Background to the Author
BRYONY RHEAM was born in Kadoma, Zimbabwe, in 1974.
She spent most of her childhood in and around Bulawayo, leaving in 1993 to go to the UK.
In all, she spent about seven years there, working first of all, and then going to college and university. She studied for a BA and an MA in English Literature in the United Kingdom. Then she taught in Singapore for a year before returning to teach in Zimbabwe in 2001.
When she returned to Zimbabwe, she spent the next eight years working as an English teacher.
In 2008, she moved to Ndola (Zambia) where she still lives with her partner, John, and their two daughters, Sian and Ellie. She has a number of short stories published in various anthologies of Zimbabwean writing notably Laughing Now (2007), Women Writing Zimbabwe (2008) and Long Time Coming (2008).
And in 2009, her first novel, This September Sun, was published in Zimbabwe by amaBooks. This September Sun won the Zimbabwe Publishers Best First Book Award in 2010 and was published in the UK in 2012 by Parthian.
Her novel, The September Sun, assumes that black Zimbabweans and white Zimbabweans must celebrate the coming of independence as if they were collectively oppressed by colonialism.
Although it is true that some whites suffered and that others even sided with the oppressed Africans, their sympathy should not be taken for granted. This is the point Steve Biko makes in his reflections on apartheid liberalism.
This article takes you through the evolution of racism for you to be better positioned to appreciate the place of liberalism in The September Sun.
Assumptions of liberalism
Liberalism is a political theory founded on the assumption of the natural goodness of mankind.
It is predicated on the idealism that political systems and governments are always established with the consent of the governed.
Liberalism is also an economic theory favouring a laissez-faire free market economy thriving on the power of the invisible hand of market forces.
It is also a 19th century Protestant movement that favoured free intellectual inquiry, stressed the ethical and humanitarian content of Christianity, and de-emphasised dogmatic theology. All these definitions point towards a world governed by ideal; Christian ethics where all individuals regardless of race or origin possess the same opportunities to pursue their whims in an environment of peace and where individual freedoms are guaranteed by law.
Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality of all before the law.
Liberals are the people who espouse a wide array of views such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and private property.
It first became a distinct political movement during the so-called Enlightenment period which ironically advanced and nurtured feelings that some races notably the white race was superior to other races.
An Africa-centred critique of Bryony Rheam’s The September Sun
Let me begin with the main trends of the ‘founding’ period, which demonstrate how racism was theorised.
In his essay ‘Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations’ (1748), David Hume advances the theory that history grows like an organism through stages such as infancy, youth and maturity. This evolutionary character provides the context for his second essay, ‘Of National Characters’ (1748), where he claims that Negroes are naturally ‘inferior to the whites’. He says: “I am about to suspect that the Negroes and in general all other species of men (for they are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white, nor any individual eminent either in action or speculation: No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.” (Cited in Eze: 1997:33)
Hume’s mentality follows in the racist tradition of Aristotle who earlier on had claimed that certain groups of people are more suited for physical labour and therefore are naturally destined to be servants of those naturally made superior. Aristotle had argued:
That men of little genius, and great bodily strength, are by nature destined to serve, and those of better capacity, to command; that the natives of Greece, and of some of other countries, being naturally superior in genius, have natural right to empire; and that the rest of mankind, being naturally stupid, are destined to labour and slavery.” (Cited in ibid: 34)
Immanuel Kant (cited in ibid:38) also argues that there are four distinct varieties of the human species, each with a specific ‘natural disposition’ deriving from what he calls ‘stem genus’, supposedly a race of ‘white brunette’; now best approximated by ‘white’ Europeans, believed to have existed between 31st and 52nd parallels in the old world. In the hierarchy of these varieties, the African is placed at the bottom as the least endowed.
This fellow was quite black … “a clear proof that what he said was stupid” (Kant 1804, cited in ibid: 38).
Imagine a renowned 20th century philosopher, Georg Hegel (1956:93) blatantly asserting that:
The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and tamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling — if we could rightly comprehend him; there is nothing with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of missionaries completely confirm this … At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again for it is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit…
In 1963 the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford gave a series of lectures at Sussex University that were later published in a periodical and in a book. These lectures argued that “sub-Saharan Africa had no history” (Trevor-Roper cited in Fuglestad: 152). To him the past of this part of the world was clouded in darkness and “darkness is not the subject of history” (Ibid: 152).
The works of Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Trevor-Roper, show how ‘reason’ and ‘civilisation’ were synonymous with ‘white’ people and how ‘unreason’ and ‘savagery’ have been conveniently located among the non-whites.
Admittedly, racism is hardly unique to the West and is not necessarily limited to the colonial situation, but it has historically been both an ally and the partial inspiration to colonialism.
To date the term racism is now attributed to a type of behaviour which consists in the display of contempt or aggressiveness towards other people on account of physical differences between them and oneself.
Originally race simply referred to a “gene pool; a group of people who share a number of physical characteristics because they are part of the gene pool” (Phillips: 1984:12).
By the end of the 19th century the concept had become an ideology which Britain used to distinguish its colonial subjects whom it branded racially inferior to its own citizens. In fact, racism had been used much earlier to justify slavery.
It is only too apparent that the racial twist was only a justification for subjecting a fellow race to the tyranny of toil for economic reasons. Cubbon Wakefield (Cited in Williams: 1964:06) sums up the thesis: The reason for slavery is not moral, but economical circumstances. They relate not to vice and virtue, but to production.
The argument is that in essence racism was a rationalising ideology in support of the capitalist mode of production associated with the practice of slavery.
l Next week we will review the book.
Background to the Author