More or less white: Olive Schreiner’s address to the Universal Races Congress

More or less white: Olive Schreiner’s address to the Universal Races Congress

In 1911 Olive Schreiner wrote a short address about race matters, which was intended for the Universal Races Congress in London. In the event she was unable to travel, but the address was sent with her brother Will, who was travelling to Europe, and found its way to the Congress organisers. It was seemingly distributed in printed form, and reported in newspapers, some of them providing either extracts or the whole address. A transcription of the address is given in a new Trace on the WWW website, which also discusses its content in some detail.

The question for discussion in this blog is whether Schreiner’s address to the Universal Races Congress is a kind of letter, or is it something different in kind? Answering this question is not easy.

Reading the address shows that it has a split audience: the white caste group (Schreiner’s phrase) in South Africa, the future, and in a very much looser sense (if at all, as discussed in the Trace) the Congress and its attendees. It bears comparison with public letters, like for example the letters of St Paul, discussed in my article on ‘the death of the letter‘. These are addressed to a collectivity, as they are from a writer/speaker to a kind of named generalised recipient (for St Paul, the Christians of X or Y place), but they are instructional, uni-directional, and do not admit of any direct response, such as a return letter providing a reply. A response of a kind is certainly intended, but this is of changes of behaviour in a more general sense, rather than correspondence. Such communications lack, then, the reciprocal turn-taking aspects that are so important to the letter as a form or genre of writing; but they do have personal and also impersonal address. And in this they are similar to other kinds of public letters, like letters to the editors of newspapers.

Olive Schreiner‘s address to the Universal Races Congress is in this mode, for only a response in terms of changed behaviour on the part of the South African white group invoked in it is envisaged, or rather is not envisaged, which is why the address is characterised by what is described as foreboding. This group is what she terms the white caste and refers to as ‘more or less white‘, thus invoking the elephant in the corner of whiteism in the South African context, that even perfunctory inquiry reveals the existence of ‘mixed race’ in many white people’s backgrounds. It is the members of this caste group that Schreiner wants to address and change, but her address of course was to be given in a quite different context, to the delegates at the Congress whose ideas about race matters were very similar to her own.

The address is, then, directed to the white caste group in South Africa, although in a formal sense it is given to the delegates of the Congress.

A result is that the writings of St Paul are closer to the present conventions of the letter than is Olive Schreiner‘s address, because the intended recipients of the address are elsewhere. What comes across instead is that the Congress had provided Schreiner with an opportunity to speak or to write in a very public forum about what was on her mind. The intended addressees, the white caste group, would be reached in a much more indirect way, by its message, given in one context, filtering through various public outlets, eventually to get to them. So Schreiner‘s address is only partly in the same mode as the public letters referred to above, because of this.

So what was it that was on Olive Schreiner’s mind? This was her sense of foreboding that the future of South Africa had been set, and that it would eventually most likely be disastrous. It is in particular this future that is being addressed.

A letter of a kind, or something else? The jury is out.

Last updated: 11 December 2021