A Crayon, a Novel, and a Conversation about Racism

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

I’ll never forget the day my preschooler asked me, “Who’s that skinny lady over there?” My first thought was, “She’s not really that skinny.” Confused, I asked my daughter to further describe the woman to make sure we were looking at the same person. I soon realized she was referring to someone with the same skin tone we have: white, tan, peach, or whatever you want to call us Caucasians.

I was dismayed to discover that kids in her South African preschool call the peach crayon “skinny,” a reference to skin color—skin that is light, not dark. I quickly reminded her that skin can be many different colors, so it’s silly to give a crayon that name.

Unfortunately, the subtle racism revealed through the simple name of a crayon color symbolizes the struggles South Africa has faced for many years. These challenges are poignantly addressed in Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, originally published seventy years ago. Except for minor details, Paton’s self-described “song of love” is still so relevant that it could have been written this decade.

Three themes in the novel strike me as particularly reflective of realities in South Africa today: racism, urbanization, and superficial Christianity. The book offers powerful insights to outsiders ministering in this country (and, in fact, most other African nations that face similar challenges). Knowledge of South African relationships and social dynamics can help Christian workers consider how the gospel speaks in these complexities.

A Land Ruled by Fear

Cry, the Beloved Country was penned in a period of high racial tension. White South Africans were getting rich off the sweat of black men laboring in gold mines. Lands were taken by whites, forcing blacks to farm smaller and smaller areas. Black hospitals were overcrowded; black schools were practically nonexistent. Whites made their homes in leafy suburbs while blacks lived in slums and shantytowns.

“I must teach her ‘all that a child should learn of honour and charity and generosity,’ but not just towards those who are like her. Towards everyone.”

Paton wrote the book in 1946 when some whites were vigorously fighting for equality. But sadly, in 1948 the government introduced apartheid, a system in which nonwhites were legally segregated and economically oppressed. Though apartheid ended in 1994, I still see racism in South Africa in many ways: in the distrust my white friends have of the majority-black government, in heated debates about land reform, and in churches and schools where most people choose to associate with others like themselves.

In the novel, one black priest tells another, “It is fear that rules this land.” I sense fear all around me—fear of black-on-white crime, of white-on-black oppression, of joblessness due to Black Economic Empowerment laws. “The tragedy is not that things are broken,” the priest claims. “The tragedy is that they are not mended again.” Later he declares, “I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.”

Cities in Crisis

Intertwined with the book’s exploration of racial injustice is its vivid portrayal of African urbanization. The book’s main character, a black Anglican priest named Stephen Kumalo, ventures from his village parish to the city of Johannesburg to search for his sister and lost son. The people he encounters encapsulate the complexity of African urbanization.

Because farmlands cannot sustain the population, villagers go to the cities. Many end up in shanty towns or cramped rental rooms, some driven to crime or prostitution as a means of survival. But Kumalo also finds people who are thriving in the city—like his brother, a rising political figure who believes tribal ways are dying. “It is breaking apart, your tribal society,” the brother tells Kumalo. “It is here in Johannesburg that the new society is being built.”

Today, Africans throughout the continent continue to flock to these “new societies.” I’ve met countless women who moved to Johannesburg because they felt their struggling village could not offer a positive future. Some build good lives for themselves, but many wind up unemployed, pregnant, and alone, like a young woman Kumalo helps in Cry, the Beloved Country. These women—and millions of others struggling in Africa’s cities—desperately need churches that infuse their cities with the hope of the gospel.

Superficial Christianity

Churches like this were few and far between in Paton’s day. In fact, a sickening aspect of his novel is the way white South African Christians turned a blind eye to the sufferings of their fellow humans and even attempted to justify their racism as “Christian.” The book contains a damning essay by murdered white activist Arthur Jarvis, who confesses: “The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. . . . We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under.”

In an attempt to remain superior, some South African whites claimed that God created black men to cut wood and draw water for them, that black children were not intelligent enough to benefit from education, and that God approves actions that prevent black people from advancement because they cannot handle it.

Arthur Jarvis correctly perceives that this brand of “Christian” civilization is, in fact, not Christian at all. A veneer of Christianity was nothing more than polish on top of a system—apartheid—that was rotten to the core. Thankfully in South Africa today, apartheid has been exposed as a fraudulent application of Christianity.

But I have witnessed another type of superficial religion in South Africa—a pervasive prosperity gospel that focuses on health and wealth instead of repentance and obedience. “Prophets” and “apostles” preach faith as a means of getting what you desire, whether it be healing, the perfect mate, or fortune and fame. These attempts to manipulate God for selfish gain reflect the attitude of the misguided white churchgoers of Paton’s era who propped up a racist system in the name of Christianity because it benefited them economically and socially.

What I Learned from a Seventy-Year-Old Book

One of the most powerful sections of the book is another essay by Jarvis, in which he described how his parents were “upright and kind and law-abiding; they taught me my prayers and took me regularly to church. From them I learned all that a child should learn of honour and charity and generosity.”

“But,” he went on to say, “of South Africa I learned nothing at all.”

Though this book is about injustice in many forms, it’s also about the heavy responsibilities of parenthood. As Kumalo and Jarvis’s father mourn the loss of their sons, they’re forced to confront where they missed the mark as fathers. Their shortcomings challenge me to not bury my head in the sand, as they did.

I’d like to say that my daughter, now in elementary school, is appalled by racism. But the truth is, she often doesn’t recognize it. She’s growing up in a primarily white community, school, and church, and is influenced by their prejudices. I must teach her to identify racism—even subtle forms that can go unnoticed, like labeling a peach crayon “skin” color—and must model how to befriend all types of people. I must help her fight injustice of every sort—relational, economic, religious.

I must plant God’s Word deep in her heart, helping her understand how the gospel applies to all people—regardless of ethnicity or skin color—and in all places, from congested urban areas to remote villages to her school classroom. Like Jarvis’s parents, I must teach her “all that a child should learn of honour and charity and generosity,” but not just towards those who are like her. Towards everyone.

Melanie Clinton is a writer for IMB. She and her family have lived in South Africa for ten years.