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Gender and Race in Gordimer and Smith
In "Country Lovers" and "What It's Like to be a Black Girl (For Those of You Who Aren't)," Nadine Gordimer and Patricia Smith, respectively, demonstrate that issues of race and ethnicity are issues that are devoid of space and time. Gordimer focuses on the impact that apartheid has on Thebedi, a young, black girl, in South Africa, whereas Smith focuses on how American society has shaped her perception of herself due to a long history of racial discrimination. Both Gordimer's story and Smith's poem allow the reader to see how society shapes perceptions of others and perceptions of oneself based on race and ethnicity.
Gordimer has first-hand experience on the effects of apartheid as she grew up in South Africa and witnessed how people were discriminated against based upon the color of their skin. In South Africa, apartheid governed how society was structured from 1948, when apartheid laws were formally introduced, until 1991, when apartheid laws were abolished. These laws affected almost every aspect of everyday life and even restricted and looked down upon interracial relationships, which is the central issue of "Country Lovers."
In the short story, Thebedi, a young, black woman, grows up beside Paulus Eysendyck and eventually carries on a sexual relationship with the prominent white man. Gordimer explains how the children first met and what drove them apart, which is at first due to the fact that white children were sent of to school once they were old enough, while their black counterparts were left behind. Gordimer explains, "The farm children play together when they are small; but once the white children go away to school they soon don't play together any more, even in the holidays." Gordimer continues to explain that even behavior needs to be adjusted and the black children are taught to "to call their old playmates missus and baasie -- little master."
Even though it is expected that these children grow apart, Thebedi and Paulus appear to defy the odds at first. It is clear that Paulus thinks of Thebedi while he is away from school as he brings her gifts when he visits home on holidays. The first time he comes home, he gifts Thebedi a "painted box he had made in his wood-work class." The evolution of his "gifts" to Thebedi becomes apparent as Paulus becomes more educated, especially in a social setting. After a while, Paulus stops gifting Thebedi physical objects and instead begins to show her what he has learned at school, which turns out to be how people begin a relationship and how it culminates in sexual activity. Unfortunately, Thebedi is not given the opportunity to learn these social behaviors at the same level that Paulus does -- due to her race and possibly gender -- and must rely on him for his knowledge, education, and experience. However, it is clear that the two know that their relationship is not something that would be considered acceptable by their families or society as they often court each other or engage in sexual activities when they are out of sight and there is no one around. For example, Thebedi only sneaks up to the Esyendyck house when Paulus' parents are out of town; It was in one of these that she and the farmer's son stayed together whole nights -- almost: she had to get away before the house servants, who knew her, came in at dawn." Even more, Thebedi had to make sure that others did not find out that she had been there since, "There was a risk someone would discover her or traces of her presence if he took her to his own bedroom, although she had looked into it many times when she was helping out in the house and knew well, there, the row of silver cups he had won at school."
As the story continues, it becomes evident that Paulus and Thebedi begin to grow apart and that their relationship also evolves, or rather devolves. The climax of the relationship between Thebedi and Paulus occurs when Thebedi gives birth to their child. It is also at this point that the relationship between Thebedi and Paulus begins to disintegrate and pretty soon the two will find themselves at odds with the other. The child is born while Paulus is away at school, but when he visits the farm and learns that Thebedi had…[continue]
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