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How does "The Deep River" by Bessie Head relate to the theme of personal and cultural identity?

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Head’s story is about identity and individuality. The Monemapee live “with one face” under the rule of their chief. The chief makes all the decisions, such as when to plough, when to harvest, and when to prepare the crops, and the people simply follow his orders. The unity and security of this arrangement is what is meant by the “deep river” of the title—that is, the tribe is at peace and protected as if they were suspended in a deep river. The phrase also suggests another river: the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in the Greek underworld. The communal memory of the tribe is reduced to a single word—Talaote. The tribe may act as if they have one face, but “during their journey southwards,” they have forgotten where they came from and what their original language was. 

When the old chief dies, his eldest son, Sebembele, announces that he is in love with the old chief’s youngest wife, Rankwana, and that the old chief’s youngest son, still a baby, is in fact his son, by Rankwana. This causes a kind of crisis: first, Sebembele’s younger brothers see his acknowledgement that the baby is his own as undermining their own positions within the tribe; second, because women are “of no account,” Sebembele’s love for Rankwana is a sign of weakness. Anyone who listens to a woman is “like one who listens to the advice of a child.” Sebembele is advised to pick out another wife, and he is deeply conflicted.

Sebembele cannot bring himself to do this. Instead, he publicly claims Rankwana and her child. They walk together, through the town, Sembembele holding the child in his arms. He became “a ruler who talked with deeds rather than words,” and the people saw that “the time had come for them to offer up their individual faces to the face of this ruler.” His love for Rankwana is a radical act in that he is singling out a woman for affection. This is particularly dangerous in that it recognizes Rankwana as someone worthy of respect and love. It is also an origin story. Sebembele leaves with those that support him, to begin a new tribe, eventually settling “in the land of Bamangwato.” Characteristically, perhaps, the details of the story are not remembered completely by his descendants: the old men give “confused and contradictory accounts of their origins, but they say they lost their place of birth over a woman.” 

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In some ways, this story pits personal or individual identity against cultural or communal identity.Long ago, the Talaote tribe "lived without faces," meaning people lived without personal identity, having only tribal or cultural identity. They were content to have their identity be represented by their chief.  Everyone followed the chief's orders, acting as one, accepting "this regimental leveling out of their individual souls" until, one day, conflict came and "the people awoke and showed their individual faces." It is when conflict arrives that we see how individuals can suddenly begin to privilege personal identity over cultural identity; or, perhaps, the emerging importance of personal identity over cultural identity is the cause of the conflict itself?

When Sebembele, the oldest son of the now-dead chief Monemapee, admits that he had an affair with his father's most junior bride, Rankwana, this causes conflict. The affair resulted in Sebembele fathering Rankwana's son, who he refuses to give up. Some tribe members feel he should be able to keep Rankwana as a wife, while others think a man who is so influenced by a woman is unfit to rule. Sebembele is unable to make up his mind, so his brothers choose for him, sending Rankwana away to be married to another man. When Sebembele learns of his brothers' actions, he goes to Rankwana's new home to retrieve her and their son; they walk through the village as one and seem prepared to leave the tribe together when something remarkable happens. Sebembele's supporters are so impressed with his actions that they feel "the time had come for them to offer up their individual faces to the face of this ruler." Sebembele's camp packs up and leaves the tribe, adopting a new name and trading their old cultural identity for a new one.

This story seems to suggest that cultural identity can only successfully take the place of individual identity until the individual begins to chafe under it. If one's identity comes into conflict with one's cultural identity, then personal identity automatically becomes more important, as the people are unwilling to live "without faces" when they disagree with their rulers or the rules. 

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