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In Homelands, Harlem, and Hollywood, Rob Nixon traces the mutual fascination between American and South African culture, examining the effects of this transnational influence on a variety of cultural transfigurations, including South African literature, film, music, television, and sports. In doing so, Nixon extends the provocative arguments he has made earlier, particularly in his discussion of the apartheid film industry (South Atlantic Quarterly 90.3), to other cultural phenomena. These earlier discussions established Nixon as one of the most perspicacious critics of South African culture, and for scholars especially involved in examining the much contested features of South African cultural history, Nixon’s book is extraordinarily important. His discussion of the “fabulous decade” of the Sophiatown writers, for example, details the emergent ethos of this literary community as one formed by both the influence of the Harlem Renaissance writers and by the chic criminality of Fifties Hollywood gangsters. Yet rather than adjudicate the anxieties of these influences, Nixon refuses a univocal reading of the significance of the Sophiatown era and argues instead that tracking its “discursive legacies” for subsequent generations is a more productive if more fraught enterprise.
In Nixon’s view, the temptation to univocality or to the categorical dogs discussion of South African politics and culture; he decries this critical tendency in his frequent reminders that similarly categorical [End Page 211] decisions were foundational to apartheid bureaucracy. Nixon’s discussion of the career of writer Bessie Head, who was born in a mental asylum after her white mother was placed there by virtue of her sexual liaison with a black stable hand, calls into question such categorical issues as “heritage,” “nation,” “race,” and “community.” In a life marked utterly by dispossession and abandonment, Head personally and fictionally created alternative affiliations and communities, and as such, she becomes a marker for the “inventedness of many of the most authoritative social categories” that circumscribe and determine human existence. Head also becomes, with abundant awareness on Nixon’s part of the cost involved, a marker of the “fitful freedom” that is possible in a resistant life.
Part of the appeal of South African cultural products internationally, and part of the reason for much of the uncritical reception extended them has to do with what Nixon rightly sees as a unique feature of South Africa’s anticolonialist struggle: the extent to which the struggle became “so fully globalized.” Despite the weakness of actual political response, international outrage at apartheid was a magnetizing and unifying phenomena. Much of Nixon’s project unmasks other agendas at work in the virulent denunciations of the South African government, and in his discussions of these layered responses, Nixon complicates simplistic models of cultural exchange and economic imperialism. He also challenges the frequent elision of South African and American race relations as mirror histories, and, perhaps most importantly, he reinstates the “increased salience of culture as both a prize and weapon of conflict.” In doing so, Nixon extends the scope of Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood well beyond those interested only in South African fiction and politics.
In his discussion of Nelson Mandela as American media icon, Nixon recognizes the widening gulf between spectacular media politics and the more ambiguous realm of actual political work. His description of the relentless American desire to appropriate Mandela’s radical politics and transform them into a more benign Martin-not-Malcolm version of race relations is a second persuasive example of the refusal of American cultural conglomerates to view the players involved in any political drama in anything but binary terms. Nixon’s subsequent discussion of the present “twilight zone” of South African political reconstruction consequently becomes an illuminating meditation on the [End Page 212] more complicated role of culture in post-revolutionary periods. What happens when the “dualistic traditions of reportage and mobilization,” the necessary and tactical simplifications made in support of political change, must yield to more complicated, diverse, and unstable discourses? Nixon’s premonitory sense is that in the New South Africa the compensatory discourse of multiculturalism that is taking place is a “language of...