Right now I’m reading Cry, the Beloved Country, a novel set in South Africa and published in 1948. As I don’t know much about South African history, it is an eye-opening and moving account. But it is also a bit dated. There is a lot of discussion about whether apartheid will ever end, whether black Africans will ever have a voice, and whether they will seek revenge when they do. In the post-Mandela era, the answers to these questions are part of the historical record and represent a profound change in the structure of life in South Africa. That’s not to say that all the problems represented in the book are solved. But, at least from a distance, the book seems very much ‘of a time.’
I’ve been struck by the contrast with my summer reading list. Novels like Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell It On the Mountain – all roughly contemporary with Cry, the Beloved Country – still feel very applicable today. The basic conditions of poor, urban minorities don’t seem to have changed much. Yes, communism has a potential (often false) hope and the ties to the Southern countryside have diminished with each passing generation. But the type of urban living and white suspicion they depict are very much alive in contemporary America. This is particularly true of the manhunt in Native Son (in which white police descend in force on the South Side of Chicago, disrupting daily life for all, to find one black criminal) and the police shooting in Invisible Man (along with the frustrating and frustrated aftermath).
I’m left with more questions: How true is it that things have dramatically improved for South Africa’s black population? Why haven’t we made more strides in the United States in addressing the problems of race? Is our non-apartheid segregation just that much less tractable? Is it the invisibility or the constant awareness of the problem that are the greater impediment to change?