Out of [touch in] Africa

Harry_Thuku2.jpgKaren Blixen's writing has long been recognized as being significant as much for what it omitted as for the subjects on which it dwells.  But that recognition has focused largely on Blixen's coyness about her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton.  Obfuscation seems to have been the modus operandi of their relationship.  As Errol Trzebinski recounts in Silence Will Speak:

Friends who knew Tania and Denys well - few were privileged to observe their relationship closely - concluded that they fully intended to perpetuate the aura of mystique which from the start has served to swathe and protect them in an enigmatic smoke-screen.
. . . .
"Tania and Denys were both very elusive and meant to be" . . . .
p. 150 (Denys called Karen "Tania" after "Titania," the Queen of the Faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Reading Carl G. Rosberg, Jr. and John Nottingham's The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya, I realized that omission and obfuscation characterized another relationship in Blixen's life: that of her self-touted love for her "black brother." (Karen Blixen, Letters from Africa, p. 390.)

Although Blixen's tenure in Kenya, from 1914 to 1931, spans important, early expressions of black Kenyan political agitation against the British government, she doesn't count this behavior in her inventory of Native capacities.  Her blindness is significant because Blixen was not immune to politics in Kenya: she rails about political maneuvering by the settlers ("I am so angry with the English because they want to impose higher taxes on them [the Natives]," Letters from Africa, p. 240).  But while white political activity provoked her sense of noblesse oblige, black Kenyan political activity completely escapes mention in her writing.

In March 1922, for example, the British arrested Harry Thuku (pictured), an activist who wrote a letter demanding redress of grievances from the British government.  After his arrest, Kenyans calling for his release converged on the detention center in Nairobi.  The protest ended in gunfire and between 21 and 56 deaths.

Among the many remarks of note in Karen Blixen's letters from 1922 are references her troubles with Bror, to her sister's death, to resuming painting, to her love of lilies, to her hair loss, to her brother Thomas' visit, and to books she and Thomas are reading, but the most singular political event of the year finds no mention.  (Caveat: some possibility exists that mention of Harry Thuku was not a topic the editors of her letters thought worthwhile to allow to remain in the letters, but - looking at entirety of her correspondence from Africa and her concerns during her years there - the possibility seems remote.) 

Black people - her servants being the only ones she knows - do crop up in her letters from 1922:  she bemoans her cook, Isa, being poisoned by his wife, and she celebrates her servant Juma's daughter, who "sets the table and makes toast and is full of her own importance as a houseboy."  (Letters from Africa, p. 132-133).

What explains this obliviousness by a writer who, in her own estimation and that of many critics, is incisive in her observations and humane in her depictions?  Shadows on the Grass, Blixen's superfluous follow-on to Out of Africa, provides a clue.  

Two pages into Shadows on the Grass, Blixen begins rhapsodizing about the paradigm of Master and Servant: the servant "needs a master in order to be himself."  (Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, p. 378-379.)  Her notion that blacks need a white telling them what to do in order to self-actualize is only too clear.  

The thing about servants - good servants, anyway - is that they're not disobedient.  They don't demand redress of grievances in a threatening way.  "Agitation" and "activism" are not their domain.  One the contrary, good servants have, as Karen Blixen says of black Kenyans in Out of Africa, an "immense gift for resignation" and keep "up a peculiar self-feeling in their relations to those who persecute[] them."  (Out of Africa, p. 144.) 

"Good servants" - not activists - seems to be all Karen Blixen can accept in the way of a role for black Kenyans in their relations with whites (that is, unless the black Kenyans are helpless, impoverished, ignorants in need of medical attention, in which case she is happy to help).   

In fairness, Blixen recognizes that some Africans - the Masai, for example - are warriors, not servants; but the Masai are pointedly outside the scope of white-black relations: they're isolated, on their "reserve."  And although Blixen acknowledges that Kinanjui is a Kikuyu chief - not a servant - in Kinanjui's relationship with her, his role is to provide her farm with labor: that is, servants.  When Kinanjui asks for a favor in return - to retire to her farm to die - she refuses him.  

Outside the scope of Master-Servant relations, Blixen doesn't have any capacity for interaction with black Kenyans because, ultimately, what seems to have stimulated her "love" for her "black brother" was the power she held over them.  Less educated than she wanted to be, less attractive than she'd hoped, perpetually struggling with her weight, dependent on her family for money, infected with syphilis and then abandoned by her husband, passed over for marriage by her lover, unsuccessful in her business endeavors, hopeless as a farm manager, the predominant experience of Karen Blixen's life in Kenya, as articulated in her letters, was helplessness and disempowerment.  Only in her relationship with the blacks around her was she able to fancy herself in control, although - if she recognized this fact - she wasn't able to record it in writing.  

What she does commit to paper, repeatedly, is a fixation with feudalism and the nobility of long-ago relations of power that, in the modern world, are recognized as unfair.  I don't doubt the sincerity that characterizes her status as an aristocracy groupie; but her romanticization of the past served as a convenient screen behind which to hide troubling questions about her power over the blacks on her farm.  

That Harry Thuku and black political activity don't manifest in Blixen's writing is therefore no surprise: Blixen defends herself by failing to see what she can't imagine, and her imagination was remarkably fixated by feudalism.

(Photo of Harry Thuku from Black Past)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on November 8, 2009 8:00 PM.

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