Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."


Why did I go snooping around the vogue digital archive in my school’s library? In my research on Tutuola, I kept coming across references to a Vogue mention of Tutuola’s novel, The Palmwine Drinkard, so I decided to check it out.

It sounded cool that in 1953, before Achebe published his novel that allegedly invented the African novel, Tutuola’s work was already getting such a global play. So I went in search of the Vogue piece on Tutuola’s debut novel to see  how significant it was and how Vogue attempted to sell Tutuola to their largely female audience. As it turned out, the Tutuola reference did not amount to much. It was not even a review. It was nothing—just one sentence in some random segment of the magazine. But I got curious. I dug deeper. I had access to a Vogue archive that went as far as 1892, why not search to see what has been written about Africa and writing in Vogue? That’s how I found this.

It’s supposed to be a funny sketch. A bookseller in South Africa sends a letter to a London publisher asking to buy etiquette books. The book order was placed on behalf of an African reader described as a “kaffir as black as the ace of spades.” Etiquette books a.k.a. “manual on politeness” were popular in the 19th century and were used to teach women the rules of social conduct. But the writer of the sketch  finds the idea of Africans interested in English social etiquette a ridiculous joke.

I can take a joke. I know it’s supposed to be funny. I’ve read everything from Herodotus to Conrad. I know the weird archive of weird stuff that’s been written about Africa and Africans in the western literary tradition. But it’s always still surprises and weirds me out to encounter these documents, to see the form in which Africa circulated as something other—either as a dark scary continent or an object of jest and laughter.



Vogue, Jul 16, 1896

Tags: , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

5 Responses to “Racist Passage From An 1896 Issue of Vogue Magazine” Subscribe

  1. Samuel Okopi 2013/12/23 at 23:20 #

    Interesting journey into the thinking and aesthetics of those times (it was fun reading and looking at the adverts, too.)

    Sad that another race could be mocked thus.

  2. Khadijah Muhammad 2013/12/24 at 12:54 #

    This is the same thing that happened when Flora Coquerel became Miss France.

  3. Ufuoma Ebah 2013/12/27 at 02:43 #

    …..i don’t see this as racist. It’s simply TRUE. When an antelope attempts to dance like a monkey, it exposes itself to ridicule. When a sparrow attempts to live like the colorful parrot, it reduces itself to a senseless chatterbox. More appalling will it be if it also desires the colors of the parrot.

  4. Isiewu Johnson 2013/12/27 at 07:36 #

    Mr. Ebah. I agree with the things you speak of. It is really funny to think of a kaffir wanting to buy etiquette books.

  5. Praise the Living Juju 2013/12/27 at 07:39 #

    I don’t know why but the clip from vogue was really tedious to read. The vogue article is a little bit obtuse. But Ainehi does a great job in summarizing and interpreting this ancient text.

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."


On Confessional Schizo-Poetry and Finding Meaning: In Conversation with JK Anowe, Winner of the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Poetry

jk anowe - graph

JK Anowe, a Nigerian-born poet, holds a BA in French from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where he was awarded […]

Photos | Pages & Palette Hosts Reading of Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men in Abuja

Lives of Great Men - Frankie Edozien at Pages & Palette -- photo by Victor Adewale (9)

Last December, Abuja bookstore Pages & Palette hosted a reading of Chike Frankie Edozien’s memoir Lives of Great Men. Published […]

Mauritanian Blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir Has Now Been in Jail for 5 Years

mohamed mkhaitir

In December 2013, Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir wrote a blogpost criticizing his country’s government for using religion to discriminate against minorities. […]

Read Chapter One of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities

an orchestra of minorities - graph

Chigozie Obioma’s second novel An Orchestra of Minorities was published this January. As part of The Summer Library’s “selected extracts from […]

Laila Lalami’s Fourth Novel, The Other Americans, Is a Family Saga, a Murder Mystery, and a Love Story

laila lalami - alchetron - graph

Laila Lalami’s new novel is forthcoming on 26 March 2019 from Pantheon, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The 320-page […]

Thursday’s Children: 11 Contributors to Forthcoming Anthology Discuss Experimentation and the Nature of Creative Nonfiction

thursday's children - graph

Thursday’s Children is a forthcoming anthology of personal essays. Co-edited by Adams Adeosun and Bello Damilare, it comes with an […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.