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new internationalist
issue 247 - September 1993

A skin of her own
Bessie Head’s origins were a mystery – even to herself.
Now researcher Gillian Stead Eilersen has uncovered the strange, poignant
and deeply symbolic history of one of South Africa’s most famous writers.

Bessie Head. When she died in 1986, all that Bessie Head knew about her roots was that her mother (who was white), returning to her family home after an unsuccessful marriage, became pregnant by a stable hand (who was black) and produced a girl child whom she named after herself. These events took place in the racially divided South Africa of the late 1930s and Bessie Head’s subsequent achievements as a writer are generally seen as being connected with her need to understand and accept them.

In an article in Drum magazine in 1982, she said that the circumstances of her birth ‘seem to have made it necessary to obliterate all traces of family history... I have always been just me with no frame of reference to anything beyond myself.’ During a visit to Australia in 1984 she said: ‘I just don’t fit in or belong anywhere and I tend to pride myself on not fitting in or belonging’.

This suggests that she had reconciled herself to her state. However, her writings illustrate instead her struggle to establish a personal sense of identity and with that a sense of history. She once wrote: ‘A sense of history was totally absent in me... We black Africans did not know who or what we were, apart from objects of abuse and exploitation.’

After the publication of A Bewitched Crossroad in 1984, her next project was to be an autobiography. But she had got no closer to finding the truth about her family background when she died two years later – that has been for others to discover.

Bessie Amelia Head’s story can be said to have begun in Johannesburg in 1919. In that year Bessie Amelia Emery, a young white woman from a large and wealthy family of English immigrants, was involved in a tragic event. Her elder son, Stanley, aged four, was struck by a speeding car outside the family home. Hearing the screech of brakes and a child’s scream, she was the one who gathered the broken body from the road: ‘Neck broken, legs broken, head smashed’, reported The Star.

Minds crack, they say, and Stanley’s violent death before her very eyes was more than Bessie Emery’s mind could bear. Her marriage to her athlete husband, Ira, gradually disintegrated. He was as distraught as she was over the loss of their son. But he blamed her for it. He finally left her in 1928 and they were divorced the following year. Bessie Emery was given custody of their remaining son, Ronald, then 10.

Ever since the accident Bessie Emery had been showing signs of mental instability, but after the divorce her state deteriorated so noticeably that she had to be admitted to the Pretoria Mental Hospital in 1933. On her release, three years later, she made her will, leaving everything to her son Ronald. The solicitor considered her to be ‘perfectly normal’ at that stage. Shortly afterwards she must have become pregnant. She was 42 years old.

It had been decided that she should spend an extended holiday by the sea with two sisters who had moved to Durban. She had put on weight with the years and no-one considered her rounded shape too round until May 1937, when she was once more admitted to psychiatric hospital, this time in Pietermaritzburg. On 6 July she gave birth to a daughter whom she insisted on naming after herself. Thus she built into an event, soon to be covered in secrecy, a code by which the mystery would be solved 53 years later.

The baby, who is classified ‘white’ on her birth certificate, was adopted by a white family. Shortly afterwards she was returned because she looked ‘strange’. Did the delicate little fingernails have a brownish tinge? Were the wispy tots of hair too curly? South Africans have a well trained eye in such matters. Only now did Bessie’s clear-minded and strong-willed grandmother, Alice Birch, begin to realize that her new illegitimate granddaughter was of mixed blood. But the name of the father apparently went to the grave with Bessie Emery. There was no talk of his being a stable hand.

Baby Bessie was then placed with a ‘coloured’ couple, named George and Nellie Heathcote, where she grew up in reasonable security but extreme poverty. Her natural mother did not abandon her entirely, however. She made provisions for her upkeep and for her education. Grandmother Alice also seemed concerned about the child’s welfare and visited her on several occasions – so Bessie Head’s memories of being embraced by a strange lady with a British accent are accurate. But other members of the family wanted nothing to do with this scandal – in 1937 sexual intercourse between a white and a black person was a punishable offence.

After her daughter’s birth Bessie Emery retreated deeper into an unreal world. In 1943 her health suddenly declined and she died of a ‘lung abscess’ and ‘dementia praecox’. Winding up the estate, her son, Ronald, agreed to make a sum of money available to the mysterious half-sister on condition that he would have nothing more to do with her. It seems that at this time Alice Birch also abandoned the child.

At the age of 12 Bessie left George and Nellie Heathcote and was moved to a Children’s Home for ‘coloured’ girls where she was able to complete her education. The decades passed, during which Bessie Head attained fame as a writer. Then in April 1992 – six years after her death – Ronald Emery was contacted by a cousin, Kenneth Birch. The latter had received my letter requesting information about ‘the South African writer Bessie Amelia Head (born Emery)’. Birch phoned Ronald and told him: ‘I’ve just had the strangest letter. It refers to a famous South African writer with the same name as your mother.’ The men responded to my request, both wishing to recognize this unsettling woman, half-sister and cousin, and to honour her memory.

Bessie Amelia Head inherited none of her grandmother’s material wealth and we do not know whether they shared the shape of a fingernail. But she was endowed instead with her grandmother’s energy, determination and intelligence; with her sense of the ridiculous and with her stocky little figure. From her mother came her beautiful eyes, square face and artistic sensitivity; perhaps too, her emotional instability. From her father came her hair – and who knows what else. But Bessie Head’s golden brown skin was all her own: a living reminder of the need for compromise and her efforts to shape a future of ‘dignity and compassion’ for her country. Neither her family nor South Africa could use any of this. Bessie Head spent her entire life trying to establish a viable identity for herself. There is no need to draw the many obvious moral conclusions. The parable built into her life should be powerful enough to penetrate the most leathery of ‘white’ skins.

Gillian Stead Eilersen is a South African-born writer and academic whose People Without Names: a biography of Bessie Head is currently with publishers.

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New Internationalist issue 247 magazine cover This article is from the September 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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