What would be some of the benefits and potential problems with using Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country as an historical source?

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Teachers often utilize historical fiction to help their students transcend their daily challenges, explore differences within a foreign, cultural context, and increase their self-awareness. In Paton's novel, the delineation of varied characters speaking in their own voices and describing their own reactions to pre-apartheid segregation can be a powerful catalyst in encouraging further discussions on relevant topics in the larger context of global and national events. 

Benefits of using Paton's novel as a historical source:

Cry, the Beloved Country describes how the policy of apartheid originated in South Africa. The author highlights subtle and overt discrepancies in the economic and social welfare of whites and blacks long before apartheid takes hold in the country. The experiences of Paton's varied characters emphasize the human experience; conflict continues to marginalize certain segments of society while threatening the security of a nation.

From the story, we can identify the main problems with racial segregation, brainstorm ways to prevent such policies, and evaluate our opinions about race relations. In this way, the novel becomes a way for us to discuss apartheid and racial policies in a more accessible way: the characters definitely emphasize the human element from both white and black perspectives. 

For example, in Chapter 8, Kumalo is warned not to take a certain bus in case he unintentionally sabotages a boycott: blacks want to persuade the bus companies to lower the fare to four pence a day for black customers. The bus companies, however, are charging six shillings a week (sixpence a day). Many blacks only earn thirty five to forty shillings a week, so the extra fare is a hardship for many. Kumalo agrees not to take the bus. However, Msimangu explains that sometimes segregationist policies are necessary in order to prevent blacks and whites from killing each other. The whites, who control most of the industrial and business interests in South Africa, feel strongly that they must protect their properties and their women. Msimangu describes instances when white people have been robbed by blacks. Yet, a rich irony presents itself in the dependence of whites upon blacks for slave labor in the gold mines, demonstrating the limitations of complete segregation.

This informal segregation soon paves the way for great suffering and degradation. The novel introduces the development of the shanty towns, where blacks live in extreme poverty, apart from whites. Msimangu explains that Alexandra, outside the boundaries of Johannesburg, is one of the only places a black man can buy land and own a home.

So, again, the novel depicts the informal developments of segregation which soon paves the way for more formal policies that divide South Africa's populace. Apart from the historical perspective, this novel provides us a rich background against which we can explore the motivations and inclinations of all the parties involved. This allows us to learn and to understand, a great benefit of using historical fiction in the classroom or for personal use.

Potential problems of using Paton's novel as a historical source:

A major problem in using any work of fiction as a historical resource is authenticity. How do we preserve objectivity without cloaking fiction in truth? As fiction is interpretive in nature, we run the risk of blurring the lines between accuracy(truth) and fiction.

In the story, Kumalo is horrified that his own son, Absalom, is guilty of murdering a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who has assiduously championed the rights of black citizens. The novel delineates the subsequent friendship between Kumalo and James Jarvis, Arthur's father. Despite initially thirsting for vengeance, James eventually decides to live in such a way as to honor his son's memory. Although some criticize the neatly convenient plot line, Paton relates that the portrayal of James' character is perfectly plausible: he has modeled James after Acting Prime Minister, Jan Hofineyr, whose own generosity in funding educational initiatives for black citizens is well known.

This leads us to another problem with using fiction as a historical source. Many of us may be tempted to equate apartheid or racial segregation only within the context of individual experiences, relegating to the background the very necessary legal and judicial components for the implementation of such policies. Additionally, we may also be tempted to ignore the mechanisms necessary to bring about institutional and societal change, only because it involves the larger context of abstract government entities. For many instructors and history enthusiasts, we may need to supplement the use of historical fiction with actual historical documents to support critical analysis and an objective understanding of the subject matter.

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