Black writing, white writing

Black writing, white writing

White Writing is the title of a well-known early book by JM Coetzee, not a novel but a scholarly work concerned with the characteristics of writing produced by white South Africans. Its title came to mind several times over the last few days, in the context of contemplating the vast array of different forms of writing that compose the remaining papers of the Emagusheni trading station, held in the Gallagher collection in the Killie Campbell Library in Durban.

This collection consists of ledges, accounts, receipts and similar detritus of a small but flourishing business. It also consists of a very large number indeed of letters, mainly of a humdrum kind that sits on the borders between being letters to a person who is known and having an address and date and sign off, and being orders for goods with little or no other content. There are many exceptions, but this is the typical letter or goods order, call it what you will.

While some letters are meticulously written according to then-prevailing formal conventions, many are not but hover on the borders of what is functionally literate. And this is so for both the black and white writers, as ethnicity is indicated by their names and the language of their addresses. And so, for example, if someone writes they are Uhlangwaso I Sekoya, or someone writes they are WH Boshoff, their ethnicity can be surmised.

This is being done for writing a book chapter about the ‘common writer’ (not a term I am very happy with, and the chapter will contest it). In the literature on this, the working assumption is that people who are less literate or just functionally literate are of ‘humble’ circumstances. But not so in Pondoland or other black areas in what is now in South Africa, where there was a large black elite who had had mission education and could proficiently read and write, with many of their letters in the collection.

And they are there for the same reason that there are many letters from people likely to be white, that there were goods they wanted to order from the trading store. But stripped of such obvious markers as names of people and places, can the writings of black people and white people be distinguished, is there black writing, and is there white writing? The short answer is probably not, and in so far as there are differences that can be pointed to, it is perhaps only a greater measure of politeness. At least this is so at the beginning stages of this analysis, where many hundreds of documents are being reviewed. An update will be provided in due course!

Last updated:  26 November 2021