In the fictional anthology ''A Walk in the Night and Other Stories'', author Alex La Guma shines a light on the trials of apartheid Africa. This lesson summarizes the stories and offers a glimpse into methods La Guma used to make the reader feel part of the experience.
Alex La Guma and Apartheid
In 1968, Alex La Guma, a South African novelist and activist who worked to overthrow the apartheid regime as leader of the South African Coloured People's Organization, published his series of short stories titled A Walk in the Night and Other Stories. In this collection, he draws on his personal experiences in South Africa, creating a clear picture of the social injustice known as apartheid, a system where the majority of the country (non-whites), were treated differently than whites. Non-whites (including blacks and other minorities, and even poor whites) were forced to live in different areas, go to separate stores, schools and hospitals, treated differently at work, and were not allowed to interact with whites.
Over time, many uprisings helped overturn this system. La Guma participated in and led many strikes and protests, and wrote articles against apartheid, which landed him and his wife in prison several times. Because the South African government prohibited him to speak or publish his writing, he and his family moved to London in 1966. A Walk in the Night and Other Stories was published two years later.
A Walk in the Night Summary
The main story in this collection is A Walk in the Night. It follows the character Michael (Mikey) Adonis, who has just been fired from his job in a factory for talking back to his white boss. As Michael walks through his ghetto neighborhood throughout that night, he deals with the grim underside of his community. La Guma uses vivid details to illustrate this terrible setting, such as a woman using toilet water to make tea.
Michael's night takes him on many twists and turns, as he walks to cool his anger about getting unfairly fired. At one point he and his friend, Willieboy, interact with gang members who accuse Michael of thinking he is better than them, because he doesn't help them commit crimes. This gang reappears throughout the story, tempting Mikey to join their evil ways. More on them later.
Mikey is a complicated character; at one point we see him give a homeless boy money for food. We also see him struggle with his rage about the injustice of his life. He uses alcohol to help quell his rage. He talks to his buddies at a pub, who sympathize with him. They discuss in detail their life in the ghetto, and the unjust crimes committed against them as an oppressed people. At one point he is harassed by a police officer, a scene difficult to read because the reader understands Mikey's powerlessness. He eventually heads home to face the consequences of being unemployed.
Once home at the tenement, Mikey drinks with an older Irishman named Uncle Doughty. Doughty is himself a poor, underprivileged victim of apartheid, though white. He attempts to connect with Mikey, but unintentionally disrespects him by repeatedly saying 'Mikey, my boy'. This enrages Mikey, and in a fit of anger he kills him. When he sobers up and realizes what he's done, he bolts the door to his own room, leaving Doughty's body.
Soon after, Willieboy comes to visit Mikey, and when he stumbles upon the corpse, runs away in fear. A neighbor in the tenement sees Willieboy, and alerts the constable. Mikey becomes aware of the mistake and sneaks out of his room, where he is seen by the gang from earlier in the story. Mikey watches helplessly as Willieboy is hunted, caught and killed by the constable. Finally giving in to the overwhelming circumstances of his life, Mikey joins with the gang.
Other Stories Summaries
La Guma continues his theme of the struggles during apartheid Africa with the other short stories:
Tattoo Marks and Nails is about life for a group of non-white men in an apartheid prison. The conditions of the jail cell are described as 'over one hundred prisoners packed in, lying on the concrete floor like sardines in a can or tangled like macaroni.'
La Guma also explores how non-whites of differing nationalities and color attempt to find their place in the community. In the story The Gladiators, one fighter, Kenny, thinks he is better than the Panther, simply because the Panther is African. La Guma uses the story to show how pride can work against people.
The Blanket tells the story of a stabbing. The victim, Chocker, is removed from the scene and covered with a blanket, which acts as a symbol of the poverty these characters endure. The blanket is described as worn, threadbare and smelling of sweat. 'The texture was rough in parts and shiny thin where it had worn away'. As Chocker lays dying, he thinks of the blankets from other times in his life, his childhood and marriage, all of them raggedy and small, leaving him exposed and cold, just as life has done to him.
In A Matter of Taste La Guma tells a story of unlikely friendship between a poor white man and two black men. While at first surprised to see a white man begging for food, the two black characters eventually recognize him as a victim of apartheid, like them. Eventually they help the white man jump a train. La Guma uses the phrase 'a mater of taste' to say whites can actually make choices and have an opinion on things, where others can't.
Finally, The Lemon Orchard tells the story of a 'colored' school teacher who has been captured and is taken in the middle of the night by four armed men to a lemon orchard. The teacher is accused by the men of speaking inappropriately to a white minister; the four men seem intent on killing him, but the ending is left unknown.
These stories are rich in detail, creating vivid images of the characters and their experiences. Whether he's describing a blanket or the sweat on a muscled arm, La Guma's style and voice gives the reader a powerful experience of apartheid at the time. He was a victim himself, and used his experiences of oppression to let the world know what was happening in his home country.
A Walk in the Night and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by author Alex La Guma, a South African novelist who worked to overthrow the apartheid regime as leader of the South African Coloured People's Organization.
Born in South Africa during apartheid, which was a system where the majority of the country (non-whites) were treated differently than whites, he grew up to become an activist against oppression, and began writing about his experiences. After being jailed several times for speaking out against apartheid, La Guma and his family escaped to London. His published work has helped shed light on the social and racial injustices prevalent in South Africa using vivid and descriptive details.
The story in which the collection takes its name from, A Walk in the Night, relates the story of a young man who is overtaken by the oppression of apartheid as he walks through the night to calm his nerves after being unjustly fired by his white supervisor.