By Chet Yarbrough
Cry, the Beloved Country
In reading “Cry, the Beloved Country”, one should remember it was published in 1948. Alan Paton’s book is an update to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. It is less brutal than Wright’s “Native Son” or Morrison’s “Beloved” but it strikes at the heart of apartheid and the insidious nature of discrimination and slavery.
Paton was a South African white man that lived the life he wrote about. Paton, among other things, managed a black reform school in South Africa in the early 40s. One is reminded, in some ways, of Nelson Mandela’s life with Paton’s main character, Stephen Kumalo. In other ways, Mandela is way beyond Kumalo.
Contrary to one’s belief about Mandela, Kumalo is like Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book. He is a good man; a wise man, but he fails to understand the terrible truths of discrimination and its insidious effect on society–both on the discriminated and the discriminator. One doubts that Mandela ever had any misunderstanding of discrimination’s effect on society.
One can argue Kumalo deserves the pejorative meaning of a modern “Uncle Tom” definition. But Paton makes the reader or listener walk in Kumalo’s shoes. Maybe Kumalo is “a black man considered to be excessively obedient or servile”; on the other hand, Kumalo is a hero—the best of what human beings can be in the circumstance of history. Therein lays a comparison with Mandela and his decision to invite an oppressive white government into his administration. The goal of Paton, his character Kumalo, and Mandela was to preserve their beloved country.
The execution of Kumalo’s son, the prostitution of his sister, the corruption of his brother are consequent behaviors of discrimination; Kumalo sees but fails to act because he is seduced by faith and constrained by white suppression.
Life is full of compromise; full of good and evil. The fictional Kumalo and real Mandela did the best they could do which is better than 99% of the human race. “Cry, the Beloved Country” begs the question of what is right and infers much of South Africa’s suppression was driven by white’ fear; but, in broader context, Paton reveals the complex and insidious evil of discrimination.
Paton creates a few white characters with a growing understanding of the consequence of discrimination while subtly injecting a more militant black movement. Again, one is reminded of Mandela’s early life, his militancy and imprisonment.
“Cry the Beloved Country” gives one some idea of what life must have been like for Nelson Mandela.