ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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She dared challenge the behavior and cynicism of Europe’s modern civilized elite,

both gentlemen and ladies. As one British lady insists, Black Girl should not have

 been at all allowed to speak, and threatens to “put a bullet through her.”



Books by George Bernard Shaw


The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God / Pygmalion Saint Joan / Major Barbara


Man and Superman / Arms and the Man Heartbreak House / The Philanderer  /  Mrs. Warren's Profession


My Fair Lady / Back to Methuselah  / An Unsocial Socialist / Shaw on Shakespeare


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Tending One’s Own Garden

 A Review of Bernard Shaw’s 1933 Fable

The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God

By Rudolph Lewis


My recent discovery of Bernard Shaw’s The Adventures of Black Girl in Her Search for God (1933) made me realize that Western perspectives of Africa can be surprising and delightful. Professors and pundits too often believe we Negro authors are touchy, too inclined toward the untypical and the improbable. This literary trait reveals itself also in Shaw’s portrayal of a young African woman attacking Western values and hypocrisy.

Professor Jerry Ward reminds me that Shaw had a “penchant for thesis plays.” That critique, still potent, questions whether “prodigies,” such as Shaw’s Black Girl, can lead to “serious art.” My friend H.L. fondly and mockingly called the use of such devices as “sociology.”  The 1930s indeed flowered this genre: proletarian art or utilitarian art, as its detractors called it. Art, they tell us, “deals with normalities.”

But Shaw’s Black Girl is no simple “word-machine,” as some contend. A feminist may respond she is a “cipher.” Black Girl indeed is a mask Shaw used to mock Western religion. But there is more. In the African mask, Shaw is captured and realizes how humanity is restricted and artificially limited. An African fable inundated by ideologies, Shaw wretches at that which justifies horror and destruction.

Forgivingly, Shaw uses the old exotic props of primitivism—the forest (jungle), talking animals, nakedness, voodoo, the African’s innocence and lack of sophistication, and the God-like overarching British colonial presence. He realizes that this is the norm of the Western view of the native. Shaw himself, however, is no racialist and this fact becomes evident in Black Girl’s escape from the hostility of the “Caravan of the Curious.”

She dared challenge the behavior and cynicism of Europe’s modern civilized elite, both gentlemen and ladies. As one British lady insists, Black Girl should not have been at all allowed to speak, and threatens to “put a bullet through her.” Black Girl “knew that what she had done was a flogging matter.” Refusing to be silent by the externalities of power, she states her awareness of racial oppression, for “no plea of defence would avail a black defendant against a white plaintiff.”  But she “did not worry about the mounted police; for in that district they were very scarce.”

So Shaw keenly appreciated the racialist blindness as well as the religious sentiments that have engulfed the civilized reasoning of Western culture. Though we may wince at Shaw’s use of terms like “picaninny” and “fetischism,” he has characterized a discerning black woman who is not easily bamboozled. Feet planted solidly on the earth, there is no flightiness about her. She knows how to tend her own garden.

Nevertheless, some have concluded that Shaw’s fable, written in South Africa in 1932, was not about “black liberation.” On the contrary, the witty barbs of Shaw, I suspect, were directed at the British enclave in colonial South Africa. Their racialism concealed on the foggy isle revealed itself in all its ghastliness in sunny Africa. We may indeed have here Shaw’s prescription (his food) for “black liberation.”

The missionary in Shaw’s tale is also a British woman. She suffers a lack of intimacy with men, that is, with white men. Religion became her blanket. She was “steeped from her birth in the pseudo Christianity of the Churches.” Shaw’s African woman can sense this missionary’s faulty ignorance. She searches for her own truth.

A book of 70 pages,  The Adventures of Black Girl in Her Search for God  is interlaced with drawings of Shaw’s “Black Girl” – unashamedly naked. The artist’s renderings of Black girl fall short of Shaw’s representation of blackness. Distressingly the mix of race and sexuality remains an unsettling matter in Western culture and religious sensibility. In the end Black Girl marries an Irishman and has his children.

Black girl critiques the self-pleasing manner in which the “image maker” moulds Western notions of womanhood. 

“Why,” she asks, “is her lower half hidden in a sack. She is neither a goddess nor a woman: she is ashamed of half her body, and the other half of her is what the white people call a lady. She is ladylike and beautiful; and a white Governor General would be glad to have her at the head of his house; but to my mind she has no conscience; and that makes her inhuman without making her godlike. I have no use for her.”

These words are not those of a “cipher” or that of a simple “mask.” The cultural sentiment here indeed may be a “normal” sensibility of actual African women.

Black Girl’s nakedness is symbolic rather than an object of Shaw’s moral distaste or mockery. Shaw’s compassion for the African woman calls into question Western notions of womanhood and civilized airs of racial superiority. Old Testament morality and its repressive patriarchy failed to reach disastrously deep to thwart the African’s love of the dance and rhythm that liberates the spirit.

With her knobkerry (a carved stick) in hand, ready to smash “nonsense,” Black Girl concludes,  “There are too many old men pretending to be gods.” This African woman refuses to relinquish control over her own body.

In her search Black Girl encounters the Gods of the Old Testament (of Noah, Job, and Micah) and the Gods of the New Testament (of Jesus, Peter, and Paul) and converses with both Muhammad and the conjure man. Their “cure-all commandments,” are like  “pills the cheap jacks sell . . . useful once in twenty times perhaps, but in the other nineteen they are of no use.” They are no substitute for the mind that God gave her.

Shaw’s critique is directed also at the materialist gods of science. Shaw’s “myop,” a behaviorist, cannot distinguish a log from an alligator. To him, Black Girl responds, “Have you ever considered the effect of your experiments on other people’s minds and characters? Is it worth while losing your own soul and damning everybody else’s to find out something about a dog’s spittle?”

We lack that needed internality (spirituality) of true divine inspiration and thus we carry churches (or synagogues or mosques or temples or stools or microscopes) upon our shoulders, while we throw “stones” at the harlot in the market square. Held up for five weeks in Knysna [South Africa] seventy years ago, Shaw wrote prophetically then of our “present world crisis.”

We experience in Shaw’s fable the absurdity of Western presumptiveness. Colonial efforts to transplant political, economic, and cultural kingdoms fail in foreign soil. That may indeed be Shaw’s disturbing thesis. Black Girl, however, represents realistically an African sentiment that shuns all demagoguery: “when people come loving you and wanting your soul as well as your mind and body, you cry ‘Keep your distance: I belong to myself, not to you.’”

Life’s answers are in each of us and their truths can be discovered as we each tend our own gardens, Black Girl realizes. In  The Adventures of Black Girl in Her Search for God  Shaw produced an art that causes scales to fall away, rather than propaganda with a fixed ideological view. A second reading of Shaw will make us all wiser.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 20 February 2012




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Related files: Black Girl in Her Search for God   Tending One’s Own Garden  (Review)