Magazine article New Internationalist

A Skin of Her Own: Bessie Head's Origins Were a Mystery (the Strange, Poignant and Deeply Symbolic History of One of South Africa's Most Famous Writers)

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Skin of Her Own: Bessie Head's Origins Were a Mystery (the Strange, Poignant and Deeply Symbolic History of One of South Africa's Most Famous Writers)

Article excerpt

WHEN she died in 1986, all that Bessie Head knew about her roots was that her mother (who was white), returning to her family home after an unsuccessful marriage, became pregnant by a stable hand (who was black) and produced a girl child whom she named after herself. These events took place in the racially divided South Africa of the late 1930s and Bessie Head's subsequent achievements as a writer are generally seen as being connected with her need to understand and accept them.

In an article in Drum magazine in 1982, she said that the circumstances of her birth 'seem to have made it necessary to obliterate all traces of family history... I have always been just me with no frame of reference to anything beyond myself.' During a visit to Australia in 1984 she said: 'I just don't fit in or belong anywhere and I tend to pride myself on not fitting in or belonging'.

This suggests that she had reconciled herself to her state. However, her writings illustrate instead her struggle to establish a personal sense of identity and with that a sense of history. She once wrote: 'A sense of history was totally absent in me... We black Africans did not know who or what we were, apart from objects of abuse and exploitation.'

After the publication of A Bewitched Crossroad in 1984, her next project was to be an autobiography. But she had got no closer to finding the truth about her family background when she died two years later -- that has been for others to discover.

Bessie Amelia Head's story can be said to have begun in Johannesburg in 1919. In that year Bessie Amelia Emery, a young white woman from a large and wealthy family of English immigrants, was involved in a tragic event. Her elder son, Stanley, aged four, was struck by a speeding car outside the family home. Hearing the screech of brakes and a child's scream, she was the one who gathered the broken body from the road: 'Neck broken, legs broken, head smashed', reported The Star.

Minds crack, they say, and Stanley's violent death before her very eyes was more than Bessie Emery's mind could bear. Her marriage to her athlete husband, Ira, gradually disintegrated. He was as distraught as she was over the loss of their son. But he blamed her for it. He finally left her in 1928 and they were divorced the following year. Bessie Emery was given custody of their remaining son, Ronald, then 10.

Ever since the accident Bessie Emery had been showing signs of mental instability, but after the divorce her state deteriorated so noticeably that she had to be admitted to the Pretoria Mental Hospital in 1933. On her release, three years later, she made her will, leaving everything to her son Ronald. The solicitor considered her to be 'perfectly normal' at that stage. Shortly afterwards she must have become pregnant. She was 42 years old.

It had been decided that she should spend an extended holiday by the sea with two sisters who had moved to Durban. She had put on weight with the years and no - one considered her rounded shape too round until May 1937, when she was once more admitted to psychiatric hospital, this time in Pietermaritzburg. On 6 July she gave birth to a daughter whom she insisted on naming after herself. Thus she built into an event, soon to be covered in secrecy, a code by which the mystery would be solved 53 years later.

The baby, who is classified 'white' on her birth certificate, was adopted by a white family. …

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