Racial and gender discrimination in sixties’ United States

2012-03-14 00:00

BENJAMIN Kwakye was born in Ghana, received his tertiary education and now lives in the United States. This is his third novel, the first two both being recipients of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

The Other Crucifix is a coming-of-age story depicting the growing maturation of Jojo Badu, a young Ghanaian, who has been accepted at a prestigious United States College. Here, Jojo encounters a variety of attitudes towards Africans, towards American negroes, towards women and interracial relationships.

Written in the first person, Kwakye tellingly conveys Jojo’s hypervigilance as he tries to understand the norms of this society, his continual internal conversations as he balances new cultural demands against his own sense of integrity. Set in the sixties, the novel not only charts the challenges and isolation of the young immigrant, but also depicts the attitudes and prejudices of that time. I found it shocking to encounter the racial and gender discrimination depicted here, in a time just before the Civil Rights Movement and a decade or so before women’s liberation — how quickly such beliefs have become outdated and just plain weird. It, of course, immediately brings our own history to mind.

The novel culminates in a confrontation between the administration of a prestigious university (unnamed, but suggested) and four friends, including Jojo, who have been made aware of the injustices of apartheid by a visiting South African exile. These young men are fellow students, with whom Jojo has eventually formed meaningful relationships through processes of cultural negotiation and accommodation. The grossness of the example of apartheid makes the injustices they see in their own society unbearable, despite their different perspectives on it, and they are determined to speak out. The confrontation reminds Jojo that life calls on us to find the courage to remake ourselves continually in response to our experiences, as he has had to do throughout the story.

Benjamin Kwakye is one of the Time of the Writer guests visiting Durban next week, and I am sure his will be a discerning presence.

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