Race and Ethnicity in Nadine Gordimer and Patricia Smith Poems Essay

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer


Racism and ethnicity have been critical issues in the society with several blacks and non-whites suffering prejudice in some European countries. Since the world came to acknowledge these antisocial practices as core perpetrators to global social justice, research and social studies have considered the two issues as part of the most important aspects to cover.

In a bid to restore social justice and educate the society on the impacts of racism and ethnicity, several literal sources have emerged. In this context, this essay compares Country Lovers by Nadine Gordimer (1978) and What It’s like to be a Black Girl by Patricia Smith (1955).

The works of these authors explore various themes such as race or ethnicity, prejudice, the quest for freedom, and inequality in different societies. The focus of this essay is on the theme of race or ethnicity that both Gordimer and Smith explore in their works. The essay shall compare and contrast the two works with regard to literary style, form, and content.

Overview of Country Lovers by Nadine Gordimer

Gordimer has written several novels and short stories. The author has the ability to create a short story with well-informed themes, which engage the readers. In Country Lovers, Gordimer portrays the struggle of a black woman during the Apartheid epoch in South Africa and the harsh realities that black women tolerated during these dark moments.

The story uncovers a forbidden relationship between Thebedi, an African black woman and her white master’s son, Paulus. Country Lovers’ central theme revolves around the tough and traumatizing moments that Thebedi experienced. The story reveals several inconsiderate behaviors practiced by the white bosses in South Africa during the Apartheid regime including racial prejudice, characters inner struggles, and confusion.

Gordimer manages to capture several ways in which people suffer in a racial discriminative society as they undergo and endure catastrophic moments. Gordimer uses the theme of racism and ethnicity in order to provoke high-levels of human emotions within few pages of the story.

Gordimer presents the story of love between a white skinned Afrikaner and a black skinned girl in a farm setting. Gordimer notes, “The trouble was Paulus Eysendyck did not seem to realize that Thebedi was now simply one of the crowds of farm children down at the kraal, recognizable in his sister’s old clothes” (Gordimer, 1978, p.332). It is obvious that Paulus developed a love for the black, Thebedi.

The author writes, “The schoolgirls he went swimming with at dams or pools on neighboring farms wore bikinis, but the sight of their dazzling bellies and thighs in the sunlight had never made him feel what he felt now when the girl came” (Gordimer, 1978, p.333).

The society and the law did not approve of such relationships in South Africa during the Apartheid era. Paulus reminded Thebedi about their forbidden relationship, he told her, “each time, when they would meet again because they cannot be seen in public together” (Clugston, 2010, p. 45).

During the apartheid regime in South Africa, the laws of that nation considered the relationship between white and the black as an offence that bordered on immorality. Immorality Act 1950 to 1985 of the Apartheid prohibited all forms of sexual relations between blacks and whites, including any sign of an existing relationship in public.

Another law of 1949 known as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act banned all interracial marriages in South Africa (Tyson, 1999). Such laws caused serious problems for Paulus and Thebedi because their secret love affair was against the Immorality Act. It was against the South African laws for the two lovers to express their affair in public and thus they decided to keep it as a secret affair.

Gordimer notes, “She had to get away before the house servants who knew her came in at dawn” (Gordimer, 1978, p.334). Thebedi and Paulus kept their affair going despite harsh laws discouraging interracial relations.

Gordimer notes that both black and white children would play together when they were young, but when the whites attend school, “they soon don’t play together anymore” (Gordimer, 1978, p.332).

This assertion implies that racism had minimal influences on children and reveals the forbidden relationship between the two races, with white leaders living in South Africa fearing that the school relationship would result in unintended social affairs.

This aspect marks the spread of racism among children. It shows that boarding schools created a sense of superiority among whites and consequently blacks referred to their former friends as “missus and baasie”. The racial inequalities and injustices existed even in the most human contemporary issues including formal education (Clugston, 2010).

It is eminent throughout the story, especially between the two main actors who were lovers, that Blacks and whites had different levels of education. The level of education between Paulus and Thebedi was distinct, with the African woman having very little education compared to her lover, Paulus.

Overview of What it’s like to be a Black Girl, by Smith

The poem, What it’s like to be a Black Girl, is one of the credible works of Patricia Smith. Patricia Smith was born in 1955 and is a renowned American poet, a playwright, credible books author, an intellectual writing teacher, verbal word performer, and a former journalist (Lazar, 1993). The poem, What it’s like to be a Black Girl explores the issue of racism in a jagged society.

The persona (a black girl) is at the threshold of puberty and feels a sense of discomfort with her changing physical body and mind as she hopes for better changes. Smith uses narration in order to drive her point of racism to readers in the first three lines of the poem.

The style relies on “jagged sentence structure” (Pfeiler, 2003, p.48) coupled with a language of profanity to show her readers the seriousness of the poem. Thus, one can understand young black girls’ lives in 1950s when she wrote the poem.

Smith explores how racism affected black women in her time. Racism went to the extent of affecting health of women in society. For instance, transition into womanhood was an ordeal for black girls in a racial society, “it’s dropping food coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering their burn in silence” (Smith, 1955).

Consequently, black girls embraced puberty with a sense of confusion and sadness, scared of the social torments that affected their social life; the persona admits, “First of all, it’s being 9 years old and feeling like you’re not finished, like your edges are wild, like there’s something, everything, wrong” (Smith, 1955).

Every teenage girl experiences such thoughts. However, Smith introduces the idea of racially jagged society and its pressure on girls by using a “black girl”. The society is changing for young black girls. As a result, young girls have to find means of fitting in a racially jagged society using several ways.

The black women in the racial affiliated society adopted alternative means for survival to enable them to fit and survive in these societies. In her poem, Smith postulates, “It’s dropping food coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering their burn in silence. It’s popping a bleached white mop head over the kinks of your hair and priming in front of the mirrors that deny your reflection” (Smith, 1955).

The usage of “food coloring in eyes and hair bleaching” (Smith, 1955) show how a young black girl would struggle to grow into acceptable woman in a racial society in a bid to look like the whites who had hazel eyes and brownish hair.

She aims to be like white women, who have white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes for men to admire her. Black women had the perception that during this moment the white nature was attractive to men.

Comparative analysis of the stories

History-Historical analysis requires readers’ knowledge of historical events of the time (Tyson, 1999). This aspect enables readers to understand the form and context of literary works in the context of history. Therefore, one can understand both Country Lover and What It’s like to be a Black Girl in the context of history.

The two stories connect with the historical life of the African people during the harsh time of colonization, where the whites practiced injustices during their stay in Africa. Readers can only imagine what blacks experienced at the time of Apartheid and its effects on mixed raced relationships.

For instance, Gordimer notes the common conversation between Paulus and Thebedi in their affair as the man kept on reminding his lover about their forbidden affair, “He told her, each time, when they would meet again because they cannot be seen in public together” (Clugston, 2010, p.45). Such statements really affected Thebedi as a black woman.

From the above sentence, one can understand why the relationship between Thebedi and Paulus was socially wrong. The Apartheid laws prohibited such relationships between mixed races, which is a clear indication of how the situation was during the apartheid regime in South Africa.

A reflection of history is clearer where a part from typical social affairs, the colonial rules intended to oppress most African children, who seemed to access little or no education during the critical colonial era. The white people controlled most aspects of social life in South Africa including rights to formal education (Lazar, 1993). Their children attended best schools and learned ideas about racial segregation in society.

On the other hand, blacks learned to respect white people as they grew up, which formed part of their social growth. Therefore, understanding the historical context of Country Lover enables readers to understand the position of a black woman when Paulus murdered the baby.

Form of writing (Short story and Poem)

Country Lovers by Nadine Gordimer (1978) and What It’s like to be a Black Girl by Patricia Smith (1955) exist in different forms of writing and style, but carries similar themes. Both the poem and the short story show historical forms and settings. Gordimer and Smith wrote their works at a time when racism was a dominant factor in the relationship between whites and blacks.

Apartheid reflected racial discrimination in South Africa, whereas sense of skin color discrimination showed racial discrimination in the American society. Both works show that racism and ethnicity influenced all aspects of life including individual appearances and interracial marriages.

In the case of Thebedi, racism denied Thebedi justice following the murder of her child. Within the historical context, Gordimer aims to invoke social protest using her short story. She highlights and draws readers’ attention to contemporary social problems in South Africa as she hopes for change (Lazar, 1993).

On the other hand, the poem depicts a black girl struggling to fit in a racial society (Smith, 1955). Therefore, one can only understand lives of Black Americans during racial segregation and discrimination based on skin color. In the poem, one can relate to the struggle of a young black as she struggles to grow into an acceptable woman in a racial society (Pfeiler, 2003).

Smith uses the form of confessional poetry in which she explores experiences of black women with unusual frankness. This aspect underscored the 1950s when writers condemned social issues in society.

Smith aims to bring readers’ attention to social pressures that black women experience in order to gain acceptance in a racial society. Smith also uses her poem as a form of social protest with the hope that social circumstances will improve as she notes, “it’s finally have a man reach out for you then caving in around his fingers” (Smith, 1955).

Content and style of the writing

The contents of What It’s like to be a Black Girl and Country Lover have women to depict racism in societies as they deal with unfairness in societies as protagonists of the story. Both writers use black women because such acts mostly affect them in society. Smith uses vocal style to express her feelings in the poem. This style of expression enables readers to understand that being a black woman in a racial society is tough.

The author uses words, which arouse a sense of sadness and indignation such as “everything wild” and “suffering their burn in silence”. Thus, a black girl must engage in activities, which will make her to look like a white woman for social acceptance.

The sense of bitterness drives the poet to use profane language in her poem; for instance, “it’s learning to say fuck with grace, and fucking without it” (Smith, 1955). This aspect symbolizes the way a black woman feels in a racial society.

Gordimer presents her work from a third person point of view, which means that the author utilized third person to express and refer the characters in their social setting. Writing in the third person means that apart from using the characters’ names, the writer used words like he or she and him or her to refer to individual characters in the story.

Another important issue to note in the story about the third party view is that the narrator does not participate in the story. The narrator sometimes avoided using real characters’ names during the writing of the story, in that sense.

The narrator acts only as an implied character, whose participation only relates to the audience. This style enables the writer to present the story in an unbiased manner without authorial bias, noting very well that the author in the context of self defense might write stories in their favor.

Gordimer and Smith show that children do not understand differences in society due to racism. For instance, in the poem, the black girl has “a sad tone and does not understand why she is different” (Pfeiler, 2003, p.50). On the other side, the short story shows that both white and black children play together when they are young.

However, as they grow up, racism influences their actions and feelings, which is a clear indication of ethnicity and racism in the current world. Paulus ends up killing Thebedi’s child while the black girl has to endure suffering in silence because she has to end up in an affair she did not like.

The authors show that racism is destructive irrespective of where it occurs. From these female characters, one can understand what it meant to grow up during the Apartheid era in South Africa in the 1970s and in the US in 1950s during racial segregation and discrimination.


It is easy to conclude that the two literary works present historical realities of racism in different settings. It is evident that racial and ethnical bias has existed in the society from a historical point of view. Despite several literary works that have been enhanced by writers in the current world, the racial situation has existed to the latter. Historical circumstances shape events of these literary works (Clugston, 2010).

Therefore, these literary works use women protagonists in order to expose harsh realities, which black women experience in racial societies. Societies of the 1900s regarded interracial romance as a taboo due to racial prejudice at the time. Consequently, such racial prejudice could only lead to devastating consequences.

The style, form, and content of both works show how whites in South Africa and the US heightened racial tension in which blacks suffered in most cases. Therefore, one can learn of social stigma of being black as a social reality of the problem at the time.


Clugston, R. W. (2010). Journey into literature. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

Gordimer, N. (1978). Town and Country Lover. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.

Lazar, K. (1993). Feminism as Piffling’? Ambiguities in Nadine Gordimer’s Short Stories. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Pfeiler, M. (2003). Sounds of Poetry: Contemporary American Performance Poets. Tubingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Smith, P. (1955). What It’s Like To Be A Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren’t). Web.

Tyson, L. (1999). Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York, NY: Garland Publishing.

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