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“Not Either an Experimental Doll” by Shula Marks

Nowadays, it represents a commonplace practice to refer to the policy of apartheid in South Africa, as having been innately racist – something that serves as the best indication of this policy’s sheer inappropriateness. The main assumption behind such a point of view is that the policy’s practical implementation used to result in preventing the country’s population of Blacks from being able to enjoy equal social rights with Whites. There is very little doubt as to the full validity of this assumption. However, what many people tend to overlook with respect to the concerned policy is that, if stripped of their racist overtones (reflective of the assumed superiority of White people), many of its axiomatic premises will appear thoroughly legitimate. Probably the most notable of them has to do with the well-observed fact that the specifics of one’s racial affiliation are indeed reflective of the innermost workings of his or her mind – the foremost driving factor behind the “colonization of the mind” phenomenon, as illustrated by the 1987 book Not Either an Experimental Doll: The Separate Worlds of Three South African Women (edited by Shula Marks). In my paper, I will explore the soundness of this idea at length, while arguing that the existential values of even the most progressive-minded Whites (such as Mabel Palmer) often stand in striking contrast to those of their intellectually advanced Black counterparts (such as Lily Moya). The reason for this is that the very workings of one’s White (or “Faustian”) psyche create the objective preconditions for the concerned individual to be emotionally comfortable with the notion of the “White man’s burden” (the intellectual justification of colonialism), regardless of whether he/she realizes this consciously or not.

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Not Either an Experimental Doll is the account of epistolary correspondence that took place through the years 1948-1951 among three South African women: a 74-year-old Mabel Palmer (a White academician, feminist, and Fabian socialist), Lily Moya (a young Black girl seeking education and consequential social advancement), and Sibusisiwe Makanya (a 26-year-old Black social worker of the Zulu descent). The correspondence is concerned with Mabel’s initial decision to provide a scholarship to Moya at the Adams College in Natal and the developments that followed – Moya’s decision to drop out of it and the sub-sequential deterioration of the formerly cordial relationship between Moya and her benefactor. The role of Sibusisiwe, in this respect, was that of a mediator – Mabel used to rely on the former as a person who by virtue of being Black was there to have a “corrective” influence on Moya. This specific suggestion contains the initial clue as to why continuing to stay in touch with Mabel while receiving different favors from her proved strongly counterproductive for Moya in the end. Apparently, despite her belief in its own progressiveness (as the strong supporter of Fabianism and feminism), Mabel never ceased perceiving the surrounding social reality from the strongly defined Eurocentric perspective – hence, proving herself just as “colonially minded” as it was the case with those proponents of racial segregation in South Africa whom she used to oppose.

The above-stated helps to explain the discursive significance of Moya’s strive to win Mabel’s affection as some sort of “surrogate mother”, reflected by the young woman’s continual pleas for informality: “I can be glad if you (Mabel) would not call me ‘Miss Moya’ but write ‘Dear Lily or Patience’ not ‘Dear Miss Moya’” (Marks 80). Because of Mabel’s decision to help her with obtaining an education, Moya naturally began to think that this older White woman did take a genuine interest in her. Being a Black person who grew up in the countryside prompted Moya even further to believe that this was indeed the case. After all, the very fact that Black people tend to pay much attention to spiritual matters suggests their endowment with the “holistic” type of mentality, extrapolated by the affiliated individuals’ unconscious belief that there is an intrinsic connectedness between the reality’s different manifestations. Therefore, it was thoroughly logical for Moya to assume that Mabel’s offer of help was indicative of the White woman’s genuine psychological predisposition towards her. This, however, could not be further from the truth. The reason for this is apparent. As one can infer from the book, Mabel’s decision to pay out of her own pocket for Moya’s studies was not truly altruistic – despite the fact that it certainly did appear as such: “Mabel… paid Lily’s school fees instead of buying herself a new winter coat, thought anxiously about Lily’s future, and even sent her money after she had run away to her family in Johannesburg” (Marks 99).

After all, as we continue to read through the correspondence, it becomes increasingly clear that by acting magnanimous towards Moya, Mabel was merely trying to feel better about herself as a person committed to the cause of promoting literacy among the country’s Natives: “You (Moya) are as a matter of fact very much on my (Mabel’s) conscience and I would feel myself very much to blame as an older woman who has been fairly successful in the field of education if I neglected your appeal” (Marks 68). There, however, was even more to Mabel’s willingness to help Moya – by placing the latter in the educational setting, the White philanthropist was, in fact, trying to conduct a social experiment while using the concerned Black girl as a “guinea pig”, in the allegorical sense of this word. To illustrate the validity of this suggestion we can refer to the fact that in exchange for having provided her protégé with scholarship, Mabel was requiring Moya to expound on the particulars of her early upbringing, as well as the specifics of one’s living as a part of the Black community. Mabel’s letter to Moya from January 4th, 1950, is especially revelatory in this respect because it contains a number of the essentially “sociological” questions as to the nature of Moya’s sense of self-identity: “1. What is your earliest memory? 2. How were you treated as a very small child? 3. Is it true that Zulu children are very seldom punished? 4. What sorts of toys did you have when you were tiny?” (Marks 92).

Apparently, Mabel could not care less about the intrusive quality of these questions, because deep on an unconscious level the concerned White educator could not help objectifying Moya as someone who was yet to achieve personhood – in full accordance with the ideological provisions of the Western colonial paradigm, which implies the “underdevelopment” of the people of color and speculates that they will never be able to prosper while on their own (Laumann 57). As one of the Apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd pointed out: “The European population… does not wish to grant (the Bantu) anything beyond communal representation, and that on a strictly limited basis” (103). Even though Mabel was indeed genuinely interested in helping Moya, the older woman tended to think of her protégé is terms of the educational experiment’s subject. This explains the discursive connotation of the book’s name. And, just as about any researcher is aware of, one of the main keys to the research project’s success is concerned with keeping an emotional distance between himself/herself, on one hand, and the subject of analytical inquiry, on the other. Therefore, there is nothing odd about the fact that Mabel ended up telling Moya: “Have you ever asked yourself whether I wish to see more of you (Moya)? As a matter of fact, I do not… At all events, you only bother me by these demands for a close and intimate friendship” (Marks 137).

Obviously enough, the White philanthropist in question does exemplify the term “colonization of the mind” – just as we have suggested initially. After all, what has been earlier saying earlier suggests that Mabel’s preoccupation with trying to promote literacy and empower South African women had a strongly defined fetishist quality to it. Therefore, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that Mabel directly contributed towards setting Moya on the path of mental self-destruction – hence, proving the sheer soundness of the aphorism that “the road to hell is made of good intentions” (on the part of White people). Mabel’s inability to think outside of the discourse of Eurocentrism predetermined such an eventual development – the best proof of the person’s “colonial mindedness”. I believe that this conclusion is fully consistent with the paper’s original thesis.

Works Cited

Hendrik Verwoerd Explains Apartheid (1950).

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Laumann, Dennis. Colonial Africa: 1884-1994. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Marks, Shula. Not Either an Experimental Doll: The Separate Worlds of Three South

African Women. University of Natal Press, 1987.

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