Head, Bessie (1937–1986)

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Head, Bessie (1937–1986)

Internationally recognized South African author who lived as an exile in Botswana for 15 years before being granted citizenship there. Pronunciation: HED. Born Bessie Amelia Emery on July 6, 1937, in Pietermaritzburg,South Africa; died in Botswana of hepatitis on April 17, 1986; daughter of Bessie Amelia "Toby" Birch (a mother classified white) and an un-known father (classified black under apartheid legislation); classified as "coloured"; raised by foster-parents Nellie and George Heathcote and in orphanages; affected by the death of her foster father and biological mother at the age of seven; educated at Umbilo Road High School; trained as a primary teacher; married Harold Head (a journalist), on September 1, 1961 (separated in her early 20s and later divorced); children: one son, Howard Head.

Taught primary school in South Africa and Botswana for three years; worked as journalist at Drum Publications in Johannesburg for two years; fled to Botswana (1964) and joined a refugee community at Bamangwato Development Farm; granted Botswanan citizenship (1979); worked as writer and unpaid agricultural worker in Botswana; published her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969); The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales nominated for the Jock Campbell Award for literature by new or unregarded talent from Africa or the Caribbean (1978); altogether published six full-length works, about 25 short stories, and one poem; a number of her unpublished stories and letters have appeared posthumously, including one long work of fiction, The Cardinals.

Selected writings:

(novel) When Rain Clouds Gather (1969); (novel) Maru (1971); (novel) A Question of Power (1973); (short stories) The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977); (historical chronicle) Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981); (historical chronicle) A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984); contributor to periodicals, such as the London Times New African New Statesman and Transition; posthumous publications include (short stories) Tales of Tenderness and Power (1990); (autobiography) A Woman Alone (1993); A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979 (1991); (novel) The Cardinals (1993).

Occupying the southern tip of the African continent, South Africa is a country of vast natural resources and tremendous wealth. Most of its wealth, however, belongs to its over 5 million white citizens, while the majority of its 35 million nonwhite citizens live in poverty. Over the course of three centuries, racist concepts became the basis of South African society. In the 20th century, the word apartheid (Afrikaans for "apartness") came to dominate race relations, as Africans ("coloureds") and Indians were forced to live in separate, undesirable areas away from whites. In the decades before and after World War II, racist attitudes and practices were written into discriminatory and restrictive legislation. For example, the Population Registration Act authorized the government to classify all South Africans according to race, and the Group Areas Act provided for residential separation. In The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes: "The often haphazard segregation of the past three hundred years was to be consolidated into a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach, and over-whelming in its power." Bessie Head was born during the consolidation of this system, and her life was molded by it.

Bessie Head was named after her mother, Bessie Amelia Birch . Bessie Birch, nicknamed Toby, was the daughter of South African immigrants from England who settled in Harrismith in the Orange Free State in 1892. Toby was born there two years later, in 1894. The Birch family, which included seven children, relocated to Johannesburg in the early 20th century, and Toby's father Walter Birch built a lucrative business as a painting and redecorating contractor. In 1915, Toby Birch married Ira Garfield Emery, an Australian who had emigrated to South Africa during his teen years. The couple settled in a suburb of Johannesburg and had two sons, Stanley and Ronald. In December 1919, however, the young family was shattered by the death of their eldest son Stanley, who was crossing the road in front of the house when he was killed by a speeding car. Toby never recovered from her child's violent death; her mind and her marriage were ultimately destroyed by the event. Ira Emery blamed his wife for the death of their son, and the couple divorced in 1929.

Even so, Toby continued to refer to Ira Emery as her husband, and her mental state deteriorated rapidly in the early 1930s. On August 26, 1933, precariously unstable, she was committed to the Pretoria Mental Hospital. She was discharged for a six-month leave of absence in 1935, was readmitted later that year, and then discharged again in 1936. After her release, Toby lived with her sisters and mother Alice Birch in Durban. In April 1937, her sister realized that Toby was pregnant. Although some sources maintain that the father was a black stablehand who worked for the Birch family, according to Gillian Stead Eilersen , this is unlikely. There is no record of the father's identity or knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Bessie Head's conception.

Bessie Amelia Emery was born at Fort Napier Mental Institution in Pietermaritzburg in July 1937. Unaware of her parentage, the hospital gave her in adoption to a white family, but her prospective parents soon returned the child because they said she looked "strange." She was then given to a "coloured" couple, George and Nellie Heathcote , who, as foster parents, received a monthly payment of £3 for the child's care. Although the Heathcotes were quite poor, they made a home for Bessie and her stepsister, Rhona , and raised them in the Roman Catholic faith. Alice Birch, Bessie's grandmother, evidently visited several times during those first years. Unfortunately, when Bessie Head was six years old, George Heathcote died. Around the same time, on September 13, 1943, Bessie's biological mother, who had remained at Fort Napier Mental Hospital, also died. The causes of death were given as "lung abscess" and "dementia praecox," an obsolete term for schizophrenia. Bessie Head remained with Nellie Heathcote until she was 13, at which time economic conditions in the home deteriorated, and she was sent by welfare authorities to St. Monica's Home, an Anglican mission school for coloured girls.

When Bessie arrived at St. Monica's, she was ignorant of the events surrounding her birth. She

believed that Nellie Heathcote was her biological mother and later described herself as "fanatically attached" to the only mother she had ever known. When Bessie insisted on going home to see her mother for the holidays, the principal of the St. Monica's, Louie Farmer, coldly informed her that she would not be going home because Nellie Heathcote was not her mother. This event, and other negative encounters with Farmer, caused Head to distrust missionaries and Christianity in general. Despite this, she loved and admired a subsequent principal, Margaret Cadmore . Head would name the main protagonist of her second novel, Maru, after the woman. While at St. Monica's, Bessie continued to write and visit her foster mother, and their relationship improved as Bessie grew older and became successful in her studies. In fact, Nellie was so proud of Bessie's success that in 1953 she paid for her Junior Certificate examination, a public examination taken by all pupils at age 16 in Natal.

Her vision included whites and blacks, men and women. What she feared was the misuse of power, what she strove towards was human goodness and love. The idea of the basic goodness and decency of the ordinary person never left her.

—Gillian Stead Eilersen, 1989

Bessie Head was an excellent student in most subjects and quickly read all the books in St. Monica's library. She was sent from St. Monica's to Umbilo High School, where in 1955, she earned a Natal Teachers' Senior Certificate; she was appointed to the teaching staff of Clair-wood Coloured School in Durban in January 1956. Head did not enjoy teaching, however, and resigned her position in June 1958. She moved to Cape Town where she secured a position as a reporter with the Golden City Post, a weekly tabloid owned by Drum Publications that specialized in sensational stories. After a month on the job, Bessie had not received any pay; in desperation, she wrote Margaret Cadmore, who responded with the remainder of Bessie's inheritance, £20, money that had been left from her mother's estate.

In April 1959, Head moved from Cape Town to work for the Golden City Post in Johannesburg. There she wrote a column for teenagers, consisting of a newsletter entitled "Dear Gang" and an advice column called "Hiya Teenagers." She wrote her first long work of fiction while in Johannesburg, but this initial novel, The Cardinals, was not published until her death. Head undoubtedly drew upon her experiences as a reporter to produce many of the disturbing and powerful scenes in this story. While the tabloid newspaper for which she worked could not afford to offend the South African government by attacking apartheid itself, it encouraged its reporters, including Bessie, its only woman reporter, to crusade on minor matters of race discrimination.

During this period, Head became an African nationalist, a supporter of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and its leader, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. In 1960, the Congress sponsored a Positive Action Campaign, a passive resistance crusade against the Pass Law, which required any African man or woman to produce a pass upon demand by the police or any white person. Crowds thronged at police stations in the black suburbs of major cities and demanded to be arrested. Robert Sobukwe and his followers, including Bessie Head, gathered outside the police station at Soweto. At first, the police refused to arrest anyone for abrogating the Pass Law but later decided to arrest Sobukwe and the PAC leaders on the much more serious charge of "incitement." Head had gone home by the time the police made their charge and thus escaped arrest. She was, however, arrested at a later date, scooped up in one of the many raids. She later wrote that she became the state's witness as the result of violent treatment. This event, along with others, plunged her into deep depression, and she attempted suicide. She was hospitalized and, after her release, returned to Cape Town.

Still too depressed to work, she resigned from her job and, for the next year, wrote her own newspaper, The Citizen, selling it on the streets and in hotel lobbies. During that time, she met Harold Head, a freelance journalist who was also a political activist and an opponent of white supremacy. After a courtship of only a few weeks, the two were married on September 1, 1961, and sought quarters in a rooming house in the "Coloured" ghetto of Cape Town. In addition to her work as a journalist, Bessie wrote poetry and stories; her one published poem and six of her stories appeared in The New African, the journal of the South African Liberal Party. Because the journal was anti-colonial and somewhat militant, it was closely watched by the Security Police who confiscated two issues and then charged the editors of the journal under the Obscene Publications Act. In 1963, the Heads, with their baby Howard, moved to Port Elizabeth, where Harold became the first black reporter on the Evening Post, a progressive daily newspaper.

The South African government declared a State of Emergency following the 1960 Sharpesville massacre, a nonviolent demonstration that turned into a bloodbath as police fired into a crowd of unarmed PAC members demonstrating against the Pass Law. After the emergency was over, the government proceeded to suppress a number of political activist groups, including the South African Liberal Party. Many were arrested, and many more went into exile to avoid prison. When the Heads, who were mutually unhappy in their marriage, were targeted for prison, they decided to leave the country and go their separate ways. They would eventually divorce.

In 1964, Harold escaped to London. Bessie took their son and went to the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, now the Republic of Botswana. She had been given a one-way exit permit. This move enabled her to begin a teaching assignment at the Tshekedi Memorial School in the village of Serowe. Friends in London and South Africa, such as Randolph Vigne, Kenneth McKenzie, Myra Blumberg , Paddy Kitchen, and Robin Farquharson, sent Bessie and her son monetary and moral support to enable them to survive in the somewhat hostile and rather desolate area in which they made their home. In a letter of October 27, 1965, Bessie related that the principal of the school in which she taught had made sexual advances toward her. She wrote that there was little chance she would survive the year, that the authorities did not want her there, and that the people of her village were hostile towards her, mostly because she was different and because she had flouted authority. She wanted to leave Botswana because she felt that her life was threatened. She expressed hope that Amnesty International or the United Nations might help her relocate. Over the next few years, she wrote of possibly emigrating to India, Israel, Britain, the United States, or Kenya, among other countries.

On December 28, 1965, Head was informed by letter that she had been blacklisted by the Main School Committee in Serowe "for having deserted your post." After the loss of her teaching position, she worked for several months as an "odd job man" on a remote farm, and then had an even briefer stint as a typist for a road construction company near Palapye. Head wanted to study agricultural courses because she believed she could contribute to the development of agriculture in Botswana. She also sent out numerous applications for scholarships and grants and began assembling her short stories for possible publication as a book. Most of her fund-raising efforts were futile, though she did see her stories published in various journals. After publication of "The Woman from America" in the New Statesmen, publishers in London and the United States began to give more serious attention to her work.

From 1965 to 1968, Head lived in Francis-town, a refugee community in Botswana. Desperately poor, she often gave her food to her son Howard so that he might not go hungry. She made and sold guava jelly and, for years, wrote at night by candlelight because she had no electricity. Despite such hardships, she was determined to make a success of her writing career. She became an inveterate letter writer and added to her following of friends and supporters, both in Africa and abroad. In December 1966, the publishing firm of Simon and Schuster sent Head £80 to buy writing materials. She had already begun what was originally thought to be her first novel, a work published as When Rain Clouds Gather. She wrote about the agricultural and political problems faced by the people of Botswana as viewed by two men, one a political refugee from South Africa, the other a Cambridge-educated immigrant from Britain. When Rain Clouds Gather was a success, though Head regretted that Simon and Schuster had designated it as a book for teenagers.

In 1968, she withdrew her son from the Francistown school. Howard had been assaulted by a group of older students for asserting that he was a Motswanan. He was not a "superior" Motswanan, they roughly informed him, but only "coloured." In January 1969, Bessie Head decided to transfer back to Serowe and place Howard in Swaneng, the progressive and academically excellent school established by Pat van Rensburg. Although the people of Serowe continued to malign her, Head became more secure in Botswana and began to speak of her parentage, her belief in God, and the precarious hold she felt she had on life. She began construction on a two-room brick house with the money she had received from her novel. She named her cottage Rain Clouds and formalized the name by sending to England for a name plate. After her house was completed, she turned her attention once more to agriculture. She established a seedling nursery on the land adjacent to her house and invited the women of Serowe to participate in a communal agricultural project.

Head produced her second novel, Maru, a short, intensely personal book of 30,000 words, in 1969. At the time, she proclaimed it her masterpiece, writing that it "glories friendship between a man and a man and friendship between a woman and a woman." In 1971, she suffered a breakdown and was confined to Lobatse Mental Hospital for three months. Although her doctor declared her "completely cured," she continued to suffer from her terrors and obsessions. Both Rain Clouds and Maru received critical acclaim when they were published, but Head's third novel, A Question of Power, got mixed reviews. The novel, however, sold very well and was on the short list for the Booker Prize in 1974. A Question of Power, a novel which juxtaposes and explores both the nature of goodness and the nature of evil, is a book written from the inside out, a book whose protagonist faces the misery and terror of never knowing the identity of her parents. A Question of Power, her most complex and ambitious undertaking, is now considered Head's greatest work.

In 1977, she published her first collection of short stories: The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. Head later said that the stories came from interviews she conducted while gathering information for a history of Serowe. In 1977, she left Botswana for the first time since her arrival. She was invited to attend an international writing program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City for the fall semester. Before returning to Botswana, she spent a day in London with her friend, Randolph Vigne, then visited Germany and Denmark. After publishing three novels of a clearly autobiographical nature, Head began a semi-documentary account of the history of her village. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind was published in 1981. Head shaped the book around interviews with people of all age groups and occupations, reproducing a cross-section of the lives and the culture of the village. In the last book issued in her lifetime, A Bewitched Crossroad, published in 1984, Bessie Head examines the African tribal wars of the early 19th century and interprets the history of Africa from a black, not a white, perspective. All her books were linked and helped explicate the previous characters and plots.

The energy and power contained in Bessie Head's writing come from the conflicts in her life: from the issues of identity in her tragic childhood to the image of herself as the paradigm of the African woman struggling against entrenched cultural mores. She wrote out of the vision of a better world for black people, but her crusade for gender and social justice included whites and blacks, men and women. She especially concerned herself with the victimization of women in Africa and created situations where women could be seen as equal partners in relationships. Her writing also conveys courage and humor, the courage of a "woman alone," and the humor brought forth from a woman with backbone and tenaciousness.

Bessie Head was 49 years old and working on her autobiography when she died in Serowe, Botswana, in 1986. She had also continued to correspond with friends, agents, publishers, and literary contacts throughout the world, leaving behind an enormous collection of letters. She saved carbon copies of the letters she wrote and kept letters received in classified order. One collection, A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head 1965–1979, was published by her longtime friend and editor, Randolph Vigne. Vigne's collection provides an invaluable source for those who wish to know about Bessie Head. The Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe, set up and maintained by the government of Denmark, has become a repository for her papers.

In 1993, two of Bessie Head's works were published posthumously. The Cardinals, written between 1962 and 1963, explores the sexual taboos of South African society. Her first work of long fiction reflects the anger that Head felt both toward the Immorality Act, the law that forbade sexual contact between different races, and toward her own birth and upbringing in the country that invented apartheid. A Woman Alone contains her unfinished autobiography and previously unpublished essays. More of Head's letters will undoubtedly be published, and the critical analysis of her life and work continues.


Barnett, Ursula A. A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.

Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.

Head, Bessie. The Cardinals: With Meditations and Short Stories. Ed. by M.J. Daymond. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993.

——. Tales of Tenderness and Power. Intro. by Gillian Stead Eilersen, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990.

Heywood, Christopher, ed. Aspects of South African Literature. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Ola, Virginia Uzoma. The Life and Works of Bessie Head. Queenstown: Edwin Mellen Press, 1994.

Vigne, Randolph. A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990.

suggested reading:

Abrahams, Cecil, ed. The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994.

Head, Bessie. A Woman Alone. Portsmith, NH: Heinemann, 1993.

Yvonne Johnson , Assistant Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri