If you've been following, you know I'm enrolled in the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College. Some of you may be curious about the nature of my assignments. So, I've provided an essay from my February packet, a unit on writers of South Africa. This essay analyzes one of the major writers of the South African Black Consciousness movement, Mongane Wally Serote and his poem (it may help to read it before reading the essay), "What's in This Black Shit."
THE APARTHEID government shattered Black resistance movements in the 1960’s by imprisoning many of the African National Congress’ key leaders and by forcing the rest into exile. As political, social, and economic conditions spiraled, the need for new movements and new leadership emerged. Enter Black Consciousness.
Born on the campuses of the ‘Bush’ universities – segregated institutions of higher learning for Bantus, or native Africans – the Black Consciousness movement was inspired by the Black Power movement in the United States and by Pan-Africanist scholars such as Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon. Among the movement’s goals: to reinterpret the meaning of blackness, to seek the psycho-logical liberation of the black man, to reject White liberalism, and to rewrite the history of South Africa so that Black dignity could be restored.
One of the key tools of Black Consciousness was its cultural component. And one of its master craftsmen was the poet, Mongane Wally Serote, whose poem, “What’s in this Black Shit” from his 1972 debut collection, Yakhal'inkomo exemplifies the Black Consciousness aesthetic.
Before we even enter the poem, Serote challenges the Western reader’s aesthetic values. The title, “What’s in this Black Shit?,” in its vulgarity and profanity, directly confronts the trees-and-flowers aesthetic of European high culture. ‘Black shit’ as a poetic subject is, in itself, a reinterpretive, or revolutionary, act.
Once we enter the poem, the tone is blatantly didactic, another feature of Black Consciousness literature. While Serote does use poetic techniques (which will be examined later) his primary mission is to instruct, that is, to redefine the meaning of Blackness. Thus, his language in the opening lines of the poem is that of definition:
It is not the steaming little rot
In the toilet bucket
It is the upheaval of bowels
But even in his definition, instead of straightforward equivalizing, Serote chooses the form of negation, “It is not the steaming little rot,” which is to emphasize that “What’s in This Black Shit” is not simply about definition, but about re-definition.
And Serote’s redefinition in the remainder of the first stanza is performing a bit of psychotherapy as well. In the opening negation, he describes black shit with “steaming little” – as something dimunitive, which could fit neatly in the toilet bucket. But in his redefinition, he uses the language of something which is much bigger, all-consuming – the wrenching “upheaval of the bowels,” a “bleeding… coming out through the mouth.” He makes it real to the reader, engaging shit with the tactile and savory senses: “rolling in the mouth, feeling its taste.” This black shit is something which must be faced, not something which can be forgotten, or flushed.
With a very instructional direct address, the opening line of the second stanza abandons artifice altogether, continuing the didactic tone common in Black Consciousness:
Now I’m talking about this:
And so here it is that Serote, in a poem about definition, begins redefining his redefinition. After describing black shit in literal terms in the first stanza, Serote uses a less direct method of definition for this second stanza - context:
“Shit” you hear an old woman say,
Here, Serote creates a dramatic scene with “an old woman,” a Black domestic worker. ‘Shit’ becomes a curse, or a swear, and the modifier, Black, is used to identify it as the curse coming from a Black person’s mouth, as opposed to a White person’s mouth. In the social context of this Black woman’s mouth, ‘shit’ is not a flippant curse. Rather, it is the pent-up frustration of one who has lived – who is “old” with “gigantic life experience” but who is nonetheless seen by this society as insignificant – “squeezed in her little match-box,” “a child.” When one considers that in African societies, elders are given the highest respect, the offense becomes compounded.
When the domestic worker is placed in a situation with her employer, then the poem rises to social criticism:
‘Cause the next day she’s right there,
Right there serving tea to the woman
Who’s lying in bed at 10 a.m., sick with wealth
Here Serote is making a commentary on the wealth and comfort of the status quo – the apartheid regime - symbolized by a woman “lying in bed at 10 a.m.” being served tea by a Black servant. Not only is this woman lying in bed while the domestic is busy at working, but the woman is “sick with wealth.” An arresting redefinition, it is an attack on the values of the status quo, who have profitted from Black servitude. And ‘black shit’ is a curse which contains all of this.
After placing Black versus White in the second stanza, Serote begins the third stanza, “This Shit can take the form of action,” which sets the reader up for talk of revolution. But wait, the characters are Serote’s younger sister and his father.
My younger sister under the full weight of my father
And her face colliding with his steel hand.
Cause she spilled the sugar I work so hard for
He says, not feeling satisfied with the damage his hands
This is not the action which we expect at all, but it is, unfortunately, action which is precipitated by the social pressures presented in the second stanza – violence within the Black family. In keeping with the objectives of Black Consciousness, Serote is presenting this mirror – this ugliness – as a means to coming to terms with it and restoring Black dignity.
In the final stanza, Serote brings it all together to define ‘This Black Shit,’ or what Black Consciousness means in the context of 1970’s South Africa:
I’m learning to pronounce this “Shit” well
Since the other day
At the pass office
When I went to get employment,
The officer there endorsed me to Middleburg
So I said hard and with all my might, “Shit!”
Here, the poem becomes personal and more immediate as Serote himself is placed in a situation. Unemployed and going to the pass office, where Serote is applying for a pass to work in a Whites-Only area – which is, in itself, a source of impossible frustration – the government worker endorses him to work in Middleburg, which is in the Eastern Cape, metaphorically (and literally) in the middle of nowhere – most notably, not in the middle of any jobs.
And so, as Serote says it “with all [his] might,” ‘black shit’ becomes the all-consuming of the first stanza, the curse of frustration of the second stanza, and the violence of the third stanza rolled into one. But what makes this the ‘black shit’ of Black Consciousness is the final three lines:
But what’s good, is, I said it in his face,
A thing my father wouldn’t dare do.
That’s what’s in this black Shit.
Black Consciousness is a change from the old generation, whose pent-up frustrations, as his father to his sister, led to Black self-destruction. In this final act of utterance, Serote is directing his angst toward its proper source, to the face of the apartheid regime.