source. Head’s whereabouts in the early 1960s were not documented, which leads to speculation of her pure interest in the Liberal Party. It may have been that her friend, and one of the leaders of the Party, Randolph Vigne met with her at the party meetings.[xxii] Vigne claimed, “Bessie was a bright and talkative person, but many found her alarming and feared both her deadly, silent stare of disapproval, and her furious outbursts when her fiercely held Africanist views were offended.”[xxiii] Clearly, she was a spirited activist, and Vigne’s description painted a fierce picture of his friend. His description proved Head’s strong character and how well he knew her. Their friendship was also mentioned in Head’s letters in the 1970s, showing their closeness and long lasting friendship.[xxiv]

Another example of Head’s closest correspondents was Paddy Kitchen, to whom she sent approximately eighty letters to. The first letter presented in Everyday Matters, was Head’s twentieth letter to Kitchen. It was dated 16 October, 1969 and was about two and a half pages long. She first wrote about kissing, then moved onto refugee camps in world war two. Then, she went back to writing about love. Her writing had the nature of someone including every idea that popped into their mind. It had the tone of talking to a friend, someone she could be unfiltered with. Her letters had personality and kindness within them, because she wrote dearly to her friend Paddy. In letter 21 Head wrote, “I liked such a situation because I have learnt to pull tricks and poverty is my second name. I am at home in a situation where there is nothing and I force something to happen.”[xxv] She discussed an agricultural meeting in Botswana where the committee did not have enough money for a fence around a garden. Her reflection on poverty included a playful but morose tone. By calling poverty her “second name,” Head implied that she had a close relationship with it, clearly because of the racism in both Botswana and South Africa. Her attitude and perseverance were shown when she wrote, “I force things to happen,” because she acknowledged her determination. Head then began letter 22 with, “either you visit me one day or I visit you,” revealing their closeness and friendliness.[xxvi] She wrote about getting together and visiting because they had a long distance friendship due to her exile. It was casual enough in tone, but the context of South Africa in 1970 was that it was tense in racism and political rebellion. In a shorter letter, Head wrote, “My friend Randolph Vigne…is very eager to meet you and your husband,” showing how she connected her political friends.[xxvii] In her thirtieth letter to Paddy, Head explained her emotional destruction. She wrote, “I suppose when you have a break down nothing is coherent. I am so used to them, these long periods of darkness when every effort is painful.”[xxviii] This entry expanded on other sources’ explanation of Head’s depression. Here she wrote out a detailed explanation of her depression to her friend, showing how her revelation and openness with Paddy Kitchen were clear and strong. Admitting and writing about her depression to Paddy tested her trust and proved their honest friendship. In her 83rd, and last letter to Paddy, Head wrote about the troubles of publishing Maru. The letter was dated, 20 February 1986, showing it was sent a few months before Head’s untimely death. There were difficulties with the publishing houses, and Head wrote, “They must withdraw Maru and destroy it.”[xxix] It was ironic that Head faced a struggle publishing her most well-known book. She claimed that the publishing house and editors would and “must” destroy it, showing her artistic pride. In letter 66, dated 21 January 1983, Head wrote about how feminists claimed that her book A Question of Power had feminist undertones. She disagreed with their want for her to be a feminist when she wrote, “ But feminists are so excited about discovering WOMAN! I stay out of it.”[xxx] In many of her letters, 65-69 to Paddy, Head wrote at length about how she respected men, befriended more men than women, and remarked on a young female student’s questioning of her feminist status. She claimed, “I relate better to men than to women,” as a point to support her reluctance to join the feminist movement.[xxxi] Head also did not write about politics to Paddy. In one letter Head addressed Kitchen’s whiteness, because she wrote about a dream where Kitchen was black. She wrote, “the black skin in my dream indicates but the goodness of the heart of those individuals.”[xxxii] They clearly wrote freely about race and color, showing their closeness and openness. Their lack of political discussion, added to more belief that Head was not as involved in politics, but as a social and racial activist.

Historians also discovered Bessie Head and Langston Hughes’ insightful correspondence, which included artistic critiques of each other’s writing styles, as well as commentary on political and racial trials they had endured. David Moore wrote that she was Bessie Emery when she wrote to Hughes, because she had not yet married Harold Head, though she mentioned him as a “friend” in one of her letters.[xxxiii] It is known that Head began the correspondence “on 10 October 1960 to introduce herself and seek support.”[xxxiv] Historians know that Head began the correspondence because Hughes’ actual address was not on the first letter, showing that she did not know it. It went to “Crown publishers in New York,” where it was forwarded to him.[xxxv] She needed money to support her art, however other historians claimed she did not allow her friends to give her charity.[xxxvi] This correspondence occurred before her first book was published, in her first letter she called it, When Freedom Comes. However, her first book published was When Rain Clouds Gather, in 1968. Moore described Head’s first letter to have “somewhat anguished tones,” showing her initial desperation for help as well.[xxxvii] She began her letter by writing, “Would you be interested in assisting or, obtaining financial and other assistance for a book that I wish to write?”[xxxviii] Her address was articulate and polite, in asking for money. In the middle of her letter she explains, “ the purposes of the book are to resolve the conflict; make clear the confusion and be representative of the dynamic, positive and raceless ideas of a vast number of non-whites. For from them come the leaders of freedom.”[xxxix] This part of the letter was proof that Head had every intent on writing about the political and racial tensions and problems in both South Africa, despite her lack of complete allegiance and involvement. Then she wrote, “ the idea for this book was nurtured by such a feeling of despair, absolute frustration and a deep sense of isolation, of not belonging.”[xl] Here she admitted her personal isolation and her displacement as a Coloured person in South Africa. Head’s strong emotions were what fueled her art and her passion for justice in South Africa. She ended the letter by stating that Hughes must address the letter to “Julie Smith,” her cover name, showing the large amount of censorship in Cape Town.[xli]  Hughes and Head then wrote to each other about how writers were poor, especially after Hughes rejected her request for money. He politely wrote, “ so, regretfully, all I can send you is my interest, admiration, and hope that you can somehow keep on working and writing and will carry your project to completion and eventually publication.”[xlii] This support from Hughes was crucial to Head, because of his significance in America. As a known spectacular writer and poet, Hughes’ advice and support were necessary for Head. Their friendship grew after her witty response to his letter, when she wrote “ it’s good to know you are poor too.”[xliii] Through their first few letters, Hughes also seemed to flirt with her. He wrote to her that he had her picture on his desk, and asks her to come visit New York.[xliv] They both shared the common “starving artist” realities due to their racist environments.

Gillian Eilerson had primary access to Bessie Head’s letters, and found many correspondents that Head inspired. In the source, “The Bessie Head Papers: Some Preliminary Comments,” Eilerson explained that Head wrote to students in college, and responded to queries about her life. There were, “2000 letters, 300 people and organizations, 30 people she Head kept constant correspondence with for 3 years.”[xlv] These letters signified Head’s popularity and influence, as well as her care for others. She maintained many friendships through politics as well as giving advice to the youth. Eilerson wrote, “the young people writing to her were genuinely seeking greater insights. Each and every one of them received a detailed and considered reply. Here Bessie really revealed her courteous concern and her pedagogic leanings.”[xlvi] However, in 1982 and 1983, Head, “felt herself misused by lecturers at a South African university.”[xlvii] Eilerson did not name the university later, but explained how after Head was reluctant to meet with more students. It was unclear whether the professors or students were misinterpreting her work, or if they were taking advantage of her correspondence. Next Eilerson wrote, “ an old and genuine friend wrote to Bessie on two different occasions: ‘ you seem on a perpetual roller coaster and I can only pray that you will go zooming up again... and you seem to specialize in the great love followed by the great let down.’” This “genuine friend” remained nameless in Eilerson’s account, but their address to and worry for Bessie Head showed that they clearly cared for her.[xlviii] The “great love” and the “great let down” may refer to Head’s husband Harold, but again Eilerson did not specify in this account. However, she described another friendship: “ in the late sixties, Bessie Head began to correspond with an agricultural officer, ostensibly to obtain farming information about a remote corner of Botswana. Instead, their main common interest proved to be the lives and customs of the despised and downtrodden inhabitants of this area, the Basarwa.”[xlix] Head’s correspondence about agriculture turned to a discussion of the racism and cruelty in her area, showing her interest in discussing racial discrimination. Eilerson ended her piece by writing, “her dream was to write "the War and Peace of Southern Africa,”" proving that she found Head’s political interest in her letters, and that Head wanted to document and cover the racial injustices she faced throughout her life.[l] Finally, Eilerson claimed, “though she sometimes failed to accept her friends for what they were, rather than what she expected them to be, she has left us a rich record of a life lived with generosity, love and originality.”[li] Eilerson acknowledged Head’s extraordinary and influential life, yet her piece was not aimed to expand on the friendships that Head obtained and cared for through correspondence.

Bessie Head was a spirited, but troubled person. She endured the harshness of apartheid and of mental illness. Through most of her correspondents she used her friends for help with her art and her understanding of South Africa while she was in exile. She wrote to Paddy Kitchen as a confidant and as an informant on the goings on in South Africa. Her correspondence with Langston Hughes was primarily for help with writing and publishing, but also as a friendly way of communication. Her influence was also shown in her letters, because Gillian Eilerson was able to tease out many details of Head’s life. There were still facts that were unclear, like her primary reason for leaving South Africa and her actual amount of political involvement. However, her letters gave insight because each person she wrote had an impact on her life, and vice versa.

Primary

Rhodes University. "Bessie Head: Unpublished Early Poems." English in Africa 23, no. 1 (1996): 40-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40238820.

This secondary source provided PDFs of Bessie Head’s poems. I used her work as a primary source to understand her style of writing and for my argument.

Larson, C. 1991. “Bessie Head, Storyteller in Exile.” The Washington Post. http://www.lexisnexis.com

This Primary Source was helpful because it gave more direct quotes from Bessie Head, as well as explanations on her short stories. I learned information on her three short stories, which I did not use in the paper. I mostly used quotes about her childhood from this source. The author’s opinion and analysis of her short stories helped me understand another view of her works. I compared his reaction to her works to other historians and writers in my essay.

Moore, David Chioni. "The Bessie Head–Langston Hughes Correspondence, 1960–1961." Research in African Literatures 41, no. 3 (2010): 1-20.

I used the actual letters in this secondary source as a primary source.  The author provided the actual letters, which gave me a better idea of Head’s activism and correspondence style. I used her responses to Langston Hughes to understand her friendships as well.>

PHS. "The Times Diary." Times [London, England] 29 Jan. 1969: 8. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
http://galegroup.com

This primary source was a short bio on Bessie Head’s first published book. The newspaper from 1969 offered information on Bessie Head’s financial problems, as well as highlighting her work.

Taylor, Dora, Bessie Head, and Lilian Ngoyi. Everyday Matters: Selected Letters of Dora   Taylor, Bessie Head & Lilian Ngoyi. Ed. M. J. Daymond. Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana, 2015. Print.

End Notes

[i] Washington Post

[ii] SAHO: Bessie Head is Born

[iii] Everyday Matters, page 83

[iv] Everyday Matters, page 83

[v] Everyday Matters, page 83

[vi] SAHO: Bessie Head is Born

[vii] Everyday Matters, page 83

[viii] Everyday Matters, page 83

[ix] SAHO: Bessie Head is Born

[x] Everyday Matters, page 84

[xi] Everyday Matters, page 85

[xii] A World Elsewhere

[xiii] SAHO: Bessie Head’s Death

[xiv] Rediscovered Early Poems, page 30

[xv] Everyday Matters, page 100

[xvi] Everyday Matters, page 85

[xvii] Everyday Matters, page85

[xviii] Moore, page 4

[xix] Eilerson, page 97

[xx] Rediscovered Early Poems, page 30

[xxi] Eilerson, page 97

[xxii] Rediscovered Early Poems, page 30

[xxiii] Rediscovered Early Poems, page 30

[xxiv] Everyday Matters, page 114

[xxv] Everyday Matters, page 105

[xxvi] Everyday Matters, page 107

[xxvii] Everyday Matters, page 114

[xxviii] Everyday Matters, page 123

[xxix] Everyday Matters, page 244

[xxx] Everyday Matters, page 216

[xxxi] Everyday Matters, page216

[xxxii] Everyday Matters, page 106

[xxxiii] Moore, page 10

[xxxiv] Moore, page 4

[xxxv] Moore, page 4

[xxxvi] A World Elsewhere

[xxxvii] Moore, page 8

[xxxviii] Moore, page 8

[xxxix] Moore, page 8

[xl] Moore, page 8

[xli] Moore, page 9

[xlii] Moore, page 9

[xliii] Moore, page 10

[xliv] Moore, page 9

[xlv] Eilerson, page 96

[xlvi] Eilerson, page 97

[xlvii] Eilerson, page 96

[xlviii] Eilerson, page 96

[xlix] Eilerson, page 96

[l] Eilerson, page 97

[li] Eilerson, page 97

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

Last updated : 06-Feb-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 24-Jan-2017

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