Black women write

In her new biography of South African writer Lauretta Ngcobo, Barbara Boswell shows how the publishing industry historically excluded Black women, and how they wrote in spite of that.

Still from Lauretta: And They Did Not Die (2021)

Most of the recent biographical works by South African Black feminist activist scholars focus on the intellectual lives of South African Blackwomen (a term preferred by the author), that our dominant knowledge commons have wilfully ignored and erased. Zubeida Jaffer’s Beauty of the Heart: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, (2016); Noni Jabavu: A Stranger at Home introduced by Makhosazana Xaba and Athambile Masola (2023) and Shireen Hassim’s Fatima Meer: A Free Mind (2019) mark some of the works that continue African feminists’ longstanding engagement with Blackwomen’s life writing as epistemologically valid.

Barbara Boswell’s Lauretta Ngcobo: Writing as the Practice of Freedom (2022) is well within and contributes to this terrain of feminist scholarship, which begins at and ends with Blackwomen. Boswell uses her feminist literary perspective to intricately weave the various elements of Ngcobo’s intricate and courageous lived experiences and life writing, resulting in a captivating and multi-dimensional biography that expands the geography of Black feminist epistemology. Lauretta Ngcobo (1931-2015) was among the earliest Black South African women to publish a book in English. She was a member of a group of Black intellectual anti-Apartheid activists who defied numerous restrictions imposed on Blackwomen by the colonial regime. Boswell reclaims Ngcobo not only as a prolific person but also as a literary scholar.

Blackwomen’s work is often deeply related to their lived experiences. Considering this, scholastic engagement with Blackwomen’s diverse kinds of writing cannot be done apart from, or before, acknowledging the degree to which the world is anti-Black and sexist. Such an approach also entails acknowledging the valiant commitment required to write in the face of everyday encounters with systemic racism, which feeds on the devaluation and erasure of Blackwomen’s capability to guide. In Lauretta Ngcobo: Writing as the Practice of Freedom, Barbara Boswell puts into practice her theoretical framework, “Black South African feminist criticism,” which she explains in her monograph, And Wrote My Story Anyway: Black South African Women’s novels as feminism (2020). She defines the framework as “a method of engaging with black, women-authored texts” in ways that “takes as its point of departure the intrinsic value of a black woman.”

In other terms, the perspective acknowledges Blackwomen as individuals capable of expressing their thoughts and experiences. Furthermore, it focuses on the interplay between power structures such as Apartheid and Black patriarchy and their collective influence on the lived realities of women. Indeed, in Lauretta Ngcobo: Writing as the Practice of Freedom, Barbara Boswell explores the perspective of Lauretta Ngcobo herself, shedding light on her insights about the transformative power of writing as a pathway to emancipation. It includes three sections: the first section introduces us to Ngcobo, and the second section translates her voice via conversations with Robert Bush, Margaret Daymond, Brian Worsfold, Meghan Healy-Clancy, and Polo Belina Moji. Additionally, there are 12 extracts from Ngcobo’s works, including the opening chapters of her books Cross of Gold and And They Did not Die, as well as her essays. Thematically, the works delve into the subjects of migration and exile while also offering a critical examination of cultural practices prevalent in many African cultures. Additionally, they shed light on Ngcobo’s journey as a writer and her experiences navigating the publishing industry as a Blackwoman during Apartheid.

Ultimately, the book provides a comprehensive analysis and elucidation of the tactical issues and intricacies that Lauretta Ngcobo confronted from the time she was born. She lived through several decades of colonial tyranny and destruction, including the brutality of racism and sexism throughout South Africa’s interwoven dispensation: before the legislation of Apartheid, through the formalization of Apartheid, and after the regime’s legal demise. She graduated from Fort Hare University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Zulu Literatures and a postgraduate teaching credential in 1954. She then worked as a researcher at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. Ngcobo was one of 20,000 women who opposed the Apartheid regime’s expansion of pass restrictions to African women at the Union Buildings in 1956. Exiled first in Swaziland, then to Zambia and England before returning to so-called post-Apartheid South Africa.

Boswell’s choice to begin the section on Lauretta Ngcobo’s work with the unpublished introduction to Cross of Gold is a suitable posthumous gesture of epistemic redress. Ngcobo originally wrote this preface for a reissue of her first book, which never materialized. Given Boswell’s corpus and her personal politics, which mostly insist on concretizing her intellectual aim and praxis, the posthumous act is no surprise to anybody acquainted with her work. Her analysis of Ngcobo is contextual and historical. Moreover, it locates the harms of systemic racism and sexism while simultaneously focusing on Ngcobo.

By integrating the public and family archives, along with her unpublished interview conducted in 2006 as part of her doctoral research, Barbara Boswell provides a comprehensive and emotionally resonant depiction of Lauretta Ngcobo. The readers are presented with a comprehensive portrayal of Ngcobo, encompassing her maternal heritage and the influential years shaped by oral and written narratives. Additionally, Boswell delves into Ngcobo’s intellectual, political, and editorial connections, shedding light on the individuals she collaborated with and the audience she addressed in her writings. Ngcobo’s literary contributions include a notable introduction for Miriam Tlali’s third literary work, Soweto Stories, released in 1989. Tlali was the first Black South African woman to write and publish a book in English inside the borders of South Africa.

Barbara Boswell challenges and defies a simplistic interpretation of Lauretta Ngcobo as merely a writer or a “struggle wife,” which brings to bear Ngcobo’s conscientious feminist sensibilities. As Boswell points out, Ngcobo placed “an intersectional lens on African women’s lives before Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality gained widespread currency.” In this case, Boswell discusses  Ngcobo’s highly regarded novel, And They Didn’t Die. Like other African feminist scholars, including Adeola James, Diana Russell, Juliana Nfah-Abbenyi, and Cherryl Walker, Boswell highlights a frequently overlooked assumption: African women writers have been actively addressing the oppression experienced by Black women from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, they have consistently recognized the shortcomings of single-axis approaches when analyzing systems of domination. Indeed, Ngcobo’s preface to Let It Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain hones the point further. She states:

Blackwomen are caught between white prejudice, class prejudice, male power and the burden of history. Being at the center of Black life, we are daily confronted with various situations, and we respond in our writings to our experiences – social, political and economic. We write about life as we live it. We are at a stage when we face the onerous task of creating strong self-images, for the need to confront and change the prevailing perception of us has [remains] greater. We want to materialize in the heart of this racist and sexist society where Blackwomen are invisible, to replace the stereotypes in which the white world and Blackmen wish to constrict us.

Readers unfamiliar with Ngcobo will acquire a taste of her work by reading Lauretta Ngcobo: Writing as the Practice of Freedom. Indeed, she materializes racism as a system and represents the lives of Blackwomen. Those familiar with her work may better understand it after hearing about the violent publishing process for her first manuscript, Cross of Gold. Barbara Boswell’s inclusion of the rejection letter Ngcobo received from James Currey at Heinemann Educational Books in London is commendable. It historizes the gatekeeping practices within the institutions of knowledge production that many of us Black writers have experienced. As someone who first heard of Ngcobo in 2019 upon reading Boswell’s PhD dissertation, I recall the feelings of excitement and epistemic injustice: another Blackwomen willfully sidelined from our intellectual imaginations. For this reason, I have insistently referred to Lauretta Ngcobo and Barbara Boswell by their names. The intention is to cement their names within our minds.

In a related manner, if one wonders “Why Cross of Gold and, by extension, other books written by Black South African women have limited prints?” Barbara Boswell’s skillful retelling of Lauretta Ngcobo’s experiences with Longman publishers gets to this. The analysis, which she pairs with Ngcobo’s “Radical, unapologetic and at times angry in tone” introduction to Let it Be Told sheds light on the racism and sexism in the publishing industry. Upon receiving the manuscript, Longman delayed the publication by two years, claiming there were difficulties with editing the manuscript. When the manuscript was finally published, the publishers ran a limited print, making it hard for people to get copies of the book. These factors were not innocent errors, rather, they reflect how the publishing industry, as a product of British cultural domination, excluded Blackwomen. As explained by Ngcobo:

Publishers are the guard dogs of their tradition … The book industry as a whole-publishers, distributors and retailers … They determine the “standards” in the profession. The impication that some books are more valid than others (some values more valid than others) augurs badly for black writing in general and for blackwomen’s writing in particular.

Unsurprisingly, the Apartheid regime banned the book. As noted by Barbara Boswell, it remains “unpublished, out of print, and relatively unknown in South Africa, despite Ngcobo’s ceaseless efforts to secure an African publisher.”

By exposing Lauretta Ngcobo’s personal experiences, which provide light on her expressions of resistance, her life writing, and her legacy, Barbara Boswell succeeds as a feminist biographer.

The biography includes beautiful candid and portrait photos of Ngcobo smiling at various points in her life. She curates a humanizing series of numerous images, starting with Ngcobo’s grandparents, Nyoni Cele (Nyovane) and Agnes Nomlio Cele, taken around 1896. A photo of Ngcobo with her grandparents and younger brother Phuthuma Gwina around 1937/8 is on the same page. This selection places Ngcobo in her ancestral landscape. It honors her ancestors, both living (such as her daughter Nomkhosi Mabena and granddaughter Dineo Mabena) and the living dead (including Ngcobo herself, her husband, and her grandparents). Boswell’s selection is crucial, particularly considering the history of how Blackwomen have been visually portrayed. As we are reminded by Desiree Lewis: “Photography has often functioned as a powerful instrument of masculine and colonial domination, with black women generally being instrumentalized images for others’ self-definition and gratification.”

Often, Blackwomen are either hypersexualized or in abject poverty and alone. To quote Lauretta Ngcobo’s own words from the introduction to Let It Be Told:

We have been caricatured as ignorant drudges, as evil prostitutes, as castrators of men. But this is not how we see ourselves. We know ourselves. We embody largeness and a continuity far beyond these limiting stereotypes. While reiterating the well-worn bitter reactions to a racist society, we are laying claim to our selfhood, making bold to assert ourselves as women: separate from and equal to men … We write in order to create new models for our young, and a new fortitude. We seek to make people look on us and see a new breed of non-compliant women. We mean to shed the old image of Blackwomen with a dead-end destiny.

Indeed, Boswell’s album of Ngcobo troubles the limited stereotypes and pays tribute to how Ngcobo and other Blackwomen saw her and themselves. The direct gaze at the camera, her stature, and personhood reflect that breed of non-compliant women.

Barbara Boswell’s Lauretta Ngcobo: Writing as the Practice of Freedom is a timely intervention into our global circuits of knowledge production that continue to undermine (South African) Blackwomen’s intellectual histories. The biography reveals the lie many of us are familiar with, “that Blackwomen did not write.” They did and continue to do so.

Further Reading