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