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Richard Wright’s Black Boy



Black Boy is a memoir by the great African-American author, Richard Wright, detailing his own upbringing. Wright describes his youth in the South: Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and his eventual move North to Chicago, where he establishes his writing career.

Richard Wright’s Black Boy is important to students of African-American literature and history as it picks the former American slave narratives story from where slave time narratives like that of Frederick Douglas leaves it. That makes Black Boy one of the key novels about black people’s series of predicaments after slavery and emancipation in the US.

Black Boy tends to suggest that after emancipation, slavery does not really end but it actually enters a new and more subtle phase.

Published in 1945, Black Boy has been called an autobiography and Richard Wright is on record confirming that this novel was his own fictionalised history. African American literature has tended to be autobiographical, capturing the lives of specific slaves or former slaves on their rough and tough road to freedom.

Black Boy is supposedly narrated by the author, Richard Wright, and tells the story of his life from early childhood to about age twenty-nine. As the text is written as a stylised memoir, the narrator always speaks in the first person point of view.

Although he occasionally speculates as to what another character thinks or feels, those speculations are always conditioned by the fact that the narrator is a real historical figure with limited knowledge.

Black Boy is easier understood when properly placed in the period that it is set; the post slave American society from 1900 to around 1920 of the South. The emancipation of the first American slave in the 1860’s caused celebration which was however short-lived. The former slaves had no land, no resources, no education and no adequate industrial skills.

The former slaves were excited and they flocked northwards. This became the archetypal journey as the North represented freedom, industry and modernity. For decades, the very few slaves who had managed to escape slavery had gone northwards. But the North was still part of racist American society and was no paradise. In this period the alternatives available to the freed slaves were baffling and for decades, they had to live with them.

There was the issue called share cropping; a situation where the freed slave got a portion of land from his former master to till. At harvest, they would share the proceeds with the master. This could be deeper and more complex exploitation than slavery itself. The image of Richard’s father standing in such a field dramatises the futility of sharecropping.

The passage reads: “I was to see him again, standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a mud in his gnarled, veined hands…I stood before him, poised, my mind aching as it embraced the simple nakedness of his life, feeling how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body.”

There was also the option for the former slave to go North. This was fantastic but the reality as seen through the escapades of Richard’s family, could be an exercise in futility. Either one got exploited in the industrial North or became a criminal or a prostitute.

As shown in Black Boy, there was also the Jim Crow matter to consider if you were black. Emancipation of the slaves in 1863 angered the defeated whites of the South who had benefitted immensely from slave labour. One of the white judges called Jim Crow, drafted laws that pretended to define the rights of the freed slaves and yet these laws limited the freedom of the former slaves.

For example, no blacks were allowed in white places. Blacks were not supposed to vote until further notice. It took up to the Second World War before blacks could vote in America. Blacks could not secure the same seats and carriages with the whites on the buses and trains.

These became normal American practices up to the 1960’s when they were abolished through the civil rights movements led by Correta Scott, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and others. Jim Crow issue shows that emancipation was only a historic political step which however did not provide permanent legal basis. Abraham Lincoln who had championed emancipation died soon after emancipation.

As shown in Black Boy, there was also the matter of the Ku-Klux clans which terrified former slaves. These were conservative militant armies of whites who used hit and run techniques to harass and eliminate successful black business men and women, educated blacks and the black leadership whom they considered cheeky.

These white on black attacks were called lynching. Lynching involved killing in cold blood, shooting, hangings, mutilations and savage horse-whipping of blacks. The case of Uncle Harrison in Black Boy is a case in point.

As shown through the novel, there were various ways in which blacks responded to these challenges. There was accommodationism, which was thinking amongst some blacks that; if they were to progress at all, they would accommodate the racist circumstances and by all means try to survive.

Richard’s friend, Griggs would neatly fit into this, especially his advice, “Learn how to live in the South.” Richard’s contemporary, Shorty, may also fit into this group as he tended to invite white people to give him a kick in the buttocks, for a fee.

He sometimes intentionally played the fool to amuse white people and get paid. There is also Harrison who would enact and set up fights between black men in search of some money to buy a suit.

Accommodationism ties up with the thinking of Booker T Washington in his book, Up From Slavery, in which he argues that as blacks, they needed “to cast our buckets where we are.” Such blacks were often called Uncle Tom, in reference to the archetypal character Uncle Tom in Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Another response to the challenge of the times was separatism. This was thinking amongst radical blacks in the US, like, the iconic Du-Bois, that the black community had rather develop quickly and separately. By this theory, the black community could embark on the talented tenth project whereby the best should become professionals such as teachers, lawyers, doctors and politicians, as a way of making effective scores in the black community.

Another method of responding to the times was militarism. This was championed by Marcus Garvey and later, by Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. The black community had such people who felt that they would rather fight back by all means necessary in order to be recognised. It seems that Richard Wright borrowed tenets from this group. He learnt to hit back both in the family and outside.

In Black Boy, he stands up to Auntie Addie, Uncle Tom and the bullies at every new school that he went to.
In his other novel, Native Son, Richard Wright’s character, Bigger Thomas, tries to fight the American system single handed and the system cages him. Wright’s major critic and fellow writer,

James Baldwin, felt that Wright had taken an action that was futile. In one essay he attacks Wright and entitles the essay, “Ah, poor Richard.”
The characters in Richard’s family are also archetypes of black characters after emancipation. The constant migration of members of the black family around the South and sometimes into the

North is typical of the black family at the time. The black family has no anchor. Richard’s father, brother, mother, Auntie Addy, Uncle Tom and Uncle Clark, are in constant quest for a comfortable job and base with little or no success at all.

As shown in the novel, the work place and many other institutions in the South are extremely racist and derive a lot of anti-black attitudes from slavery. The stock statements are as follows:

“Nigger, what in hell are you looking at?” and “If I was a nigger, I’d kill myself.”

When seen from afar, Grandpa is sharp, active fierce and all knowing. But seen from close by, he is pathetic and henpecked. He is the first generation of former slaves. When the civil war breaks out, he escapes from his master in the South to fight on the side of the Northern soldiers who were against slavery.

He is wounded in this war but he never receives his disability pension because his name had been misspelt. In their books, there is the name Richard Vinson instead of Richard Wilson. He keeps a loaded gun by his bed, as he believes that civil war hostilities could resurface at any moment.

Grandmother is permanently angry with the world. This is seen through her savage blows at Richard at the slightest provocation. One day, she misses Richard with a blow and the inertia from it fatally downs her. Richard had childishly requested that she wipes his anus as she is bathing him! He also tells her that when she is done she could kiss him “back there.”

That unfortunate request reminds grandmother of slavery and her own unfortunate conditions. She has a kind of permanent grudge against the system that ranks her amongst the blacks when she is near white. In the American system, anyone with a drop of black blood is considered black.

The dialogue between Richard and her mother about Granny’s colour is both amusing and telling. She is clearly in Frederick Douglas dilemma where one’s white father rapes a slave but does not claim the child into masterhood. In her helplessness, grandmother throws herself into Christianity.

Ironically she thinks that Richard is inherently sinful.
Ella, Richard’s mother is defined by her infirmity which is a symbol of a deprived black woman in the South, who is destined to struggle without success. That her husband leaves her so easily is typical of African-American women who remain behind to raise children in the absence of their father.

Ella is strict and pious but she harbours, like her mother, some frustrated anger. As the novel begins, she comes close to murdering Richard for causing a fire that nearly guts down the house.

Richard’s father, Nathan is physically intimidating and frequently beats Richard. He abandons his family and proves to have no any long standing attachment to anyone. He is constantly wandering across the South.

Ella’s siblings; Auntie Addie, Uncle Tom and Uncle Clark, are best remembered for the phrase “Come here, Richard” and their regular physical assault on Richard. You can see that they do so as a way of venting their fury. They are frustrated by a community that does not offer them equal opportunities.

Richard’s hunger shows that Black Boy is a story about a long life’s struggle with hunger in its various forms. Richard hungers for food, acceptance, love and knowledge. As a boy, there is never enough to eat in the house.

He begins to associate his hunger with his father’s absence. He associates good food with the white people for whom his mother works. When he visits Auntie Maggie, the mere presence of abundant food almost shocks Richard to death. Richard’s hunger is synonymous with the hunger of the black people in the South.

In fact, the title of the novel was originally named American Hunger until it was changed to Black Boy a year later. Richard says about his hunger: “Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly.”

Richard is deeply individual and he expresses a desire to join the society on his own terms rather than be formed into categories that the white society wishes him to fill in. He struggles against a dorminant white culture both in the South and the North. He is even against the black culture of subservience which is a carryover from slavery. However, neither white nor black culture knows how to handle a strong willed and self respecting man like Richard. He rejects the call to blindly conform.

Through the story in Black Boy, Richard Wright demonstrates that he learns to grow up, violently, from being an ordinary black boy, to being a free man.

Memory Chirere

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Harnessing imagery in writing



All writing is imaginative. Every piece of writing reflects the artistry and mental resourcefulness of the writer.

Effective writing also reflects the colourfulness of the writer’s mind and heart; their ability to paint the world to the reader and their capacity or facility of taking the reader with them to beautiful mental and physical and picturesque journeys.

In this piece we focus on how we can hone our creative abilities through the use of imagery and the effect of using colourful and evocative imagery in writing. Let’s go! What if I say, “Learn to prepare wisely and meticulously in time,” you will still grasp the message in a very clear way, isn’t it? But would that be interesting and colourful?

But what if we put it in a colourful manner, “Make hay whilst the sun still shines,” you really grasp the colour and the full import of the message, isn’t it? That’s what imagery does to your writing; it allows you to feel, touch and smell what you are reading.

There is no doubt that the proverb, “make hay whilst the sun still shines” has taken you to the countryside, in a farming community. You hear the bleating of sheep and the neighing of horses.

At the same time, you visualise the good farmer gracefully at work, cutting grass which he is piling in orderly stacks, preparing fodder for his animals in the future. The sun’s rays buoy his attempts and ensure that the hay is prepared with care and colour.

Thus, the point of good imagery is to capture in full detail a world that allows the reader to grasp and enjoy using their five senses. Let me give you a small but beautiful extract which further drives home the point.

“With his machete he detached a brittle clod, broke it on a stone. It was full of dead twigs and the residue of dried roots that he crushed in his fingers.

“Look, there isn’t anything left. The water has dried up in the very entrails of the mountain. It’s not worth while looking any further. It’s useless.” Then, with sudden anger, “But why, damn it! Did you cut the woods down, the oaks, the mahogany trees, and everything that grow up there? Stupid people with no sense!”

Thando struggled for a moment to find words. “What else could we do, brother? We cleared it to get new wood. We cut it down for framework and beams for our hearts. We repaired the fences around our fields. We didn’t know ourselves. Ignorance and need go together, don’t they?”

The sun scratched the scorched back of the mountain with its shining fingernails. Along the dry ravine the earth panted. The countryside, baked in drought, began to sizzle.”

What a colourful piece! The extract aptly paints a countryside’s pulse and the rhythms of seasonal and climate change and how that affects the livelihood patterns of the inhabitants. Have you seen how the sun has been endowed with human-like features?

And the description of the earth assuming human-like features, for instance, “the earth panted.” No doubt, you have seen the earth subdued by the intensity of heat in a way that is similar to a person who is panting.

To paint excellent images the writer needs to have the gift of observation. He/she should be able to observe quite a panorama of things around him and immerse them in the soil of their imagination. Let’s see another good extract where you can discern the link between good images, excellent description and the power of observation.

“It’s in the morning, the fourth watch, to borrow from biblical discourse. It’s damp outside. I brace the slicing chilly weather to go outside. There is a drizzle, constant showers seeping deep down. I pace up at least 400 metres from my hood. I see lined-up, almost cubicle-like houses.

I keep walking, with a spring in the step buoyed by the damp aura wrought by the incessant downpours. I take a deep breath, and step back as it were.

I want to be deliberate. I want to take in everything in my environment; the colours, the diverse hues and plethora of landscape contours. I notice a woman, almost in her forties, from my eye-view assumptions. She is grabbing a basket clutched tenaciously almost close to her big bosom.

She is going to Mbare Musika, the famous agricultural market wherein she intends to buy items for her stall. Behind her, there is a big strapped baby covered in velvet. As she briskly walks, I see her jumping a poodle of water as she observes her stall. I also observe a man, clad in sportswear running trying to cure a big belly.

As I keep watching, I see a woman sweeping her small veranda. I keep walking. I see a woman, plump tending to her garden. She seems animated by the drizzle, thanks to the rains.

I hear another woman, especially her piercing voice, she is selling floor polish. Her voice fills the air. As I drown in the sweet voice, I notice a man staggering. He is filthy. He could have calloused the whole night. He is holding a Black Label quart, speaking gibberish in the air. I keep watching.”

So here were are! Writing is a matter of painting with words, carving images and allowing the reader to experience the impact of all the senses so as to fully grasp the sense of what is put across.

Vuso Mhlanga teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. For almost a decade and half he taught English language and Literature in English at high school.

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Politicians’ propensity to score own goals



Lesotho politicians are often in the habit of scoring own goals. For example, look at the circus that took place in the country at the opening of parliament after the winter break. These events remind me of the article that I wrote with the title ‘Scoring own goals’.

This article appeared in this publication dated March 18 – 24, 2021. It argued that Lesotho’s politicians had a propensity to score own goals.

Many say that education and academia should not involve themselves in politics. This belief is a fallacy. The two are intrinsically intertwined. Education and politics link in a complex way.

For instance, parliament is an organ that passes laws that govern and guide national education policies. The interconnectedness includes the curricula that educational institutions and schools teach. Now, if the National Assembly’s focus is misplaced, important legislative decisions may stall or be derailed by lack of action.

I must make a disclaimer though. I am not promoting any view about a political party. I am writing this article purely as a concerned citizen.

I revisit the own goal tendency of those in authority by assessing the drama that unfolded in politics and governance. I review the recent events that culminated in the failed vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Sam Matekane and his government.

I use arguments from research to demonstrate the fluidity of Lesotho’s democracy. Some politicians often take advantage of this fluidity for selfish gain. I contest that the Prime Minister and his government should treat their adversities as stepping stones to meeting their targets.

A constitution is a living document. Accordingly, to keep Lesotho’s constitution alive, current and relevant, parliament should regularly amend it.

However, in so doing, parliament must be careful that tinkering with the country’s constitution does not compromise the essence of democracy they champion. National and democratic principles must form the dogma that underpins the improvements and amendment exercises.

Personal aspirations, ambitions and creed must not underpin the amendments.

The recent events in and out of the National Assembly make one question the perceptions of the different roles players in the democratic playground in Lesotho have.

First, there was a vote of no confidence that the Speaker ruled to defer subject to the high court’s decision.

Second, there was the allegedly drunken MP’s own goal.

The third is the press conference led by the Commissioner of the Lesotho Mounted Police Services flanked by the head of the Lesotho Defence Force and the Director General of the National Security Services.

It is already a hat trick of own goals. Fourth, there was the statement of the Prime Minister claiming an attempted coup.

The fifth own goal is the moratorium that prevented parliament from holding a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister before the lapse of three years of his inauguration.

The sixth is the practice of shirking responsibility by MPs. MPs often refer political matters to the national courts for decisions. The seventh, and the mother of all own goals, is the electoral system that Lesotho elected to pursue. The National Assembly has 120 MPs. There are 80 MPs representing constituencies and 40 proportional representatives.

The Commonwealth suggested that Lesotho review the modalities of the PR nominations. Sekatle and the Commonwealth agree that the PR system introduced plurality but at a cost. The cost is what scholars and commentators term minority rights and coalitions.

Also, it compromises accountability and transparency. It undermines the collective intelligence of the voters. Chief Jonathan warned against coalition governments by citing their instability. Political instability plagues Lesotho today.
Sekatle and the Commonwealth cited the overreliance on a threshold in awarding PR seats in parliament, cheapening them.

The PR system ballooned parliament unnecessarily. By comparison, Botswana had a population of 2.6 million in (2021). Lesotho had 2.3 million (2021). Botswana parliament currently has 65 seats, and Lesotho has 120.

A consequence emanating from the PR system in Lesotho is a hung parliament. Since 2012, there has not been an outright majority in the National Assembly. The results yielded chaos. Over that period, PMs constantly look over their shoulders. All these coalitions imploded.

Democracy is about the majority. Politicians must be persuasive to attract votes to achieve the majority. In other words, the PR system rewards failure.

The own goals cause stagnation. MPs score these own goals by serving their selfish interests. They waste time and energy on trivial things. And yet, they receive full-time salaries and earn allowances such as sittings and petrol allowances. How, then, would one explain that the external urging of parliament had to engage in the reforms exercise?

Today, reforms are lying latent. Politicians use the reform programme as an excuse for ensuring that they retain or access power. In the recent correspondences to SADC, the government and the opposition cite reforms and democracy to justify their actions. But as I write this article, there is nothing much that is happening along the lines of these very reforms. Why?

The starting point of any achievement is desire and definitiveness of purpose. The definitiveness of purpose is more than goal setting. It is one’s roadmap to achieving the overall objectives. Elsewhere, I took the definition of desire as explained by the author, Wallace Wattles.

According to Wattles, ‘Desire is possibility seeking expression, or function seeking performance’. All desires began as a thought. Expressing their desires through a manifesto is a means by which parties attempt to concretise them (their desires).

The starting point of an election campaign is the expression of political intentions and goals through manifestos. A manifesto is a public declaration of aims and policy by a political party or candidate. Political parties express their desires for what they will do in their manifestos.

After elections, these desires become the guiding principles and laws. Politically mature voters would then elect political candidates based on these manifestos.

Who instigated and drove the reforms in Lesotho? The contemporary history of Lesotho reveals that external forces pushed the reforms. Basotho merely reacted. They do not own the reform process. High on the list of their drivers are SADC, the US through AGOA and the European Union.

The practice contradicts Wattles’ definition. According to Wattles definition, desire must emanate from inside the individual, or in our case, from Basotho and be expressed outward through actions.

I do not want to comment too much about the involvement of the security agencies in politics. In my view, the relevant bodies, namely, the Law Society of Lesotho, the media and the opposition parties dealt with their involvement adequately.

Former PM Leabua Jonathan often described democracy as the government of the people by the people. But, the meaning of the construct of democracy is fluid and elusive, depending on the position of governance in Lesotho’s political arena.

Authors Hughes, Kroehler and Vander Zanden explain that democracy is a system in which the powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, namely the masses who vote, in which regular constitutional avenues exist for changing government officials.

The authors characterise the system as one which permits the population a significant voice in decision-making through the people’s right to choose among contenders for political office. Also, the system allows for a broad, relatively equal citizenship among the populace.

Lastly, it affords the citizenry protection from arbitrary state action.

Now, the question is whether the recent activities fit all the three criterias. Are the actions of the MPs who moved for the vote of no confidence in the PM’s government acting in line with Lesotho’s constitution and democracy?

This definition of democracy says that regular constitutional avenues exist for changing government officials. The no confidence vote exists in Lesotho’s constitution. But the PM and his security agencies questioned this. They claim the move by the members of the opposition to dethrone the government was a coup attempt.

The drama began when an MP from the ruling Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), Thabo Moea MP, sought an order from the High Court to delay the motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister until after the completion of the reforms process.

The opposition contests that the prayer by Moea stifles a democratic process for self-serving ends. Subsequently, the Speaker cited this impending case to defer the matter.

The constitution of Lesotho stipulates that the legislature is to pass laws, the executive is to approve and execute them, and the judiciary is to expound and enforce them. But a scholar, Nwafor, claims that the courts in Lesotho often intrude into the functions of the other arms of government.

Lesotho ‘s constitution confers powers on three arms of government in such a manner as would ensure cooperation and coordination in governance. The courts ought to bear in mind that the effective discharge of the responsibilities of the courts largely depends on the effectiveness of the other arms of government.

Nwafor brings up the issue of encroachment. He asserts that the powers of the different arms of government in such a manner would guarantee a coordinated discharge of government responsibilities to the nation. But, parliament overly relies on the courts to make political decisions. The practice encourages the risk of overreaching.

The PR electoral system denies Basotho the right to choose their representatives among contenders for political office. Instead, parties ‘hand pick’ these representatives in the pretext of the constituency elections outcomes. Often, these PR members are the ones who lost their constituency elections.

These are the politicians whose constituencies rejected them. They represent their parties and not the voters. They do not account to the voters.

Both the PM and the opposition made presentations to SADC. They overlooked the electorate. Why would SADC have power and not the electorate that elected the politicians to office? Running to SADC, an outside organisation, to settle Lesotho’s internal problems is not a solution. It is scoring an own goal. Lesotho, with its 57 years of independence, should be able to solve its internal problems.

Nonetheless, I have a completely different take from Mokhothu on the issue of the protest march by the RFP. It is unimportant to find the instigator of the protest march. The people to persuade are the voters, the people who put governments into power in a democracy, not external bodies such as SADC.

Napoleon Hill’s creed reads: ‘Every adversity brings a seed of equivalent or more benefit’. Any business person knows that business is a solution to an economic problem. So, the PM and his colleagues in his party who are business people must look at the adversity emanating from the opposition as a seed of equivalent or better benefit.

The government must dig deep to find how the problem may benefit them.
They must identify their failures and use them as stepping stones to success.

Elsewhere, I presented the views of an American scholar and activist, Anderson, who suggested that marginalised communities must cease granting candidates blank cheques. Instead, the electorate must draw their expectations and demand the campaigning party or candidate promise to meet them.

This practice is called quid pro quo. It enforces accountability and transparency.

You scratch my back, and I scratch yours. Quid pro quo is an example of one of the universal laws that demonstrate reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. The universal law is the Law of Cause and Effect. It means that for every effect, there is an equal cause. You plant a seed, so shall you reap.

Both the government and the opposition ran to SADC for help. Remember, Matekane is a successful businessman. He has, on more than one occasion, explained that he wanted to use his prowess in business to take Lesotho forward. As a businessman, Matekane has faith in his ability.

Words that come to mind here include self-confidence and trust in himself. He believes in himself. Running to SADC does not display this faith in his ability to deal with problems emanating from his opposition.

Hill argues that riches, or any form of success and achievement, begin with a thought. Faith removes limitations. Matekane must apply his faith as a businessman to become a successful politician.

To summarise, the article explores the events emanating from the fiasco of the no-confidence motion. The individuals who ought to champion constitutional democracy in Lesotho betrayed Basotho by scoring hordes of own goals.

I explored the meaning of concepts that helped me unpack some of these own goals. These were democracy, faith and desire. Also, I coupled these with scholarly research views on the constitution of Lesotho.

I contest that while the opposition may argue that they are within their rights to ruffle the government, the PM must use different tactics. He must display faith and confidence in himself and trust Basotho.

The move to influence the voters to back him deserves a big WOW! He must hold more campaigns to persuade voters to support his government. Voters may make or break him.

MPs waste time in discussing trivial issues that have no bearing on the national agenda. Often, they focus on self-serving matters. The RFP promised to refocus Lesotho towards national development and improving the quality of life.

The article also shows that the PR system does not benefit Lesotho. It diminishes accountability and the principle of quid pro quo. Also, it ballooned the numbers in parliament unnecessarily. It increased political instability by forging formations of coalition.

Politicians must refrain from abusing the judiciary by making them make political decisions. Involving the courts in making political decisions leads to encroachment. Encroachment defies democracy.

In conclusion, Matekane must not allow his detractors to derail his mandate. The same is true for the opposition leaders who attempt to dethrone him. No party campaigned on removing sitting PMs.

Also, the MPs must take the responsibilities that Basotho entrusted them with. It is high time that they make the political decisions instead of shifting them to the judiciary or external bodies.

Matekane, his business associates and technocrats in his government should revisit attributes that made them successful. One such attribute is their faith in their abilities. They must remember that riches (and success) begin with a thought, and faith removes limitations.

Dr Tholang Maqutu


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Painting mood effectively



Writing is not different from beautiful artwork. Just like a skilled painter holding a brush with its broad strokes, the writer occupies the same place and vocation in life. Writing is a work of painting life’s experiences, its hues and beautiful unfolding internal journeys. In this piece we focus on mood and how it can be achieved. Many students struggle with understanding and contemplating the scope and ambit of mood in writing.
It is hard to define and frame the scope of mood in writing. What really constitutes mood? Generally, mood encapsulates the totality of the “air” or “spirit” or “aura” that a certain work of art evokes in the human mind, feeling or sensibility. There is a certain dominant feature or streak associated with a certain work of art, place or person.

There is something which is evoked in our hearts which is associated with a certain place, person or event. Every place or event or person carries or imbues with him or her a certain mood or sensibility; and there is a panorama of sensibilities; for instance, a happy or sombre or whimsical mood. We will now focus on a certain extract and discern how it paints mood.

“He quickly rights himself and keeps walking, but there is an unsteadiness to his knees. He has been given many looks in this quarter – dirty ones, blank ones, sympathetic ones, annoyed ones. For the most part, he had learned to tolerate those than can be tolerated, and ignore those that should be ignored, but the look this woman gave him is not a look one gives to humans but to flies, ticks, cockroaches, fleas…Thato feels anger, then humiliation, then something nameless. If he were in his own country he would turn and confront the woman; but now he’s hurt, wounded, a part of him wishing he were invisible. Breathing evenly, he walks with care, only lifting his eyes once he reaches his own quarters, among his own people. He proceeds to his shack. He could stop by Thapelo’s, his neighbour, where he knows that men and women are already congregated to watch videos from home. Yet, no matter the promise of good fellowship and laughter, Thabo does not join them. Watching videos is a form of forgetting; the 2008 elections, the police with batons, the soldiers with guns, the militia with machetes. Do you remember? Limbs broken. Roofs blazing. I remember.”

This extract is characterised by the intensity of feeling and evokes feelings of sadness, despair and pain. The excerpt paints a harrowing and blood-curdling account which produces a sombre, dull and subdued mood. Thato, the protagonist in the story is in a foreign land. He was impelled to leave his country as a result of political violence which saw many people lose limbs and lives. He feels lonely and unwanted in the foreign land. He feels lost and alienated.

There are sentiments of xenophobia expressed through the glances of citizens of the foreign country he is in. Even if he were to entertain himself together with his countrymen residing in that foreign land, Thato still felt a deep and nagging feeling of being an outcast. Thus, we have made very deep and broad descriptions of the circumstances in which the protagonist finds himself with a view to demonstrate how mood is created in a narrative. The creation of mood feeds into the description of the character’s circumstances, his mindset and the space and place in which he finds himself.

Mood, as we have demonstrated from the portrayal of Thato’s experience, has a link with pathos. Pathos is that streak of sadness which pervades a story and creates empathy in the reader. The aim of effective writing is to move the reader and to impel him towards certain sensibilities which are of an affective kind. Mood, when effectively created, allows the reader to grasp meaning which is not directly said in the story or composition.

Meaning in a story is an interaction between the words in a text as read together with the effect of the words, the tone used and the created mood. There are certain words in a text which do not just communicate, but etches in the reader’s mind certain thoughts, viewpoints and feelings. These words would be so evocative. One such word describes Thato’s deepest sense of alienation in the extract given above.

The word describes him as nursing a wish of invisibility, he felt or wished he were ‘invisible.’ His wish for invisibility is of great importance. It portrays how he was deeply affected by the loathing expressed in the eyes of those looking at him with hate and disdain.

So, here we are! Creating a mood is a craft which takes time to acquire and hone. But when achieved, it makes effective reading and allows the reader to get meaning which goes beyond the text.

Vuso Mhlanga teaches at the University of Zimbabwe. For almost a decade and half he taught English language and Literature in English at high school. Send your comments and questions to:

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