Turning points: How Olive Schreiner changed her mind about race

Turning points: How Olive Schreiner changed her mind about race

In a memorable piece of writing, Olive Schreiner described herself as a child wanting Africa – she meant the unboundaried Africa of her childhood in the 1850s – partitioned, with all the black people on one side, and all the white people on the other. By the last years of her life her race politics had changed – she was supporting the anti pass law militancy of women traders in Bloemfontein, contributing funds to the embryonic ANC, and defending the strikes of dockworkers in Port Elizabeth and elsewhere. And in between she had written some radical commentary about race as a complete social construction. How did such changes occur and what clues are there in her remaining writings?

Texts, both oral and written, and those proclaiming their factual status and those organised as fictions, are often structured using fictive devices of different kinds, artifices which help shape rather than fabricate truths. One such is the use of turning points or epiphanies to mark departures and new beginnings, pivot points in a narrative which move its action or dynamic forward. These are most frequently retrospective assemblages, that is, they are ways of drawing together and highlighting processes and events which originally happened in usually more diverse and low-key ways and were not so sharply marked at the time of occurrence.

A number of these charged epiphanies are used by Olive Schreiner across the different kinds of writing she produced and I am particularly interested in those that bear on her changing ideas about race and racism. But rather than returning to examples which have been fairly frequently discussed, like the so-termed ‘Bantu woman’ who appears in a number of texts in order to speak of the universalism of women’s oppression and why its yoke is born, I am more interested in examples of the pre-assemblage kind. These are emergent in the moment and subject to Schreiner’s enquiry and discussion, rather than being re-worked as set-piece epiphanies in the specific analytical sense of this term. They were experienced in more low-key ways as she first wrote about them in letters and essay, and none of them take on a wider textual role in supporting her writing about analytical ideas.

Three examples are intriguing in highlighting particular aspects of race and relationships between differently racialised groups. They are: some Matjesfontein workmen who Schreiner met when first returned to South Africa in 1889/1890 and lived for extended periods in the railway village there; her acquaintance with Mrs Brown, married to an LMS missionary and one of the daughters of Rev James Read and his Khoisan wife Sara Valentyn, when staying in Taungs in January 1893; and her response in October 1905 to the work of WEB Du Bois and recognition of its then-unparalleled standing.

In the first example Olive Schreiner expresses in letters to a close friend her affinity with the Matjesfontein workmen, or rather with the workmen’s affinity with the landscape around Matjesfontein, with the implied contrast her alienation from the constant stream of railway visitors who were wined and dined while their train was being refuelled and rewatered and then left without ever really seen the place. In the second example she writes in one of her essays on race matters that Mrs Brown, unnamed in the essay, lamented her mixed-race status and wished that she had not been born because of the discrimination she had faced. Schreiner empathising with this comes across strongly and the lack of distinctive identity of such mixed-race people at the time is then used as the key motif of the essay in question. The third example plays out 1905 letters and concerns the impact of her reading the US sociologist WEB Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. As well as closely identifying with the essay on the death of his baby son, what struck her in particular was that Du Bois did not need any well-meaning white liberal –  specifically mentioned are Schreiner herself and Harriet Beecher Stowe – to represent his experience for him but did this in a much more powerful way himself. She recommended the book to an array of her correspondents –  that is, white liberal correspondents – for that reason.

What should be made of these examples? Some beginning thoughts are as follows. Each of them had brought Schreiner up short and ‘made her think’. Each of them as a result involves her as a kind of interlocutor of the experience she had had and which leads her to consider her own position in relation to them.. None of them became epiphanies or turning points in the analytical sense of the term, for none of them appear in an assembled and honed way in her other texts so as to indicate departures and new beginnings. Both separately and taken together they provides small clues as to how her changes of mind occurred, by being confronted with new experiences and with the unexpected in race terms and in particular meeting (in one case at a remove through writing) people who she identified closely with, around landscape, human fellow-feeling, and the life of the mind and writing.


Last updated:  4 November 2021