Six Feet of the Country

by Nadine Gordimer

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Why did the narrator in Nadine Gordimer's Six Feet of the Country "wrangle" with the authorities?

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In order to understand the meaning of the sentence in Nadine Gordimer's 1953 short story Six Feet of the Country, one has to be at least passingly familiar with the modern history of South Africa, a large nation-state run for decades by a small white minority that systematically and brutally oppressed its much larger black population. The descendants of Dutch and German settlers, the Afrikaners who ruled this wealthy country had imposed a system known as "apartheid," or "separation." It was institutionalized desegregation designed to keep this small population of whites in power and affluent, and it was largely successful for many years. The fundamental injustice of that system, however, unsurprisingly made South Africa the focus of a great deal of criticism by the nation's own population of white liberals (often of British heritage) and of most of the nation's black population. While widely-accepted sanctions against the government of South Africa by much of the rest of the world would ultimately compel the Afrikaners to relinquish power to the majority blacks, at the time Gordimer wrote most of her stories, the system of apartheid was in full-force.

Six Feet of the Country is a story about a young black and his family's efforts at retrieving the body of his deceased brother from the white authorities, only to discover that they have been given the wrong corpse for burial. 

"I wrangled with the authorities for over a week. I had the feeling that they were shocked, in a laconic fashion, by their own mistake, but that in the confusion of the anonymous dead they were helpless to put it right. . .It was as if at any moment they might conduct me into their mortuary and say . . .'There are so many black faces, surely one will do'."

The narrator of Gordimer's story wrangled with the white authorities for so long because the latter held black life in such low esteem that they considered one black life identical to another, as though they were interchangeable entities absent unique characteristics. Under the system of white rule, black lives mattered very little, and blacks were routinely treated very poorly in virtually all matters. Blacks appealing to white authorities for assistance simply had little or no recourse other than either acquiescence or some form of resistance, violent or not.

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