Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Race

By Alan Paton

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— Perhaps you might be hungry, small one.
— Not very hungry, umfundisi.
— Perhaps a little hungry.
— Yes, a little hungry, umfundisi.
— Go to the mother then. Perhaps she has some food.
— I thank you, umfundisi. (1.2.8-13)

Let's say that you were talking to a priest in English. Would you address this person as "Reverend" at the end of every sentence? Probably not. But in the dialogue that takes place in Zulu in this novel, it's very common for Paton to repeat terms like umfundisi or umnumzana regularly, at the end of nearly every sentence, even though the rest of the dialogue in English.

This might be a way of showing differences in manners between Zulu and English speakers. It might also be a way for Paton to remind us that the characters may seem like they are speaking English, but they aren't. But the effect of this repetition of words like umfundisi is to make a lot of the Zulu conversations sound like formal songs with a regular refrain. It's a small thing, but Paton's sing-songy use of these terms can make the dialogue of Cry, the Beloved Country seem less natural and everyday.

[Kumalo] went out of the door, and she watched him through the little window, walking slowly to the door of the church. Then she sat down at his table, and put her head on it, and was silent, with the patient suffering of black women, with the suffering of oxen, with the suffering of any that are mute. (1.2.84)

We can think of two ways to look at this passage, where the narrator claims that Kumalo's wife's suffering is like the "suffering of oxen" because she is "mute." Either the narrator is saying that Kumalo's wife cannot speak her suffering, that she does not know how to express her sorrow because it is so deep.

Or it could mean that Kumalo's wife is not allowed to speak her suffering in some deep way, that there are social obstacles preventing black South African women like her from expressing their true feelings. After all, we get the sense from Cry, the Beloved Country that this is a deeply patriarchal world ("patriarchal" means controlled by men). In fact, we don't hear much from any of the women in the novel, black or white.

But Paton does specifically emphasize that he is talking about the muteness of black women here. In this world of both racial and gender prejudice, why might Kumalo's wife be "mute" in her suffering, in a way that the other characters are not? How might this passage be showing some of Paton's own biases?

Kumalo climbed into the carriage for non-Europeans, already full of the humbler people of his race, some with strange assortments of European garments, some with blankets over their strange assortment, some with blankets over the semi-nudity of their primitive dress, though these were all women. Men travelled no longer in primitive dress. (1.3.18)

The world Alan Paton is portraying in Cry, the Beloved Country is so totally segregated that Kumalo doesn't seem to notice that there is anything strange about riding in a separate train car because of the color of his skin. It's as though he's so used to it that it seems natural to him.

— That is the rock out of the mines, umfundisi. The gold has been taken out of it.
— How does the rock come out?
— We go down and dig it out, umfundisi. And when it is hard to dig, we go away, and the white men blow it out with the fire-sticks. Then we come back and clear it away; we load it on to the trucks, and it goes up in a cage, up a long chimney so long that I cannot say it for you. (1.4.6-8)

When Kumalo is sitting on the train to Johannesburg, he sees South Africa's great gold mines for the first time. We discuss the gold mines and their problems in our section on "Setting." Here, we just want to say that it's weird that this miner talking to Kumalo speaks so simplistically about his own work.

Even though he works in the gold mines, he says "fire-stick" rather than "dynamite," and he emphasizes that it is the "white men" who use these technologies, not him. So this miner comes across like a cog in a much larger machine, rather than like a worker who knows what he is doing. This brief conversation between Kumalo and the miner just underlines the fact that a lot of the black workers in South Africa's gold mines don't feel a sense of ownership of the mines. They perform a lot of hard manual labor, but they are not part of the management or organization of the mine at all.

The white people are training more and more [black nurses]. It is strange how we move forward in some things, and stand still in others, and go backward in yet others. Yet in this matter of nurses we have a great many friends amongst the white people. There was a great outcry when it was decided to allow some of our young people to train as doctors at the European University of the Witwatersrand. But our friends stood firm, and they will train there until we have a place of our own. (1.10.16)

Cry, the Beloved Country often emphasizes the importance of peaceful cooperation rather than outright revolution when it comes to racial issues in South Africa. So, here, Msimangu appreciates that white activists continue to train black nurses "until we have a place of our own" (in other words, until there are black medical academies). He is glad that black people can learn from their "friends amongst the white people." Msimangu sees a future of cooperation, rather than a world where only white people or only black people can receive certain kinds of educations.

— They should enforce the pass laws, Jackson.
— But I tell you the pass laws don't work.
— They'd work if they were enforced.
— But I tell you they're unenforceable. Do you know that we send one hundred thousand natives every year to prison, where they mix with real criminals? (1.12.18-21)

In chapter 12, we hear a number of different viewpoints on crime rates in South Africa that do not belong to any central character in Cry, the Beloved Country. Paton is giving us an epic cross-section of common points of view from white South Africans on education, on prisons, and on pass laws (which are laws that required all black people in South Africa to register their addresses with the cops and to carry identification with them at all times (source).

Even without knowing the context of these speakers, we can tell that these conversations are happening among white people because of little hints in the dialogue. So, in this exchange, there is a character named "Jackson," which isn't a common Zulu or Xosa name. And then we also have the use of the term "we" and "natives." The "we" sends the "natives" to prison, which sets up a distance between "us" and those others, the natives. So the implication is that the speaker is talking about "we" white people, and including himself in that group.

In this chapter, why don't we hear conversations among randomly selected black characters? Are there other parts of the novel that provide a similar selection of opinions from black characters?

Yes, there are a hundred, and a thousand voices crying. But what does one do, when one cries this thing, and one cries another? Who knows how we shall fashion a land of peace where black outnumbers white so greatly. Some say that the earth has bounty enough for all, and that more for one does not mean less for another, that the advance of one does not mean the decline of another. […] And others say this is a danger, for better paid labour will not only buy more but will also read more, think more, ask more, and will not be content to be forever voiceless and inferior.

Who knows how we shall fashion such a land? For we fear not only the loss of our possessions, but the loss of our superiority and the loss of our whiteness. (1.12.39-40)

The "we" and "our" in this passage suggests that the narrator is speaking from the perspective of a white person. How does this subtle white perspective at the level of the narration affect your sense of this book's racial politics? Do you think that the book asks a particular set of questions because it starts with an assumption of "our whiteness"? Also, what does Paton view as the primary problem that prevents white people from overcoming their racism in South Africa? What are some of the reasons he gives for why there is so much prejudice among white South Africans?

"He thought and acted slowly, no doubt because he lived in the slow tribal rhythm; and he had seen that this could irritate those who were with him." (1.16.1)

When Kumalo first talks to Absalom's girlfriend after Absalom has been arrested, he asks her how old she is, and she says that she doesn't know. This sense that the black characters do not keep track of time appears in other parts of the books, as, for example, when Kumalo thinks of his own slowness in the second passage. What do you think the second passage's "slow tribal rhythm" is? How does it differ from other ways of keeping time? And how is it possible that time itself can be faster or slower for characters from different races and cultures?

Indeed Ixopo was full of Afrikaners now, whereas once there had been none of them. For all the police were Afrikaners, and the post-office clerks, and the men at the railway-station, and the village people got on well with them one way and the other. Indeed, many of them had married English speaking girls, and that was happening all over the country. His own father had sworn that he would disinherit any child of his who married an Afrikaner, but times had changed. (2.18.12)

Here, Paton shows something complicated about race in South Africa. Not only are there huge, awful divisions between black and white communities, but there is also prejudice between language groups within the white population of South Africa. The Afrikaners speak Afrikaans, a language that comes from the Dutch spoken by 17th-century settlers in southern Africa. Historically, there has been a lot of conflict between these Afrikaners and the British settlers who came to South Africa later on, largely in pursuit of South Africa's mineral wealth.

In this passage, we see that Jarvis's father would have "disinherit[ed] any child of his who married an Afrikaner." But now, "times had changed." So if the Afrikaners and the British can learn to get along, the novel seems to imply, surely times will also change for black and white South Africans?

They come out of the Court, the white on one side, the black on the other, according to custom. But the young white man breaks the custom, and he and Msimangu help the old and broken man, one on each side of him. It is not often that such a custom is broken. It is only when there is a deep experience that such a custom is broken. (2.28.26)

What do you think the "deep experience" is in this passage? What allows the "young white man" (the guy from Absalom's reform school) to break "the custom" by helping Kumalo into the courtroom? We think that it might have something to do with personal feeling: the young white man's sympathy for Kumalo allows him to overcome the Court's racist social customs to help an elderly black man. Personal feeling between people can help to overcome prejudice, the novel argues.

The white warder, hearing these cries, came in and said, but not with unkindness, old man, you must go now.

— I am going, sir. I am going, sir. But give us a little time longer.

So the warder said, well, only a little longer, and he withdrew. (2.29.56-8)

Alan Paton does not play into stereotyped representations of prison life in this passage. Here, even though he emphasizes that Absalom's guard is a white warder, the man is still sympathetic enough to the tragedy of Kumalo's last meeting with his son that he does give them a little more time together. Once again, we think that Paton is trying to emphasize the sadness of Absalom's fate without necessarily calling for a revolution against the whole racist system of authority that has led to Absalom's position in this prison. He doesn't want to encourage rage against the Man; he wants to focus on reform and on making things better. This sympathetic white prison guard prevents us from making easy assumptions about the cruelty of individual people with power in this system.

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