A parson named Kumalo from a small town in South Africa is called by another parson to Johannesburg to help his “ill” sister (meaning she’s gotten into prostitution and illegal alcohol/drug distribution). Kumalo fears Johannesburg – every member of his family that has gone there has never come back, and have stopped writing. This includes his sister, his brother (and brother’s family), and his son. Despite his fear and poverty, Kumalo goes to retrieve his family. In Johannesburg, he meets much misfortune. His brother has left the church and his brother’s wife has unofficially divorced him. His sister is indeed a prostitute. He can’t find his son, and when he does, it’s too late.
The story is set on a background of a society in complete upheaval. Johannesburg is made up mostly of black people, but they are ruled by the few whites. There is poverty, growing crime, and senseless greed. Indeed, in one way this seems to be a novel about greed, selfishness, and self-justification.
It’s hard to know what to say about this book because there’s so much in it. In style, it’s almost like Grapes of Wrath meets South Africa, complete with some of those impressionist-style chapters so prevalent in Steinbeck’s work. Paton captures a certain voice, both in narration and dialog, that is completely unfamiliar to me. The cadence and rhythm of the words is foreign, even though the words are not, and while it took me awhile to get used to that, in the end, it turned out to be beautiful and moving.
I can’t talk about everything in this book, so I’m going to limit it to a few of the things that I saw. The first was the use of Christianity by the white people to justify their treatment of blacks. There is a character named Jarvis, a white activist on behalf of the black people, who writes papers and gives speeches. Though he is dead before the reader ever meets him, his influence on the characters is gigantic. At one point, his father is reading through the last paper he ever worked on, and I want to quote from it. It gets the point across better than I can. (This is long, sorry.)
The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply. We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under. And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement. We go so far as to credit Almighty God with having created black men to hew wood and draw water for white men. We go so far as to assume that He blesses any action that is designed to prevent black men from the full employment of the gifts He gave them. … We say we withhold education because the black child has not the intelligence to profit by it; we withhold the opportunity to develop gifts because black people have no gifts.
Again, my apologies for the length of that passage. That was the smallest I could chop it down to.
What struck me about this argument is its familiarity. Here in the US, it’s not often that we see anymore people using Christianity to justify segregation or oppression of blacks. Fifty years ago, sure, but not today. On the other hand, there are still people out there using Christianity to justify other prejudices, other oppression. The same arguments are employed. The same “some are more equal than others” that is seen in Animal Farm. I’m not saying all Christians are like this, or that Christianity itself is inherently prejudiced. Please don’t misread me. It can’t be denied, however, that some people, many people, are using the Bible to justify their actions. This sort of self-justification can be seen in all religions throughout history – holy books or holy words used for personal gain. And it was no different in South Africa.
That’s not to say religion was bashed in this book. It wasn’t. Kumalo and the parson in Johannesburg, Msimangu, were both very good people who did their best to help everyone around them. They weren’t painted as perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination, but they did take to heart God’s command to treat everyone with love and respect. I don’t know what Paton’s personal religious beliefs were, but I believe he gave religion and fair and unbiased treatment in Cry, the Beloved Country.
The second thing I want to talk about also deals with justification of mistreatment of blacks, though from a secular point of view. It involves greed and the corruption of power. Kumalo’s brother gives a speech at one point, talking about white men’s actions when new gold is found in the mines. He says, “They do not think, here is a chance to pay more for our labour. They think only, here is a chance to build a bigger house and buy a bigger car.” This is also a familiar point of view in today’s time. All throughout the book, the topic of greed is discussed. When people become richer, they do not take that as an opportunity to give to the poor. Instead, they want more, and they are willing to turn a blind eye to the poor and oppressed in order to keep what they have.
I don’t want to give the impression that this book was entirely negative. It wasn’t. The situation in the mid 1900s in South Africa was a sad one. A terrible one. But Paton does a good job showing that even amidst this pain, there is kindness, hope, and compassion. For example, a powerful, influential, expensive white lawyer comes to Kumalo and offers to represent his son “pro Deo,” or “for God.” That scene brought tears to my eyes. There were white people who offered to drive the black people boycotting the bus system to work, for free. There were white and black people who helped each other and learned from each other. Kumalo teaches a little white boy words in Zulu and plays with him at the church. All these scenes of little kindnesses were so touching, especially when everything in the background was so painful and confusing.
There are no answers here. Or, I should say, no concrete answers, as every character seems to have their own ideas as to what the answer should be. This is simply a snapshot of life as it was in that time. It is a beautiful book and every bit as relevant today as it was when it was written.