Elizabeth, Native Intellectual
The following short essay explores the character Elizabeth from Bessie Head's novel A Question of Power as a non-ideal version of the "native intellectual" described by Frantz Fanon in his book The Wretched of the Earth. As Elizabeth's hallucinations of Sello and Dan can be said to be a part of her intellectual work, I am including them in my analysis. Elizabeth's nationality (or lack thereof), her statelessness, her "race," and her philosophy all modify Fanon's definition of the native intellectual, but it is in her prioritizing of the soul over nationality that she differs most.
Fanon's intellectual must develop a national consciousness before he can develop an international consciousness, whereas Elizabeth works from God down or from the universal to the particular. Struggling to understand the causes of her own mental illness leads Elizabeth to a philosophy of the brotherhood of mankind founded on selflessness. Despite the "peaceful, meditative privacy" that Elizabeth finally achieves at the end of A Question of Power, her mental health history calls into question the stability of this achievement and that of the philosophy which sustains it.
Elizabeth's positioning: She is a native "Coloured" of South Africa, living in exile in the small village of Motabeng in Botswana where she first teaches in a secondary school and then works on an agricultural development project. Because of her mixed parentage (her mother was white and her father was black), her nationality, and her westernized education, she has great difficulty becoming a part of the Motabeng community. One reading suggests that the loneliness and isolation she experiences in exile, in combination with the deep anxiety associated with her mother's own mental health history, become the psychological breaking point that leads her into a world of vivid hallucinations. Thus, this breaking point can be summarized as the culmination of her extremely negative experiences in South Africa and Botswana.
Leaving South Africa, Elizabeth "was forced to take out an exit permit, which, like her marriage, held the "never to return" clause. She did not care. She hated the country. In spite of her inability to like or to understand political ideologies, she had also lived the back-breaking life of all black people in South Africa" (19). Fanon writes, "Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it" (206).
Elizabeth is a South African child of both a white colonial European and a black native African, raised by a foster mother who was also "Coloured" as well as by white missionaries, and who eventually came to live in the slums reserved for "Coloureds." Given her background, Elizabeth's mission is especially obscured. What kind of national identity is she to advocate? Is there room for whites in a liberated South Africa? How can she be a part of the popular struggle if black South Africans reject her as a "Coloured"? Her complex positioning encourages her to search for a solution that is beyond race and nationality.
Perhaps influenced by her studies in Buddhist philosophies, Elizabeth sees self-importance as the root of exploitation and oppression and finds a solution in humility and selflessness. Elizabeth's description of racism in South Africa, that it "was like living with permanent nervous tension, because you did not know why white people there had to go out of their way to hate you or loathe you" expresses the absurd situation in which victims of racism find themselves, that is, to answer or understand unjustifiable hatred. Like "Dan's brand of torture, it [racism] was something that could go on and on and on" (19). Did white people or power maniacs "seem to themselves to be most supreme, most God-like, most wonderful, most cherished?" (19)
The both very real and very imaginary figure of Dan represents for Elizabeth an aspect of herself with which she must come to terms, once and for all. He is that African man/soul who has in relative proportions traded his sense of equality for a sense of self-importance. He makes convincing arguments to Elizabeth that everyone has the same dark and perverse inward nature and that there is no alternative to the lust for domination. Through Dan, "Sello briefly showed me a time far back when these personalities had insight into their powers. Then human life was simply an expendable commodity. Their powers deluded them into a sense of supremacy at the expense of other human lives" (191). Sello needed to expose Elizabeth to Dan to see if she could withstand his level of evil, if she would become assimilated into it and adopt it.
Perhaps Dan is reflective of that stage in the native intellectual's development that embraces the values of the colonizing power as a universal set of values despite his position as subject, and who through the practice of the oppressor's values oppresses his own people. In addition, after her experience with Dan and Sello she comes to see that prophecies, religion, and/or an otherworldly heaven or nirvana are concepts used by self-important and powerful people to exploit humble and good people. She concludes that the only project worth undertaking is the project of heaven-on-earth, and the only way to actualize this project is to become humble and to treat everyone as an equal.
According to Fanon, "native intellectuals" are men of culture and "men of culture take their stand in the field of history" (209). Choosing to leave South Africa for Botswana, Elizabeth boldly rejects the unlivable conditions in her homeland. The positive work Elizabeth does toward educating and feeding Motabeng villagers causes her to feel more poignantly the injustice of not being able to do good in her native country as long as self-important people impose their will on egalitarian people.
To Elizabeth, whites in South Africa are generally self-important, and native Africans are generally egalitarian: "And yet as an African, he seemed to have made one of the most perfect statements: 'I am just anyone'." (11) Similarly, to be successful, Fanon's native intellectual would have to be "just anyone" in the sense that he needs to relinquish exoticism and put himself into the center of the fight for liberation. "The native intellectual sooner or later will realize that you do not show proof of your nation from its culture but that you substantiate its existence in the fight which the people wage against the forces of occupation." (223)
Elizabeth fights the forces of occupation by trying to put her fragmented psyche back together again. "A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence" (233, emphasis added). Self-exiled Elizabeth performs the work of the South African native intellectual because her fight to exist as a psychologically whole person is also a fight against the kind of psychological damage on which a colonial power relies. Certainly, not everyone can fight from home and sometimes the "homeland" is so utterly violated and violating that one must escape to preserve or to re-create a sense of self, let alone a strong national identity.
Elizabeth could not be whole in South Africa, so she left. The friendships she eventually makes in Botswana could set the foundation for an "international consciousness," however Elizabeth seems to want to go beyond concepts of nation to find peace in Africa's gift to the world: that of "ordinariness" or "man loves man." Elizabeth's particular contribution as an intellectual is to locate and identify this gift and to proclaim Earth, not heaven, as its sole owner.
Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Oxford: Heinemann, 1974.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1968.