Bessie Head was born in the Fort Napier Mental Institution on July 6, 1937, at Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, to Bessie Amelia Birch Emery, the daughter of affluent English immigrants. Her paternity remains unknown, although most sources state that Head’s father probably was an African man who tended her grandparents’ racehorses. Named Bessie Amelia Emery at birth, the infant Head was placed for adoption because her mentally ill mother remained institutionalized. After Afrikaners refused to raise the biracial child, George and Nellie Heathcote accepted Head as a foster child. Residing in Pietermaritzburg during her early childhood, Head thought Nellie Heathcote was her mother. Her biological mother, of whom she was unaware, died when Head was six years old and provided money for her daughter’s education.
In 1950, Head began studies at an orphanage, St Monica’s Home, near Durban, South Africa. Head voraciously read literature, savoring the ability to live vicariously through books. Her reading was the catalyst for her interest in writing because she wanted to create similar experiences for readers. A magistrate court eventually revealed that Head’s real mother was white and her father African. Her school principal threatened that Head might suffer insanity like her mother. Devastated, the teenage Head questioned her true identity.
By 1953, Head enrolled in a program to become a teacher, completing it two years later. She began teaching primary students in Durban in 1956. In July, 1958, Head moved to Cape Town and started writing for the Golden City Post. The next spring, she relocated to Johannesburg, where she wrote for the Drum periodicals, supported...
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