In January, many thousands gathered across the United States for the Women’s March.
The event was also suffused with controversy: what groups and organizations should have been allowed to participate in the official event in Washington, D.C., and what, exactly, constitutes an authentic feminism in the early 21st century?
Such ethical questions are often central to social protest more broadly: who is an authentic member of an oppressed group, and to what extent can people who do not personally identify with a marginalized group protest on their behalf?
These questions are at the heart of Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “Which New Era Would That Be?,” the focus of COS’s Great Books discussion group this week.
Published in 1956 and set in apartheid Johannesburg, the tale begins with Jake Alexander, a half-African and half-Scottish printer, preparing dinner for his African friends. Their laughter and camaraderie are interrupted by Jake’s friend, the white Englishman, Alister, and Alister’s friend, Jennifer, who drop in unexpectedly to visit.
Jennifer is white and lives in the slums of Cape Town, advocating against apartheid. Jake is immediately suspicious of Jennifer because she represents a particular “type” of white woman, the kind who “persist[s] in regarding themselves as your equal…[who] [thinks] they underst[and] the humiliation of the black man walking the streets only by the permission of a pass written out by a white person.”
Even worse, Jake thinks to himself, “there [is] no escaping [this kind of woman’s] understanding. They even insist on feeling the resentment you must feel at their identifying themselves with your feelings.”
Jennifer takes a seat, and the conversation is cordial. Then one of Jake’s friends, Maxie, an African educated at English schools, tells two stories. In the first, he recounts how he and his white friend were invited by a white businessman for lunch. They accept the invitation and have drinks with the businessman.
But at lunchtime, the businessman tells Maxie that his lunch is set outside—the two white men will dine alone. In Maxie’s second story, he describes a flirtatious telephone relationship he had with a white secretary at “a certain firm.” After several phone conversations, he drops by the office to meet this woman, but when she sees that he is black, she is so obviously uncomfortable, embarrassed, and terrified to be seen with him that he leaves the office in order to save her the disgrace.
Maxie’s stories are intended to communicate what apartheid really feels like to Jennifer, who can never truly know what it’s like to be an African during apartheid.
But Jennifer’s response is so astonishing that it renders the men speechless: “Poor little girl, she probably liked you awfully, Maxie…you mustn’t be too harsh on her. It’s hard to be punished for not being black.”
Then, as the conversation comes to an end and Alister and Jennifer prepare to leave, Jennifer confesses to Maxie—attempting to relate to him respectfully, as an equal—that she doesn’t believe his first story about the businessman: “I feel I must tell you,” she says, “I don’t believe it. I’m sorry…It’s too illogical to hold water.”
After they leave, Jake, typically so jovial and lighthearted, kicks Jennifer’s chair so hard it topples over, and returns to preparing dinner.
Our discussion of this text was even more lively than usual.
At first glance, it would seem Gordimer sides with Jake, who believes Jennifer represents a stereotypical white woman working out her privilege through guilt-driven social activism.
He resents her because she has the audacity to pretend she can identify with the oppressed, and Jake’s internal commentary makes us resent Jennifer, too.
But on a deeper level, the text refuses such simplicity. Jake, after all, is clearly a womanizer with his own biases (he sees her as a sexual object and is overtly misogynistic in front of her with his friends); Maxie’s story is indeed implausible, given the details he provides; and Jennifer sincerely stands up for herself as a woman surrounded by men who objectify her from the start.
In short, Jake, Maxie, and Jennifer all suffer from their own prejudices, and no one escapes with a pure motive.
Ultimately, Gordimer is less interested in preaching and more interested in dramatizing the intractable, frustrating, and sometimes contradictory complexities of social protest.
And this dramatization, this recognition that few issues are easily reducible to caricature or simple-minded groupthink, makes this story a vital text to revisit in our own splintered and hyper-partisan society.
Dr. Joseph R. Teller is Professor of English at COS. Email him at [email protected].